Not long ago, during the month of June, if you went to see La Parade de Cirque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art between three and four in the afternoon on a weekday, you would have noticed a man of about fifty studying this painting with great intensity. Usually he stood directly before it, ten feet away, or four feet, or just a few inches. Sometimes he studied it from an angle of forty-five degrees, other times he would come almost to the wall where it hung as if trying to see into the painting from the side. Now and then he would sit on the bench placed fifteen or twenty feet from the canvas and look at it from there, leaning forward with his hands on the sides of his head, but he never sat for long, and would soon get to his feet and step closer to this object of his seemingly tireless interest. Although intent upon this work he remained aware of others around him, and if he felt he were blocking someone's chosen viewpoint he would smile, say Sorry, and step out of the other's line of sight. He usually wore jeans and a sweatshirt and always held in his hands a fountain pen and a small red notebook whose stiff covers were decorated with black letter Os of various sizes, some interlaced, others floating alone on the red surface. When he wrote in this notebook he stepped away from others here, bur this was because he did not wish to distract them and not because his jottings were secret, since anyone who spoke with him about the painting found that he shared his ideas freely. Most who came into the gallery, almost all of them, did not speak to him, though of course this is hardly unusual behavior in a museum. In fact, he was clearly grateful for the opportunity to have a conversation about the work, though he never initiated it. This is one of the most enigmatic paintings in the museum's collection, he would say, and then he would quickly add, as if he wanted to be perfectly fair on this point, that every painting that deserved a place in a great museum had something enigmatic about it, but this one, he'd say, this one is especially enigmatic. I used to think I was drawn to it, he would continue, because of its mysterious qualities. Not so, I was wrong. I am often wrong about my own motivations, which if nothing else, and in this instance there is nothing else, does make life that much more interesting, n'est-ce pas? I was drawn to it, I now know, because somewhere in the back of my mind lurked the conviction that I was capable of deciphering this thing. There is a decidedly deceptive quality about La Parade de Cirque, or if that is too strong let us say there is a mysterious character to it. The subject is the circus, known far and wide not only to children but to men and women in every corner of the world whose hearts, as the advertisements say, have not abandoned the wonder of childhood, known far and wide for garishness, noise, and perpetual action, and yet in this painting the tone is soft, the artist had stayed his hand from throwing onto the canvas any jarring slashes or bursts of cobalt blue or scarlet or chrome yellow. In fact, the picture is essentially stagnant, a tableau, the figures may as well be displayed on an ancient frieze. Yes, it is true that musicians are playing, supposedly to draw in the crowd, but their tunes are absorbed and swallowed up, as it were, by the countless dots applied by the artist, and in our imagination we do not hear a thing. Less obvious than the lack of noise and brightness and excitement is the geometric calm of the painting. What is geometric calm, you never heard of such a thing? Let us look carefully. The back wall of the scene is composed entirely of rectangles, wider ones on the left, narrower ones on the right. To the right of the trombonist, who stands on a rectangular platform, is a white rectangle. Behind the boy, about whom there is much to say, is a tall, slender rectangle. The bodies of the musicians on the left are essentially rectangular, and the railing at which they stand is the top of a rectangle whose opposite side runs across their knees. Now rectangles, I would suggest, are restful shapes to look at, indeed they border on the soporific, the opposite of what one thinks of when he thinks of a circus. Nor does the geometry of the painting end there. Look at the vertical line formed by the tube of the trombone from the mouthpiece down to where it curves upward. If you measure it, as I did, you will discover that from this vertical line to the left edge of the canvas the distance is exactly the same as the distance to the right edge, or in other words, this vertical line comes down in the exact center of the canvas, and this, we may be sure, was not the result of happenstance bur of the artist's intent. To any doubters I would point out that the woman with the red parasol stands in the exact center of the same painter's Grande Jatte, and the bollard is in the exact center of his Gravelines painting. Nor would it have happened by chance that the distance from the back of the boy's head to the trombonist is exactly the same as from the tip of the boy's nose to the tip of the wand tucked under the ringmaster's arm, or that it is precisely as far from the boy's right elbow to the trombonist as it is from his left elbow to the ringmaster. Still measuring, and you are probably growing increasingly enthusiastic about the task now that you are discovering one of the small secrets of the artist's sense of composition, you will find that in the case of the trumpeter, the middle one of the three musicians standing together, it is precisely the same distance from his right elbow to the half-concealed fourth musician on the far left as it is from the trumpeter's left elbow to the trombonist. The height