– In The New Republic, Jed Perl calls the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Seurat show a golden opportunity, but one that the AIC fumbled:
“Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte” is the latest salute to the museum’s crown jewel, and while the show’s strengths do honor to the painting and to the city, the exhibition is very, very far from being an unadulterated success. Its failures speak volumes about what the people who run today’s museums think the public wants–and how, perhaps, in the eighty years since La Grande Jatte came into the museum’s collection, the people in charge at the Art Institute have shrunk their assumptions about what the public can absorb. A transcendent medium-sized exhibition has been nearly ruined by the museum’s insistence on producing a multimedia extravaganza….
A great chance to educate the public has been botched in Chicago. For Seurat’s studies for La Grande Jatte, seen in such dazzling profusion, tell a story of the workings of the imagination that anybody can understand without audio-visual assistance. The one thing that the Art Institute has been wise to include is an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper, a handout that is available as you enter the crucial phase of the show, which contains a reproduction of La Grande Jatte and a brief explanation of the way that the studies for the painting have been grouped in order to reflect, as best we can understand, the stages of Seurat’s thinking. Walking around with this information sheet, people can begin to grasp Seurat’s strenuous process of trial and error, and his arrival at the riveting vision of the final painting. One morning, I saw a woman and what I expect was her second- or third-grade daughter making their way around the room. The girl was picking out the changes, the shifts that Seurat made as he developed and honed his ideas. All it took were her eyes and her native intelligence. She didn’t need a movie to help her compare a study of a figure to the figure in the painting, and she didn’t need a simulated zoom-in to enable her to look at the texture of Seurat’s paint strokes. By looking directly, by seeing things for herself, this girl was taking possession of the painting. The magic of creation is there for all to see, for all to embrace, if only the museum would let people get on with it.
Perl’s review has much to say about Seurat’s virtues as well as this particular show’s failings. I’ll try to go see the exhibit anyway; the painting is so iconic and ubiquitous here in Chicago that I think I stopped really seeing it years ago. It will be good to go and take a fresh look.