In this essay I am going to explore the works of two artists living in different centuries and representing different historical, political and social backgrounds. These artists are Georges Seurat who lived in France in the late XIX century, the period famous for flourishing impressionism movement in art, and Yayoi Kusama, born in 1929, who established her artistic career in New York in mid-1960s under the influence of abstract expressionism, pop-art and arising hippy culture. Currently she lives and works in Japan.
Both artists use dots as building materials for their art pieces, but their art practices are significantly different. We will discuss the meanings which Seurat and Kusama attributed to their dotted styles, will analyze their similarities and explore the range of meanings which can be tracked in their art works. We will also review the influence these works have onto their viewers and the role which Seurat and Kusama played in the development of art in the society within their own periods of time in changing the place of viewer in the artistic space.
For a long period of time prior to mid XIX century the viewer observed only objects similar to what they see in their everyday lives represented by the works of art. These objects would be familiar, understandable, arranged in a realistic composition. The ways of execution would also be easy to understand. Artists were trying to translate their feelings expressing personal emotions through their art. They were showing the world which viewers also knew and could make their own judgements.
With the emergence of contemporary art practices the role of the artists is moving towards the area where the artist considers himself a result of the societal forces, and instead of answering the question “how do I see the world?” they start thinking about “what am I for other people?”
They move the object of their analysis from their personal inner world towards analyzing the world of other people, the viewers. So, the modern viewer is a customer, a client, an observer, a participator and an author at the same time. The transformation towards such a new role of the viewer was actively happening during 1960-70ths. Often participants were granted possibility to take important decisions therefore significantly changing the artwork. As an example, we can consider performance of Marina Abramovic “Rhythm 0 (1974)” where the viewers were offered different objects to communicate with the artist, including the gun and the bullet. By doing this performance Abramovic was able to test the level of aggression people could express when they are not bounded by social norms.
This process of viewer’s transformation from passive observer to active participator helps the viewer to acquire better understanding of both particular ideas of the author and also broaden his knowledge on social, political and psychological mechanisms. A viewer as a passive observer experiences emotional attraction from watching different artworks, but a viewer as an element of social engagement, where art is created by combining viewer and his context with the framework set up by the artist, becomes a unique combination of artistic creativity and creativity of its viewers.
Now let me illustrate this shift in concept by analyzing works of Georges Seurat and Yayoi Kusama.
Georges Seurat lived at the end of XIXth century and was an author of neo-impressionism art movement. He was coming from the bourgeois family and in contrast to many other artists of his time did not need to paint for living. The art for him was mainly the opportunity to express his own perception of the world.
He was studying colour theory and treated art as a science, where the colour was his subject of study. He was mainly interested in searching for the rules to contrast colours and experimented a lot with different contrast and complementary tones in his painting and sketches. As a result, Seurat discovered his own method of painting which was called pointillism. He painted by transmitting the colour of different tones using separated colour dots.
As James D.Herbert (2015, pp.96-103) pointed out in his analysis of Seurat’s painting style, there were two main methods he researched: “optical mixing, whereby light rays reflect off dots of pure colour to combine on the retina, thereby avoiding an inevitable loss of luminosity when pigments mix on the palette; and simultaneous contrast, whereby the painter, in and especially around a patch of dominant colour, places dots of that colour’s complement to emulate the compensatory habits of the human eye”. The method was highly mathematical and logical, more like a painting procedure rather than a creative process, where the final image will only be constructed from the separate dots in the viewer’s eyes.
G. Seurat (1884-86), Sunday on the Grande Jatte
One of the most famous works by Seurat is “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” which was completed during 1884-85. In his review of this painting John Russel (1991) quotes the earlier opinion of Roger Fry: “the English critic Roger Fry saw in Seurat's work “a world from which life and movement are banished and all is fixed forever in the rigid frame of its geometry.”
Let us try to find some examples of colour mixing or the simultaneous use of contrasting colours to illustrate the concept that the author had created.
Unlike impressionists, Seurat did not restrict himself in using primary or secondary colours, you can easily see that he often used the colours which have only slight difference in tone. If we look at the colour of the dress or the suite of the man, they seem to be black, but in fact they consist of different blues, purples as well as the mixture of blacks, browns, greens and the other pigments. But you only can see these transformation from the close look, stepping aside, these colours become black garments shaded in a daylight. We can find another example of simultaneous use of contrasting colours at the skin of the man. Here we can see a mixture of yellow and orange from one side and purple and blue from the other side of the colour wheel.