of the trombonist from the top of his hat to the visible base of his leg is equal to the distance from the base of the ringmaster's coattail to the gas line along the top, and this is also the very same as the distance from the trombonist's waist, measuring from under his right elbow, out to the left edge of the canvas. Now concentrate on the bare tree, if you please, the high significance of which we will ignore, but just for the moment, and you will notice that from where the lowest branch on the right emerges from the trunk it is just as far down to the top of the railing as it is up to the horizontal tubing that supplies gas for the lamps. That distance, moreover, is also the same distance from the railing down to the base of the tree, and, if you do not find this a little thrilling then you should not be bothering yourself with this, it isn't worth it, it won't do you the least bit of good, and, I say, this length we are talking about is the very length of the ringmaster's wand. I could add still more to these geometrical analyses but let me point out only that if you exclude the gaslights along the top the proportion of width to length constitutes the famous golden rectangle, a proportion that architects and artists have been making use of since the building of the Parthenon, if not earlier. As another example of Seurat's awareness of what he was so painstakingly putting down on his canvases you can take the gaslights just mentioned and notice that the three or four points at the top of their petal shape conform to the theory of Superville and others that such a shape conveys the idea of gaiety and optimism. With this idea we know that Seurat agreed, because in a letter he drew three or four lines rising from a horizontal as an example of exactly that. After La Parade de Cirque the same shape, that is the very same shape, turns up in Le Chahut in the lamps on the left, on the shoes and shoulders of the women dancers and the flying coattails of the male dancer, and in Cirque there it is again on the hat, collar, and cuffs of the clown in the foreground, on the horse's mane and tail, in the hands of the tumbling clowns, and on the shoulders and in the very skirt itself of the bareback rider. What should all this mean to us? Well, at the very least, that the artist thought about what he was doing, and so we ought to, too.
In the course of perfecting his art Seurat looked to other artists, especially the great ones of the past, as do almost all young artists, but unlike most of them he applied himself also to the science of color and of composition, studying and putting into practice the lessons of books bearing such titles as Une esthetique scientifique, Grammaire des arts du dessin, Essai sur les signes inconditionnels de l'art, and in its French translation, Modern Chromatics, this last one of the first works devoted to optical mixing, and this especially appealed to Seurat as eminently worth trying on many of his canvases, though the result did not always justify the theory, which is often the way with theories, and in other texts there were theories establishing that a face with a downturned mouth is sad and one with ah upturned mouth is happy, which one would think is already known even to kindergartners, and that a line moving upwards left to right conveys optimism, and a line moving the opposite conveys the opposite, and that a horizontal line bespeaks serenity, and so on, there is no end of theories of which a thoughtful and energetic artist may avail himself, and though many are incontrovertibly true, and may be helpful, and even crucial in certain respects, not a trunkful of the best theories can replace the feelings in an artist's brain and the intelligence in his hands.
One day while sitting on the bench in this gallery, said the man who haunted the place during that month of June, my gaze constantly interrupted by people walking across my line of vision, some of whom, understandably, paused directly in front of La Parade de Cirque for a good long look at it, a thought occurred to me, a startling thought. This picture isn't about a circus at all, it is about death. The figures along the bottom and curving up on the right are not in line to buy a ticket for a couple of hours of thrills and fun. They are dead, and they are waiting their turn to pay their obol to cross the Styx, and the musicians are there to entertain them and to hurry them along. Having been immediately persuaded of the truth of my insight I then faced the task of proving it to myself. This is not necessarily a simple matter, for as you may have experienced yourself, our inspirations sometimes possess a wisdom that we, their fathers, lack. Now the trombonist, as I have said, stands in the center of the painting, exactly in the center, thereby dividing the scene in two. I would be stating the obvious if I said that in this life as we know it, or pretend to ourselves that we do, there are few clear divisions of any kind. Night and day? We speak as if they represent a clear division, but who can record the instant on one side of which is day and the other night? The dividing line between sea and dry land may seem obvious, until you remember the tides that ceaselessly push against the supposed boundary. Health and sickness, like and dislike, peace and war, happiness and sadness--none of these are absolutely divisible either. Life and death, however, to state the obvious again, are assuredly divisible, and I think it is at least possible that Seurat was nodding toward this fact when he placed his main figure where he did. Now, I will agree that it would be laughable to say that this alone makes my case, but it may point to a path worth following. If you stand before the painting you will, I