A masterpiece is transformed

AS a college student visiting Chicago, I happened into the Art Institute - and wandered through as tourists do in museums. I remember entering one gallery. I turned and looking across it beheld Georges Seurat's ``Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.'' My memory of that moment now - across the span of 30-odd years - is that something magical happened. The painting hangs alone on the gallery wall. I took a breath. It seemed enormous. (In fact, it measures 81 inches by 120 inches, about 7 feet by 10 feet - large, but by no means ``enormous.'') As I gazed at it, the painting seemed to envelope me, to draw me inside its amazing and now 100-year-old stillness.

Part of what happened may have been the effect of Pointillism. This was Seurat's scientific refinement, put to the test here, of the Impressionist technique of achieving luminosity by placing tiny dots of contrasting pigment side by side. These blend at a distance into a single color. Maybe the blending process enveloped me.

I also felt that I could walk right into the painting, right onto the Isle of La Grande Jatte and among the strangely private figures, frozen immobile as if in a human sculpture garden. I'm sure I wanted to enter the Simon-says game where no one has moved for a century, where, in fact, no one seems ever to have moved.

Others have had similar experiences. The ``Grande Jatte'' is now one of those paintings even non-museumgoers recognize. It has become part of the visual language of our culture.

An ironic observer might suggest that there are two indicators of when a work of art has ``made it'' in American culture. Either they use it in or as a musical, or they turn it into an advertisement.

Both have happened to the ``Grande Jatte.''

Something about the painting appealed to composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer/director James Lapine when they were seeking ideas for a musical. As a means of sparking ideas, Lapine and Sondheim looked at photographs and reproductions of paintings. ``I showed him the `Grande Jatte,''' Lapine said in a phone interview. ``When we went out to see it, we discovered how interesting the painting is. It's full of contradictions. We wondered who those people were. Why aren't they looking at each other. Why does that woman have a monkey?''

Of the ``Grande Jatte'' Sondheim has said: ``Stand in front [of the painting], notice the size, then notice all the little dots, then spend a few days getting aware of the stillness, the serenity. Then you start to become aware of the strangeness. It becomes mesmeric.''

As the script developed, its first act became the story of how a workaholic Seurat paints his Neo-Impressionist masterpiece while at the same time disregarding other aspects of his life. This act shifts between Seurat's studio and the island where he places his figures. One of director Lapine's brilliant strokes is to have the people Seurat has sketched on the island rise as flat surfaces, be rearranged, and disappear.

In reviewing the 1984 New York opening of Sondheim-Lapine's ``Sunday in the Park with George,'' the Monitor's David Sterritt wrote that the two authors ``have in effect opened up Seurat's greatest painting, inviting us inside for a rather meditative tour.... Many of the figures come to life, chatting or arguing with the painter.''

Sterritt also observed that ``much as Seurat created flowing figures from tiny points of color, Sondheim has long enjoyed playing with small musical units, including repetitive `vamps' over which melodies soar. His music here often revels in a kind of sonic Pointillism.''

This suggests how Sondheim and Lapine absorbed Seurat's masterpiece and, in making it their own, created a musical. Readers can decide how successful they were, for the American Playhouse television version of ``Sunday in the Park with George'' airs on most PBS stations this Wednesday evening at 9. (Check the local listings.)

THE ``Grande Jatte'' also made an impression on the creative people at Lands' End, a direct-mail firm headquartered in Chicago. ``Originally what we were looking for was something that epitomized summer and all the things people love about it,'' explains Lands' End's Elsa Gustafson. An updating of Seurat's masterwork served as the cover of the firm's June catalog in 1986.

``There have been a lot of parodies,'' comments David Beck, the commercial artist who executed the mixed-media painting (oil, acrylic, gouache, and pencil) that served as the cover. ``Some of them are almost blasphemies. I wanted to maintain the same quality as the Seurat painting.''

Beck continues: ``I incorporate the theory of variegated colors in my work. The grass in the foreground, for example, is actually made up of six or seven different colors.'' To achieve an effect similar to the graininess of Seurat's Pointillism, Beck used an airbrush at very low pressure to create a spattering effect and integrated it with the glazing process of the rest of the painting.

Although dressed in sports clothes of the 1980s, the figures on the catalog cover retain the same monumentality of the original work. Even the Frisbee player, replacing the little girl who runs as if she were playing hopscotch, looks as if he could hold his pose forever.

``There's a surreal, static feel about Seurat's painting,'' Beck notes. ``I tried to set up a composition that was related, but had fewer figures so that you could see the clothing better. The umbrellas were very important,'' he adds. ``If you didn't have the umbrellas, my piece wouldn't come off.''

There may be some truth to the cultural ironist's comments about how art ``makes it'' in America.

But more important, the musical and the catalog cover show how creative people think and work in their own fields. Having been struck by the ``Grande Jatte,'' they came to terms in their own ways with what Seurat had created - and how he'd done it.

This process of absorbing a masterpiece and then reassembling it is one way a work of art takes on a life of its own. Across the years something in it communicates. Creative people ponder its mysteries and particular qualities and recommunicate them to new audiences. This does not cheapen art, but restates and vitalizes it.

It's as if after one hundred years Simon had said ``move!'' and Seurat's people had jumped down off the canvas to enter the mainstream of American life.

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