Insights taking root

Surely the urge to climb trees isn't limited to apes. Maybe we do have an inkling of an ancient aerial home, safe from the prowlers of the earth (except for one or two notable climbers). Yet a tree can provide not only a refuge but a vantage point, a place from which to look further, to get a different perspective on the world.

Most of the time, however, we are apt to think only about getting off the ground rather than actually doing so. Even then the sight of a tree seems to stir something in us. The idea of a tree is apparently very important.

For whatever reason -- biological, emotional, spiritual -- we seem to have an affinity for trees. There are artists who express this affinity most beautifully, Georges Seurat for one.

The conte crayon drawing reproduced here is one of many studies Seurat made for his picture "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand-Jatte," which became famous for its introduction of the "pointillist" technique of painting.

The rhythms and the counterpoint of the large painting were the outgrowth of Seurat's patient analysis of his scene. They are so complex that one feels the composition came into being in the way a musical score is composed. So it is useful to see how bits and pieces, various elements of the total picture may have been constructed.

The exact arrangement in this drawing does not appear in the final painting, but some aspects of th drawing are transferred directly, such as the intervals between tre trunks, the triangular area of water, certain curves and repeats.

The general quality of the drawing is consistent with the painting in the treatment of foliage and grass, for instance, and in the gentle contrasts of light and dark, line and volume. The crayon, hitting high spots of the paper, offers a shimmering sense of atmosphere. Juxtaposed dots of color in the painting were meant to do the same according to the way Seurat interpreted scientific color and optics theories of his day. Whether that method succeeded is still a matter of debate.

What intrigues me more is another level the time when I have thought a tree most like the human body in its challenge to the drauughtsman. It has an inner structure which supports the outer form. It stands upright (more or less), is tall in proportion to its girth, has straight lines and curves, twists and turns , and splits off in various directions. Its textures vary. I recall once being cautioned to be aware of the relation of "that bunch of foliage" of a tree outside the studio window to the "bunch of foliage" of the model's hair.

I wonder if Seurat sensed some such relationship between trees and people. He makes the contrast of curve and straight -- the two aspects of the one tree in the foreground -- distinct in the other individual trees which either echo the curves or are straight. The forked top of the left tree repeats that of the right tree. They illustrate Seurat's theory that angled lines going upward from their junction indicate a joyous feeling. There is indeed a liveliness in these arrangements.

Seurat also liked to ring the changes on the "Golden Section," a harmonious proportion known for thousands of years to be very satisfying to the aesthetic sense. That proportion can be defined as the division of a line into two unequal segments, so that the smaller part is to the larger as the larger is to the whole. Rectangles constructed on this principle give rise to diagonals which elaborate the harmonies. You can easily find them for yourself in this drawing and in the big painting by visually tracing the spacings, the intersections, the angles made by the various elements in the picture.

Science and art are intimately linked in Seurat's work. He explored the nuances of both in black and white drawings long before he ventured into his color dot painting. And the harmonics of the "Golden Section" may be a means of further unifying the whole picture -- trees, people, abstract elements -- so that a sense of greater oneness of idea comes through to the viewer.

At the time, some people considered him a bit mad, maybe up a tree. But what a method in his madness! Look at the vantage point he gained in seeing the world from another level than that of the immediately obvious.

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