think, sense that there is a vaguely purplish haze over some areas of the canvas and a greenish haze over others. And what are these colors, I mean to say where will you encounter purples and greens in the natural world? Well, in many places no doubt, but one of them, if you will excuse me, is if you should come upon rotting flesh, as my wife and I did one spring afternoon when we saw a lamb that had been swept away by a flood and now lay decaying in the elbow of the limb of a downed tree along a river bank. This was up in the country a hundred and twenty miles northwest of our city apartment. So we have here the colors of death. Now look at the boy. What is that pointy shape at the top of his forehead? Is it nothing but his hair combed into a little spike, or could it not be one of two horns, the other unseen behind it from this angle? Or in other words could he not be a pint-sized Mephistophelean figure whose function is to assure that things are running smoothly here? As for the tree on the left side, I suppose you could say it was bare because of the season, but to my eye it is not only bare but desiccated, brittle, dead. If you like religious interpretations, to which I am not partial myself, nor am I aware of Seurat's religious beliefs, if any, you might say that the dead tree represents the Tree of Life whose leaves shriveled and whose sap dried after Adam and Eve disobeyed the divine edict. I know I may be stretching a point, and I will not insist upon my interpretation, which no doubt some would call fanciful in the extreme. Let them, it's a free country. But even if the subject of the painting is no more and no less than what the artist's title says it is, there still remains the undeniable connection between the circus and death that, in my view, remains implicitly in the work whether or not the artist chooses to acknowledge it. Incidentally, I am sure I am not alone in finding the circus to be one of the saddest places on Earth. Here an animal's will is broken so that it can be taught to perform antics for our primitive amusement. Here the deformed sit and look at us looking at them--or have they finally closed down their freak shows, so called? Here gifted and courageous athletes must display their skill to the bawling claptrap of a ringmaster and to the blarings of music so melodramatic as almost to overwhelm the true drama of an astonishing somersault fifty feet above the ground. The circus is a veritable minefield of threats to life and limb: animals by whose clawed weapon a single blow could kill in an instant, trapeze artists forever a fraction of an inch from falling to their deaths, racing horses that might stumble and crush a nearby clown performing one of his stunts. To attend a circus is to have the reality of death brought up right under one's nose. Yes, we hold our breath as the tightrope walker teeters, teeters--oh, no, she's going to fall, this is the end, I can't look--but she waves her arms a bit, and then thrills us by regaining her balance and skipping quickly along the rope and onto the safety of the platform. But isn't there a side of us that almost wants to witness her teetering to end in that fall? Do we not, secretly, want to be there on the day the lion's forbearance comes to an end and with a roar he pounces open-jawed onto his tamer's chest? These unfortunate events do happen every now and then, and in part the possibility that they might happen today must bring at least some of the audience to the ticket window, for as long as it must happen sometime, not because of us but because of the law of averages, why should it not happen on the day we're there? We know it would be a sight that we would, literally, never forget, it would change our lives--for the better, of course. And then, too, to witness such an event positively insures that we will never lack for stories to tell our friends, our seatmates on the commuter train, our great-grandchildren. The great truth of this painting is another expression of that which wise men, or some of them, have been teaching for millennia, not that that in itself makes them right, though I think they are. As you climb out of the cradle and move through life you may pause now and then to enjoy lighted spectacles and to tap your feet to music, but never forget that this is a deception, your movement carries you to a single destination only, there is one denouement to everyone's story, and even those who entertain you on your journey have been entertained by others, briefly, who were themselves briefly entertained by others yet, not that there is anything wrong with it, diversions are good, even necessary, they relieve the boredom, and the fear, too, the two killers of the spirit these are, boredom and fear, but ultimately all the entertainers will join you there, where your journey ends. But this, you see, oddly enough brings me back to the beginning, to the calmness of this picture, the calmness it bestows upon the astute viewer. This blessed calmness comes not only from the techniques employed by the painter, and which I consider significant, but also from the truth about the nature of our existence that is to be found there, namely, that a good part of our lives may be given over to distracting ourselves with circuses of one sort or another but that it must not be confused with the reality awaiting us behind the box office where we pay over our obol. It is, perhaps strangely, the inevitability of it that is calming. That must be what I am getting at. That's what I see there. Now it may well be that no one in the world, including its creator himself, sees any of this in La Parade de Cirque, fine, that's fine, but it doesn't stop me from seeing it. Seurat would not deny me my right to that.
