I have been busy over the past month preparing papers I will be presenting all through the month of May. Below you will find the paper I presented this past Saturday at the Nonhuman Turn conference, hosted by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. You can also download a pdf of it here.
This was an amazing conference and I will be posting links to videos of the keynotes later today.
But for now, here is my paper.
Brimming with Vitality: Colouring Experience Beyond Human Perception in Seurat’s La Grande Jatte
Art practice is a technique of composing potentials of existence, inventing experimental styles, coaxing new forms of life to emerge.
– Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (2011: 73).
Brimming with Vitality
Considered by many to be masterworks of Neo-Impressionism, the paintings of George Seurat surprisingly do not offer viewers a good first impression when they enter the gallery space where these works hang. When viewers initially approach Seurat’s paintings, the works look rather drab next to the more vivid and expressive colours found in the paintings of his contemporaries. Jonathan Crary writes about having this very experience when visiting the Metropolitan Museum in New York to see Seurat’s Parade de Cirque [Circus Parade] (1887-1888). He states, when “seen from across the gallery the work appears muted, almost antichromatic haze, like a dull rectangle of slate hanging amid the vibrant Van Goghs and Cézannes” (Crary 1999: 150). During this inaugural viewing, Seurat’s work does not seem to have the same spectacular impact when compared to the highly saturated colours found in the painting of his peers, such as Vincent Van Gough and Paul Gauguin. They seem out of place, like a series muted grey clouds hanging in the sky among the bright colours found on an otherwise clear and sunny day.
Even Seurat’s most famous work, Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’Îlle de la Grande Jatte [A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte] (1884-1886) (henceforth La Grand Jatte), tends to look blurry and nebulous from a distance. When viewers look at La Grand Jatte, despite its majestic size of just beyond two by three meters (207.6 x 308 cm), they can have trouble differentiating the foreground from the background. There are few distinguishing features that command their attention. Many of the depicted objects and figures in this painting are barely distinguishable, appearing to blend or bleed into the murky surrounding scenery. This opaque scenery is comprised of three discernable sections. The first section at the bottom of the painting is the darkest and has the least distinguishable colours. The second section cutting across the middle is more luminescent than the lower section and is comprised of a yellow-green colour. Despite being slightly brighter than the lower section, the middle still appears fuzzy and drab. The third section of the painting, covering the upper portion, is as dark as the lower section but leans towards more discernable shades of muted green. When viewed from the back of the gallery, Seurat’s painting also appears static, flat and lifeless because of the muddy dull colours, the hazy appearance, and the indiscernibility between the figures and the background. It appears to depict a scene that is dead to the senses.
If viewers take a few steps forward towards La Grande Jatte for a closer look, something truly amazing occurs. The colours begin to radically change: eventually reaching a point where viewers will notice that the nebulous cloud of dull and muted colours begins to dissipate, giving way to a more varied and radiant colour palette that seems to burst forth from the canvas. Like the lifting of a heavy fog, the portrayed objects and figures also become much more discernable. What appeared to be a flat and lifeless looking painting only a few seconds earlier is now teeming with a variety of vivid colours. This transition can be quite arresting, both visually and literally. The dazzling colours emerging from the depths of the canvas transfix viewers into stasis. It is at this moment that Seurat’s painting astonishingly comes to life.
La Grande Jatte appears to constantly, yet subtly glisten with fluctuations of colour and light. There is a dynamism that viewers can feel pulsating throughout the entire painting, giving them the sense that the work is brimming with vitality. During La Grande Jatte’s premier exhibition at the Eighth Impressionists Exhibition in 1886, art critic Félix Fénéon also felt the liveliness emanating from Seurat’s painting. He felt that: “The atmosphere is transparent and singularly vibrant; the surface seems to flicker” (Fénéon 1966: 110). This feeling of dynamism that emerges in the seeing gives viewers a sense that at any moment something or someone depicted in the painting will suddenly begin to move. It is as though a sudden gust of wind will blow through the trees and rustle the leaves; the small brown dog leaping across the grass in the lower right corner will reach the ground and continue running towards the larger dog that is only a few meters away; or the young girl in the white dress in the centre of the painting will take a step forward and start moving towards the viewers. But it is not the girl in that takes the step forward. It is the viewers who do.
When viewers take a few steps forward, they will begin to understand how La Grande Jatte is able to generate the fluctuations of colour that they see. With each step toward the painting, the gestures of paint on the canvas become more visible. But viewers will also notice that the vibrancy of the colours they just saw only moments ago begins to dissipate. This is because the colours generating the lively depictions of foliage, pets and people they saw seconds earlier are shattered into thousands of tiny coloured dots. Fénéon also noticed this. “If you consider a few square inches of uniform tone in Monsieur Seurat’s Grande Jatte, you will find on each inch of its surface, in a whirling host of tiny spots, all the elements which make up the tone” (Fénéon 1966: 108). As viewers continue this close up inspection of La Grande Jatte, they notice that these miniscule dots are comprised of a variety of colours, spanning much of the visible spectrum. They see that the depicted leaves are not constituted by a series of homogenous green coloured leaf-like shapes; rather, they consist of green, yellow, orange, and blue dots. Viewers also observe that the leaping dog in the lower right corner is not actually coloured dark brown; instead, it is configured with a series of dots that are dark red, orange, dark blue, and violet. And the girl in the white dress in the centre of the painting is not clothed in just the colour white but also is speckled with yellow, orange, and light blue. Absolutely nothing in La Grande Jatte escapes being composed with these miniscule coloured dots. From this intimate perspective, there are no areas of homogeneous colour to be found anywhere in this painting. There are only drops of colour populating the viewers’ perception.
Feeling Colour Vibrations
It is only when the viewers start backing away from the surface of La Grande Jatte that the plethora of tiny coloured dots begin to become imperceptible again. With every step backward, the dots appear to meld into the vibrant colours and lively depictions seen earlier, such as the green of the leaves, the luminescent white of the girls dress, the dark brown colour of the leaping dog, and the glistening hints of sunlight that flutter throughout La Grande Jatte. Yet, despite the dots’ increasing “imperceptibility,” viewers continue to experience them through the vibrations each dots’ colour generates. The colour of every dot quivers ever so slightly. There is not some external force or element acting upon the dots that causes their colour to subtly shake. Colour does not suddenly begin to move, change, or fuse together when viewers start looking at La Grande Jatte. Rather, as Henri Bergson explains, colour “amounts, in itself, to a series of extremely rapid vibrations” (2007: 124). Colour simply vibrates: that is what it does in and of itself.
Even when viewers are inches from Seurat’s painting looking at all the dots that populate it, they cannot see the vibrations colour generates. This is not because their ability to see is flawed. Anyone with extraordinary eyesight would still be incapable of actually seeing these quivers of colour. What gets in the way is the viewers’ own perception. According to Steve Goodman: “If we subtract human perception, everything moves. Anything static is so only at the level of perceptibility. At the molecular or quantum level, everything is in motion, is vibrating” (2010: 83). It is the viewers’ ability to see that actually prevents them from perceiving these micro-movements occurring throughout La Grand Jatte. The vibrations colour produces exceed human perception.
Although the viewers’ perceptual limits prevent them from directly observing the vibrations of colour occurring among the dots in Seurat’s painting, these imperceptible actions are still felt in the seeing. This is because the colour vibrations occurring throughout La Grande Jatte are experienced as sensations. According to Gilles Deleuze, “Sensation is vibration” (2003: 39). Viewers are able to experience the overabundance of colour vibrations as sensations that occur below the threshold of visibility. They are capable of feeling more than they are seeing. There is an elusive presence of sensations that are made palpable to viewers in their encounter with Seurat’s painting, literally colouring their experience.
Because colour is always vibrating, the colour of the dots in La Grande Jatte not only exceeds the viewers’ perception, they also constantly surpass the limits of the dots themselves. Colour is not something inherent to the pigment that constitutes the dots or to the representations those dots compose. According to Jonathan Crary: “Colour for Seurat is not a property of objects but a construction out of elements that individually do not refer to anything other than themselves” (1990: 61). Colour has an elasticity that is not restricted to any particular threshold or entity, enabling the sensations it generates to potentially affect all that it encounters or conversely encounters it. Colour is what provides the dots on Seurat’s canvas with their felt quality that exceeds them as such.
When colour is understood in this way, it is what Alfred North Whitehead calls an “eternal object.” For him, eternal objects give emergent events or entities their “‘qualities’ and ‘relations’” (Whitehead 1978: 191). They are the qualitative potentials that enable the elasticity of feeling that occurs in the midst of experience. As the orange colour of a particular dot on Seurat’s canvas quivers, it extends out beyond the contours of the dot itself and is felt by the surrounding dots. As this vibratory sensation of “orangeness” is experienced by the neighbouring dots, they are encountering an eternal object. As this quality of orange is felt by the surrounding dots, it in turn affects how the colour vibrations of these dots will be experienced by other dots. Conversely, the particular orange dot will also feel the fluctuating sensations of colour generated by the dots the surround it, affecting how the elasticity of orange is encountered.
When the dots on Seurat’s canvas feel the colour vibrations of their neighbours, they do not actually perceive these quivers of colour. The dots are not capable of perceiving because they are not complex enough entities. According Whitehead, “sense-perception is mainly a characteristic of more advanced organisms” (1985: 5). These advanced organisms would include entities such as insects, birds, mammals, and humans. The dots of paint in La Grande Jatte cannot see or touch the colour vibrations occurring around them, but they are capable of encountering the sensations they produce. Sensations are equally experienced by all entities no matter their level of complexity or sophistication. The activity of feeling is not exclusively an anthropomorphic or sentient activity. Every entity is capable of feeling eternal objects. The dots can feel the elasticity of colour just like the viewers of Seurat’s painting.
