Sunday in the Park with George(s)

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A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Seurat, 1884/ ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

A few nights ago I made it over to the New York revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George. In its first act, as a way to talk about the personal isolation of artists generally meaning Sondheim — it uses a fictionalized version of Georges Seurat at work on his most famous painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. I had seen the original production 25 years ago with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. At that performance Peters abruptly stopped singing in the middle of Act I, looked down to the orchestra pit and said: “What?” Somebody in the pit shouted something up to her, then she faced the audience and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I need to ask you to evacuate the theater.” Bomb threat.

This was pre-9/11, so it didn’t create a panic, though it wasn’t the greatest news for the two people sitting next to me. Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston had rushed into the adjoining seats at the last possible moment at the beginning of Act I, just as the house lights went down, presumably so they wouldn’t be mobbed by fans. But after we were all herded into the street for 15 minutes of “bomb scare” they both chatted with anybody who came over to them, and there were quite a few. I was impressed. I made a mental note that if I ever became an international superstar I too would talk to ordinary people. When we returned to our seats I also made a point of not talking to Nicholson and Huston so they would see what a cool New Yorker I was. To call my bluff Nicholson initiated a conversation. I thought that was a very suave move. All the while my inner fanboy banged at the bars of his cage.

But I digress.

As mentioned, Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for this show, weren’t trying to produce a bio-pic about Seurat. They changed many of the facts of his life. But I was interested to see how they would use elements of Seurat’s art to work out their themes. Not just through set design, though this production makes some clever use of animated projections to reproduce La Grande Jatte, but as what you might call correlatives for the ideas in the show about the ways that art does and does not serve life.

As it turns out, they hit upon quite a few. And the best one turns out to be about stillness. Seurat was a good choice for a show that’s partly about the one man’s impulse to convert living people into inert objects — art — which makes them easier to deal with. In his own art Seurat was attempting to take the most fleeting and ordinary moments of daily life — a bunch of people whiling away an afternoon in a suburban park — and make them feel eternal by giving them the heft and monumentality of Egyptian sculpture. To immortalize them by immobilizing them.

Four years ago I wrote this about a Seurat show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns La Grande Jatte.

Seurat was also looking closely at the Impressionist works of Renoir, Monet and Pissarro. By the 1880s Impressionism was coming under attack not just from the usual academic conservatives but from a new generation who wanted art to reclaim its larger purposes, to represent moral hierarchies, eternal values, history — anything that imposed an order of the mind on the hectic gatherings of the eye. The Impressionists had no use for any of that. Their working method was to record the fleeting effects of light at a particular moment, and that moment was always now.

Seurat had a longer arc in mind. He wanted to adapt the bright staccato of Impressionist technique to forms that would be as weighty and enduring as the art he saw at the Louvre.

One of the ironies of La Grand Jatte, of course, is that when painting it Seurat chose to experiment with a newly available pigment, zinc yellow, that turned out to be highly unstable. Over time, it turned dull brown. Within a few years, wide areas of the painting had darkened.

No matter how hard to you try to make time stop, things have a way of changing all the time.