For those who care about such things it may easily be learned that Georges Seurat lacked the warmth, the openness, the spirit of camaraderie of, for example, his friend Camille Pissarro, who wrote to his son Lucien that he wished he could have it directly asked of Seurat why in Grande Jatte he had disregarded certain of his own principles regarding the use of color, but that this would be out of the question because of Seurat's secretiveness (a trait inherited from his father, but far from the worst that might have been passed on), and aware of Seurat's extreme touchiness on the matter of his discoveries Pissarro told someone else that he would adopt Seurat's technique of painting the borders of his pictures, a wonderful idea that was, but that he would refrain from showing one of these paintings until it became widely known that Seurat had thought of it first, lest he be accused of trying to steal the credit for it, and a writer friend said that Seurat never considered any of his colleagues to be as good a painter as he was, but Seurat is hardly the only artist to have harbored such a conviction, which is not uncommon among writers, nor among academics or businessmen, either, and if Seurat was secretive about his discoveries and defensive about receiving credit for them surely this is his own business, it in no way harms the lives nor the work of his colleagues, and in any event none of this is relevant to the more important point, which is that our grandchildren, those who are artists themselves and those who are merely thrilled by a well-made painting, will still find his work worth walking a few miles to see.
You may be curious to know how I came to be obsessed with this painting. Do you imagine a man could produce a La Parade de Cirque without being obsessed? So why should not a viewer feel the same? And then there is his Grande Jatte, for which he prepared by making more than fifty sketches that are known of, either in color or in black and white, and at least three full-size canvases. Anyway, the answer is that I do not know why I keep coming back to look at this work. Sometimes I laugh at myself, bur I still come back. Bur if you will go a few galleries away, over to the Goyas, you may see the man who almost every day, shortly after noon, on his lunch hour, one would guess, will stand for fifteen minutes or more before the portrait of Don Manuel Osorio. I doubt that he can explain his inexhaustible interest in that painting any more than I can mine in this. The mystery of why certain works of art touch this one and that but not a third is by no means among the most trivial mysteries we encounter in our lifetimes. I have brought friends of mine to see La Parade de Cirque. One found it interesting, another admirable, the last instructive. From this you would be correct in concluding that none of them cared to stand for thirty or forty minutes looking at it and then to return the next day to do the same. Yet these are friends with whom I otherwise have a great deal in common. So just what is the nature of the harmony that may exist between certain works of art and certain people? Between me and this painting. Between you and, say, a Bach prelude that you can happily listen to seven times over and I can manage to listen to once and that's enough. One can only assume that a certain work of art may touch something deep beneath our consciousness, bur does not necessarily touch others in the same way. Or for all we know it touches, in a peculiar way, specific optic nerves of specific people. I study this painting for hours. I take actual measurements of its components. I read books devoted to the artist and to this one work of his. I think at length about it all. And yet understanding its pull on me is no less hopeless than my understanding the nature of the universe. It is taken as truth, I believe, that man has been making art since the day he found he had more than one day's supply of food stored in a cool corner of the cave and so could turn his hands and his brain to something else. Some of his tribe must have crowded around and urged him to make more and more of those evocative scratches of his on the stone walls. Others, meanwhile, finding themselves bored, had wandered off to skip stones on the lake. As for myself, tomorrow or the next day, something, I know not what, will tell me that this painting has given me all I am capable of taking from it and I will leave this gallery and walk into another. Something there, or in the next one, will have the effect upon me that this Seurat now has. I am beginning to feel curious about which work it will be. It is a beguiling puzzle, no?
Seurat died at thirty-one, meaning that his life was one-half or less than one-half as long as many other artists who had lived at about the same time as he, such as Monet, Manet, Renoir, Redon, Signac, Cezanne, Matisse, Degas, Dufy, Derain, Rouault, Vlaminck, Picasso, Pissarro pere et fils, and Braque, but what he had died of at that early age is not certain, one identifies it as infectious angina, a second as malignant diphtheria, a third as meningitis, and although he fathered a son, his friends would only have two weeks to indulge the hope that his son had inherited something of his father's genius, as Lucien Pissarro had, as Filippino Lippi had, because Pierre Georges, aged one year, on April 13, 1891, died of whatever infection it was that had killed his father on March 29, nor, to answer our curiosity about what Seurat's last days and hours may have been like, and whether he knew he would not survive them, and if so the words he might have spoken as death overtook him, nor could the child's mother, Madeleine Knobloch, the model for Seurat's portrait of the woman powdering herself, offer any help, for having lost her lover and her son in the space of a couple of weeks, she soon quarreled with Seurat's family, and with his friends, it would not be surprising if she had also quarreled with her God, and she walked, alone, across and then off the wide white margin of Seurat's biography and into a deeply shadowed oblivion, though she must have wondered, as do we, what he might have painted had he been given another thirty or forty years, and in Seurat's case this is more than speculation, as he had moved swiftly through many different ways of depicting his subjects in the fifteen or so years he had worked at his art, and he almost certainly would have continued to find ever new means of rendering his vision.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2009|
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