Art Thoughts, Week 45: Seurat & Stability

Anyone who’s stood at the edge of a skyscraper, dam or cliff and peered down, feeling that queer liquidity occur between their ears, knows firsthand of the connectedness between the physical and the psychological. As a youngster at the shore with my family, I often felt that same fear from a pier’s edge, accentuated by the mysterious, murky bay water, where one could see more of their reflection, than the bottom. The instinct was, as it usually is, to step back, and if even that is difficult, to find something to hold on to; something rooted and stable which will impart some anchoring. 

In Seurat’s Port of Honfleur, he plays with this tendency to search for stability, and also questions the actual effectiveness of that ostensible security. A first look at this painting might raise the question, what is this form in the front of the sublime harbor scene, seemingly muddling the view? At least this was among my initial reactions, and until recently, this vaguely humanoid pier post consistently puzzled me, both as a form, and as a tactic by Seurat: why this, and why there? 

One possible explanation might be related to that very human tendency to seek out stability in the face of an unfamiliar situation. At first glance, Seurat is giving us something to “hold onto” while approaching the obviously beautiful scene, with its simultaneously threatening depths. This post’s weirdly humanoid shape gives us a point of identification as we look into this scene from a vantage point outside it; it’s the liaison between us and the painted scene. And indeed, an anchoring hold is what we need, because at the same time Seurat is helping us identify with the scene, he is “clarifying” the diffusion of actual space. 

We must remember the radical newness that this technique of pointillism represented: even a dedicated nineteenth-century viewer might be forgiven for confusion, distaste or vertigo. But the beauty of the scene assisted them, as it does us: Seurat, even while fiddling with the microscope lens as he did, does not sacrifice beauty to the god of novelty. He has entered into a severe irony, clarifying the reality of confusion. That is, we are really at the heart of it a collection of molecules – small, individual components – which maintain viability and structure through elaborate, mysterious chemical and physical attractions. Seurat is presenting to us our innate instability; including the very device he’s given us to hold onto while gazing out onto the water.

Of course, at the same time that pointillism was emerging as a new artistic technique, scientific discoveries were confirming those very things which pointillism reveals. This is typical of a brilliant artistic mind: when science bounds ahead, art is often not far behind and occasionally pushing. Vice versa, art pushing science is often also the case. Not only were color experiments being propounded, such as the interrelationship of adjacent colors, but also molecular discovery was burgeoning. And at the same time doubt began increasing about our long-held beliefs about human souls; the spirit: all simply a deus ex machina? If we really are just a collection of smaller pieces, albeit highly logical, where does this supposed wellspring reside? And so the familiar platonic division of spirit versus body reached another level. Yet…the beauty of even such a persistently questioning artwork points back to an even more original question. From whence does our attraction to the numinous arise, if not somewhere between these tiny components we are made from? Is it simply electrical impulses, arcing from one grain to the next? The calm of the boats on the water; the hazy glow of the colors; the highly intelligent composition of shapes: all this seems to suggest that, whether in the gap between parts, or the parcel, there is something which needs both a law of beauty, and the resulting stability possible from a strategic discomfort.

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails