Il défie la nature qui l’a emu

Mabille’s essay sheds some light on the Surrealists’ predilection for Seurat’s somber work by claiming, “Il défie la nature qui l’a emu.”[21] If the work of the artist consists in transmuting the literal into the poetic, Seurat achieved these aims through technique, and – counter-intuitively – it is this technique that helps to align his work with surrealist precepts. When Paul Eluard proclaimed, “There exists another world… [but] it is assuredly this one…”[22]  he could have been describing the results of Seurat’s process. The method of rubbing soft charcoal crayons – with the point or at an angle, with greater or lesser pressure - over the surface of textured, creamy paper led to tangled, knotty passages and “rich, velvety drawings.”[23] In giving up contour for atmosphere and tone,[24] Seurat refined and stylized the real, “without consideration for taste, prettiness, normality.”[25] This quality correlates with Breton’s famous definition of surrealism’s own over-riding mission: “Psychic automatism in its pure state…exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”[26] Seurat’s engagement with charcoal and paper opens a route of discovery, where method is subsumed by interiority. André Masson dismisses the dissonance between Seurat’s technique and surrealist automatism:

Let us not forget the method: the dot, the most deliberate and considered of techniques: automatic to the least possible degree. But the subject is a secondary affair and what does it matter if the artist lets himself be carried away by dreams. The dreams of Goya are the equal of his observations.[27]


If, as Masson further contended, “extremes cannot enslave genius; on the contrary genius contains and masters them,”[28] then Seurat’s genius was in harnessing the power of technique to imbue reality with a sense of the marvelous in a manner that resembles surrealist automatism in spirit, if not in fact.

            Through the interaction of dust, pressure and texture, Seurat created a tenebrous effect that hovers in the viewer’s awareness, as if Rorschach-like archipelagos of charcoal were coalescing into distinctness in the moment of perception. [Figs. 1 and 2, detail] The shaded planes and furiously scribbled lines that Seurat employed to simulate light, mass and tone in drawings such as Cavalier sur une route can be compared to the surrealist technique of frottage. [Fig. 3] Automatic exercises were utilized in much the same way as Seurat deployed line and shading: as conscious “strategies [meant] to systematically outflank”[29] the concerns of realistic depiction. Max Ernst[30] referred to frottage as “the intensification of the irritability of the mind’s faculties by appropriate technical means.”[31] He described the development of his process as a gradual experimentation with diverse surfaces placed under a sheet of paper. Rubbed impressions from the areas in relief would then be used to inspire images such as the galloping horses of L’etalon et la fiancée du vent.[32] [Fig. 4] In the case of Seurat’s drawings, for example Au divan japonais, a similar working method could be described as frottage reduced to the most elemental: the extreme tactility of the paper caused it to be the source of its own relief. [Fig. 5]

[21] Mabille, “Dessins inédits de Seurat”, p. 4: “He defies the nature which moved him.” Translation mine.

[22] Walker, City Gorged with Dreams, p. 79, for quote attributed to Eluard.

[23] Herbert, Seurat’s Drawings, p. 35.

[24] Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, p. ix; and: Herbert, Seurat’s Drawings, p. 45.

[25] Helion, “Seurat as Predecessor”, p. 10.

[26] Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”, p. 25.

[27] Masson, “Crisis of the Imaginary”, p. 438.

[28] Masson, “Crisis of the Imaginary”, p. 440.

[29] Batchelor, “’Liberty and this Order’: Art in France after the First World War”, p. 55. Italics his.

[30] The connection between Ernst and Seurat/Fénéon bears further examination. See Russell, Seurat, p. 266: “Max Ernst put Seurat next to Piero della Francesca in his private Pantheon.” Also note Ernst’s homage in collage to Seurat’s Grande Jatte, Les Hivernants de la grande jatte, from the series La femme 100 têtes, 1929, Centre Pompidou. See as well auction catalogue Collection Félix Fénéon (1941), np., for evidence that Fénéon, upon his death, had at least one work by Ernst in his collection – Lot 49: Colombe, 1925, location unknown.

[31] Ernst, “On Frottage”, p. 429.

[32] Ernst, “On Frottage”, p. 429.