Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Georges Seurat: The painter as street photographer without a camera

Georges Seurat: Photographer Without a Camera?
Sometimes it seems as if the whole history of Western painting from the Renaissance through the late 19th Century was a vast conspiracy to will photography into being before the technology existed, or existed only in bits and pieces that had not yet been put together, by creating demand for a kind of imagery we now call photographic.

It began in the Renaissance when the camera obscura (the lens or pinhole that created an upside down image in an darkened room or enclosure) and projective geometry gave rise to the laws of perspective that still govern the way the camera sees the world. The process continued even after the invention of photography with the Impressionists, who captured fleeting effects of light that the camera would not be able to capture -- or imitate -- until the development of 20th Century technology.

I've always loved the work of Georges Seurat, the late 19th Century painter who died all too young at the age of 31, probably of diptheria, and whose work is at the apex of this line of development. His stately, mathematical compositions like "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" heark back to the great compositions of the Renaissance. His technique of building up a painting with colored dots that he called Pointillism anticipated both the grains of colored dye that make up a color film image, and the pixels that constitute modern digital photographs. But what always struck me as most photographic were his black and white conté crayon drawings.

Artists have used charcoal, and more recently conté crayon, for hundreds of years, but not in the way Seurat did. In one way or another, they played off the white of the paper against the black lines of the drawing. There is no white in most Seurat drawings, and no lines. He covers the entire page with smudged shades of black and gray, essentially creating what photographers call a black and white grayscale image. Although it lacks photographic resolution, it's the same principle of building up an image out of tones, not lines, that cameras employ.

Roberta Smith comments on this aspect of his work in her New York Times review of “Georges Seurat: The Drawings” at the Museum of Modern Art, an ehibit that closes all too soon this January 7th.
But as this exhibition emphasizes, Seurat first formulated his ideas about color and atmosphere on paper, in drawing, working in black and white. Applying his beloved black conté crayon to the specially textured Michallet paper that he almost always used, he created an impressive tonal range of velvety blacks, gossamer veils, crazy all-over scribbles, porous grids, methodical cross hatchings and uncrossed hatchings.
It's not only Seurat's means of representation that were essentially photographic. His subject matter, his epiphanies of everyday life caught in street sketches and nightclub scenes showed the sensibility of a street photographer. Long before Cartier-Bresson coined the term, Georges Seurat was pursuing the "decisive moment" in the streets and cafes of Paris. He was a street photographer before his time, lacking only a camera to capture his vision.

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