Another signature feature of Seurat style was his approach to depicting people’s bodies. These can be perceived as crude lifeless caricatures, but Seurat deliberately worked towards this simplicity of their forms. He aspired to show the effect of timelessness, styling his people as if they were ancient Greeks or Egyptians. The composition was constructed in a way that each figure represents an isolated character, not interacting between each other and by this provoking uneasy and disturbing feelings of the viewers. In my opinion, this can be considered as the first step towards transformation of the viewer’s perception of an artwork, but at the same time, for Seurat it still was important to translate his own thoughts and meanings in communication with the viewers.
From highly theoretical painting style of Seurat we are moving now a hundred years forward to the beginning of XXI century and the works of Yayoi Kusama, who is using ‘polka dots’ in her art almost on a subconscious level.
Polka dots are the signature items of Yayoi Kusama which she uses to create her artworks. The obsession with polka dots is connected to hallucinations which she was suffering from the early childhood. Sometimes she felt that the patterns which she sees in her hallucinations are splashing out covering her and everything around her, opening the door between her inner world and reality.
She was brought up in a wealthy but very conservative family. At the age of 10 she discovered painting and since then art became an important, even therapeutic part of her life. Dotted motives were her favorite from the very beginning and gradually became an important part of her art practice. She started to create artworks with polka dots using different media including drawings, paintings, installations, sculptures, video and performances.
In 1957 she moved to New-York following her correspondence with Georgia O’Keeffe where she plunged into the booming atmosphere of abstract expressionism, pop-art and performance.
Edward M.Gomez (2012) in his review for Kusama’s book “Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama” summarised the focus of Kusama art.
“For all her madcap’s persona, Kusama was completely serious about her work’s themes – love; peace; liberating, uninhibited self-expression – and deeply upset that critics and the media back in Japan dismissed her as a mere sensationalist.”
Self-obliteration became one of the key concepts in Kusama’s art and led to a series of different performances. One of these works is called ‘The Obliteration Room’. This is an installation which was re-created in different places around the world. In 2012 The Obliteration Room was set up in Tate.
M.Sherwood (2012) It started with a white room…
M.Sherwood (2012) Which colour shall I choose?
S.Addelsee (2012) Oops missed a bit… those piano keys look a bit white
N.Harth (2012) The Obliteration Room with just a dash of colour
As recorded on Tate web-site, an entirely white room was prepared for the opening of the exposition. All the furniture, walls, floor and ceiling were completely white. Then, per artist’s specifications, all visitors were provided with the circular stickers of different colours and sizes which they could place anywhere inside the room. At the end of the show the room became a burst of joy and happiness. It is interesting to observe, that Kusama used only bright (mainly primary and secondary) colours for this artwork, they are so intense that at the end of the show you can hardly identify the form of furniture and other objects from the distance, everything is fading away and no object exists in the room any more apart from a singular colourful stain.
In this installation Kusama works with the viewers to create her piece of art, in fact, these are the viewers who are given permission to create the final design of the room. From the short video published on Tate web-site we can see that the process of “colouring” the room was extremely interesting and visitors truly enjoyed it.
Now we will try to understand how perception of audience has changed over a period of a hundred years. In Seurat time artists still mainly worked from their studios, being one-to-one with their paintings until they are fully finished and realise the ideas of their authors. Only then these artworks were made available to the viewers for understanding and interpretation. Nowadays, the media changed and a lot of new means of artistic expressions appeared. Such media as performances and installations significantly shaped the understanding of artistic practice, its means and the messages it brings up.
Krause Knight (2008, p.166) highlighted in his book “Public Art. Theory, Practice and Populism” that “even if an artist wanted to control viewer experiences, each of us has our own thoughts, and may be unapprised of or knowingly push aside the artist’s intent in favour of personal agendas, values and tastes.”A quintessence of this idea is what Kusama did in her Obliteration Room project. She only set up boundaries for the future artwork inviting the viewers actively participate in the creation of an actual piece.
The final result of Kusama’s artworks, unlike Seurat’s, does not represent conscious thoughts through careful creation of a composition, but becomes a splash of emotions of hundreds or even thousands of people. It was interesting to find out that even though there were several Obliteration Rooms set up in different locations, and many people doubtlessly experience wide range of emotions and impressions, the resulting finished pieces of work were entirely the same, even though surroundings were varying and different people were involved in sticking their dots all over the room.
From the conducted analysis, we can derive the following material changes that happened to the concept of a viewer over the last century. As we can see, the observation point changed from the person gazing at the artwork from the distance and being a passive observer, towards the viewer appearing inside the artwork and becoming an imprescriptible part of it. Participation of a viewer in the artwork creation process is changing the way we can treat the final piece of art. Whereas during Seurat time the finished artwork represent static composition and the viewer was a reverie, nowadays the viewer is personally interacting with the art work, and the process becomes as important as the final piece.
Important component of this transition was changing technique of contemporary artists, moving away from complex narrations to simplified, more naïve means of expression. They value emotional component of an artwork diminishing the conscious and, at the same time, through opening creation process to the public, allowing the viewers to break through the cocoon of conventions attributed of conservatism by means of primitivism towards the absolute freedom.
List of illustrations
Addelsee S., (2012) Oops missed a bit… those piano keys look a bit white. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/01/obliteration-room-yayoi-kusama-in-pictures Downloaded: 31 March 2017
Harth N., (2012) The Obliteration Room with just a dash of colour. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/01/obliteration-room-yayoi-kusama-in-pictures Downloaded: 31 March 2017
Seurat G. (1884-86), Sunday on the Grande Jatte (1884); oil on canvas, 208x308 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection
Sherwood M., (2012) It started with the white room… The Obliteration Room prior to being covered in stickers. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/01/obliteration-room-yayoi-kusama-in-pictures Downloaded: 31 March 2017
Sherwood M., (2012) Which colour shall I choose? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/01/obliteration-room-yayoi-kusama-in-pictures Downloaded: 31 March 2017
Cosma, A. (no date), The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Available at: http://www.arch2o.com/obliteration-room-yayoi-kusama/ (Accessed: 30 March 2017)
Davies, Penelope J.E. … [et al] (2007). Janson’s History of art: the western tradition. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.
Gomez, E.M. (2012) ‘Kusama, In Her Own Words’ The Brooklyn Rail (April), p.57
Harris J. (2006) Art History. The Key Concepts. Oxon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group
Herbert, J.D. (2015) Brushstroke and Emergence: Courbet, Impressionism, Picasso. London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd.
Knight, C. K. (2008) Public Art. Theory, Practice and Populism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Kusama, Y. (no date) Biography. Available at http://www.yayoi-kusama.jp/e/biography/index.html (Accessed: 30 March 2017)
Marina Abramovic Institute (2013), Marina Abramovic on Rhythm 0 (1974). Available at: https://vimeo.com/71952791 (Accessed: 30 March 2017)
Nochlin L. (2007) ‘Seurat’s Grande Jatte. An Anti-Utopian Allegory’ in Tompkin Lewis M. (ed.) Critical Reading in Impressionism & Post-Impressionism. London: University of California Press, Ltd., pp.253-269.
Rubin, James H. (1999) Impressionism, London: Phaidon Press Limited
Russell, John (1991) ‘ART VIEW; Seurat Beckons to Many Worlds Beyond the Dot’,
The New York Times; 28 April
Russell, John (1997) ‘ART VIEW; Glimmerings of Insight Into the Inscrutable Seurat’, The New York Times; 24 August
Smith, R. (2017) ‘ART REVIEW; Intro the Land of Polka Dots and Mirrors, With Yayoi Kusama’ The New York Times; 23 February
Tate (no date) ‘TateShots: Kusama’s Obliteration Room’, Blogs & channel, Video, 14 March 2012. Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-kusamas-obliteration-room (Accessed: 30.03.2017)
Wood C, (2010) Marina Abramovic. Rhythm 0. 1974, Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/abramovic-rhythm-0-l03651 (Accessed: 30.03.2017)
Yamamura, M. (2012) ‘Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama (book reivew)’, Woman’s Art Journal, 33(2), pp.44-46