The Emergence of Contrast
While the dots in La Grande Jatte feel the various colour vibrations that exceed those dots immediately adjacent to them and vice versa, the sensations of colour begin to commingle, generating something that is more than just a collection of singular vibrations or eternal objects. For instance, quivers of orange, light blue, yellow, and white become entangled in the girl’s dress depicted in the center of the Seurat’s canvas, generating an experience that exceeds all of these colour vibrations individually. Deleuze explains that it is impossible to feel the pulsating sensation of just one colour. This is because “where there is a single body or a simple sensation, the different levels through which this sensation passes already necessarily constitute couplings of sensation” (Deleuze 2003: 56). None of the dots in La Grande Jatte can feel only the sensations generated by one specific colour vibration because they simultaneously encounter all the colour vibrations extending from their neighbours. As these vibrations come into contact with each other, a coupling of sensation emerges for the experiencing, which the dots feel. A light blue dot in the girl’s dress cannot exclusively feel the colour vibrations of its orange neighbour. The sensation of orange the light blue dot feels is not just experienced by that dot alone. The orange vibrations are also experienced by the orange dot from which they extended beyond and all the other dots that are adjacent to it. Conversely, all of these dots also experience a feeling of light blue that extends beyond the light blue dot. These dots not only mutually and simultaneously encounter a feeling of orangeness and light-blueness, they also experience a coupling of these two sensations.
In order for this coupling of sensation to occur, the orange and light blue vibrations must encounter each other, generating what Whitehead calls contrast. Contrast is not simply the expression of an opposition between two juxtaposed colour qualities or eternal objects. For Whitehead, contrast is much more productive because “in each antithesis there is a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (1978: 348). When two eternal objects encounter each other, such as the vibrations of orange and light blue in Seurat’s painting, it is not the fact that they are juxtaposed or opposites that determines the occurrence of a specific contrast. Rather, it is the encounter itself that enables a contrast to emerge. This is because the specific encounter between two eternal objects enables them to generate an experience that exceeds their singular qualities. As Whitehead explains, contrast is “the particularity of conjoint unity which arises from the realized togetherness of eternal objects” (1978: 229). In order for a contrast to occur in the encounter between the orange and light blue dots in La Grande Jatte, both dots will have to feel the vibrations of the colour orange and light blue. Both will have a simultaneous experience of “orangeness” and “light-blueness.” In this shared encounter of vibratory colour qualities, an orange-light-blue contrast enters into the experience of the dots. When this orange-light-blue contrast is encountered, a coupling sensation of orange-light-blueness is generated and felt.
As the plethora of dots that fill La Grande Jatte experience the colour vibrations extending beyond themselves and their neighbours, innumerable contrasts emerge for the encountering. These occurrences of contrast enable a sharing of qualities between the dots, generating countless couplings of sensation that are felt throughout the painting. These couplings of sensation are not only felt by the dots, but are also experienced by the viewers of Seurat’s painting as they gaze upon the canvas. Like the dots, viewers experience more than just the singular elasticity of each colour vibration. They encounter the emergent contrasts and the couplings of sensation these vibrations generate. But unlike the dots, which can only feel contrasts and couplings of sensation, viewers are able to have a more complex encounter with La Grande Jatte through the activity of sight. Out of the imperceptible occurrences of contrast and colour vibration, the dynamism of a bustling Sunday afternoon in late nineteenth century France is made for perception.
Despite the viewers’ inability to directly perceive all the occurrences of colour vibration, contrast and couplings of sensation, it is important to note how vital contrast to visual experience. This is because it is contrast that provides the potential for perceptible event to occur. As Whitehead states, “a felt ‘contrary’ is consciousness in germ” (1978: 188). Contrast activates the perceptual complexity inherent to colour, enabling felt vibrations to emerge into experience and generate the more-than-perceptible vitality viewers feel in the seeing when gazing upon La Grande Jatte. Whitehead goes on to say that “the aesthetic feelings, whereby there is pictorial art, are nothing else than products of the contrasts latent in a variety of colours qualifying emotion, contrasts which are made possible by their patterned relevance to each other” (Whitehead 1978: 162). The emergent contrasts in Seurat’s painting generate the brimming vitality felt in the seeing. Without these specific contrasts of colour vibrations, it would be impossible to coax the dynamic potential out of this work and give La Grande Jatte its lively movement felt in
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Crary, Jonathan. 1990. “Seurat’s Modernity.” in Ellen Wardell Lee. Seurat at Gravelines: The Last Landscapes. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 61-67.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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