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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004 03:18 pm

Seurat in Chicago and Springfield

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In a wonderful case of serendipity, we get to enjoy the artistry of Georges Seurat in two media: a major exhibition in Chicago and an upcoming Springfield production of Stephen Sondheim's A Sunday in the Park with George.The exhibition and the musical are anchored by the same visual element: Seurat's masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884.

Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, presented by the Art Institute of Chicago, displays nearly 130 late-19th-century works arranged so that anybody, from art novice to master, can study and appreciate the artistry and attention to minute detail that is so characteristic of Seurat's work. A product of the French Impressionist movement, Seurat was an innovator who laid the foundation for post-Impressionism. The exhibition tracks his early career and evolution as he explored and experimented with the theory of contrasting ("divided") colors and the technique of pointillism.

Anyone who had previously toured the Art Institute surely lingered before A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884 in the Impressionism gallery, where it shared wall space with works by Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. For this exhibition, though, the centerpiece and namesake of the show isn't the first painting we see. Rather, the curators have selected works by other Impressionists -- Delacroix, Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet -- who inspired Seurat to delve more deeply into the theory of contrasting colors. Then we see example after example of Seurat's studies for the final product. There are his nearly photographic studies of the location, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte, and his studies of the characters and animals that populate the final canvas. Many of these studies are miniatures rendered in soft black crayon on textured paper. We see several drawings, panels, and larger canvases that demonstrate Seurat's combination of calculated experimentation and intuitive genius. At last we are drawn to the final work, which the artist completed late in 1885.

X-rays reveal how Seurat tinkered with, expanded, and refined many of the details within the landscape and placement of characters and pets. Theater-quality slide shows expose the changes that the artist made as he reshaped his vision. The Art Institute also provides a computer-enhanced reproduction of La Grande Jatte, showing how the work must have looked before the colors of the paint on the canvas subtly faded with age and exposure to light. The very last gallery shows a timeline of the painting's 119-year life. The painting has left the Art Institute only once since it was acquired 80 years ago. In 1958, while it was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a fire broke out there. The painting wasn't damaged, but the powers that be decreed that never again would La Grande Jatte leave the Art Institute.

Two days before the exhibition in Chicago is scheduled to close, Springfield Theatre Center opens its season with A Sunday in the Park with George. Director Leigh Steiner promises an absolute feast for the eyes and ears. Working with Dave Shaw as artistic designer, Steiner will be fulfilling an expression of what she describes as "synchronicity." As the STC's inaugural production at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, Sunday in the Park will bring together the talents and resources of many of the Center's tenants. The Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony will play late-19th-century French music before each show to help create a mood. The Prairie Art Alliance will mount a simultaneous exhibit titled Que Sera, Seurat. Resident artist Dave Cain will collaborate with Shaw on a light-and-color show that is integral to Act 2.

Steiner, who has been at work on this production for more than a year, says that she and her cast and crew have taken full advantage of the Art Institute exhibition to gain insight and inspiration. She says that the coincidence of these two shows offers a unique opportunity that may stimulate everybody to "find the artist inside of themselves."

Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte is at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, through Sept. 19.

A Sunday in the Park with George plays at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St. in Springfield, Sept. 17-19 and 24-26.

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