The Art of Making Art

A white, blank page is one the scariest things I know. It’s empty and hollow, demanding and mocking, it’s the abyss that gazes into you. For the titular hero of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park With George, it’s life-giving, as the last words of the show reveal: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…”

George Seurat was a painter in late-19th century Paris and quite a famous one, too. We know all know his seminal work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, portraying Parisians from all walks of life enjoying a sunny day at the Seine. Curiously, none of the 48 people depitcted in the painting seem to make eye contact except for a little girl in a white dress who is looking directly at – us? The painter? For librettist James Lapine and legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Seurat himself became the missing protagonist of the painting. Taking full poetic license, they tell a fictional story of George’s life and legacy, his love for art and the love he lost in pursuit of it. Even thirty years after its premiere, Sunday in the Park With George is an intermedial masterpiece that translates colors into sounds, stillness into movement and which portrays the emotional, intellectual and relational processes of making art in its content and form.

A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte,_Georges_Seurat,_1884

George Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886

From the first moment we meet George he is working on his magnus opus, envisioning, sketching and creating – his challenge: “to bring order through design, composition, balance, light and harmony.” We meet his impatient muse and passionate lover Dot who is both attracted to George’s talent and disappointed by his coldness towards her. She enjoys being looked at with artistic desire, as if “he sees you and he doesn’t all at once” but soon realizes that he just “looks at her looking”. Completely engulfed in his work, George talks more with the characters he creates with his brush than the ones standing in front of him. While Dot dreams of having a normal relationship with George and going to the Follies with him, George is always “finishing the hat”.

This number offers the key to understanding George’s character. Sondheim cleverly plays with the typical Broadway trope of the “I Am”- and the “I Want”-songs by turning their concepts upside down: rather than proclaiming some deeply felt desire or showcasing the greatness of his character, George tells us how his obsession to perfection has completely isolated himself from human relationships. He begs us to understand

“How you have to finish the hat
How you watch the world
From a window
While you finish the hat”

George can only perceive of the world and the people around him as if through a window, with the distanced gaze of an artist; looking without connecting, seeing without wanting to be seen:

“Studying a face
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see-
It’s the only way to see”

After a pregnant Dot leaves him for the boring and benign baker Louis, George recognizes he’s paying a price:

“And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
Not the kind you want to find waiting.”

Still, George can’t even see what he’s turning to, only what he’s turning from. He knows that his focus will always be solely on his work, detached from the everyone else – and he knows that Dot knows it, too:

“And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, ‘Well, I give what I give.’
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat”

In the number’s last lines, George finally reaches out and addresses the world at large:

“Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat”

Jake Gyllenhaal’s 2017 interpretation

As will be reiterated in Act II, “a vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head.” George needs to share his creation and does so with almost childish pride. The act of creation is vital and revelatory, it’s the only way he knows he’s still alive.

For Act II, we jump through time and space to 80’s America and meet another George, our protagonist’s great-grandson. He’s an artist, too, and currently unveiling his “Chromolume #7”, an electronic installation reflecting on Seurat’s work. A lot has changed since the romantic days of the artist-genius toiling in isolation to realize his vision. Postmodern George knows that “keeping at a distance doesn’t pay” and that he must start “putting it together, bit by bit” through networking, lunch meetings, commissions, cocktails, politicking, marketing…

“Link by link
Making the connections
Drink by drink
Fixing and perfecting the design
Adding just a dab of politician
Always knowing where to draw the line
Lining up the funds but in addition
Lining up a prominent commission
Otherwise your perfect composition
Isn’t going to get much exhibition”

Barbra Streisand appyling the same principles to the art of music-making

Art has become an accumulative process, a market, an industry. Even the artist doesn’t exist in isolation anymore but is a part of the whole, one small dot in the big picture. For George, this world becomes too big and too overwhelming; his identity seems to fade away:

“George is afraid
George sees the park
George sees it dying
George too may fade
Leaving no mark
Just passing through
Just like the people out strolling on Sunday”

In a vision, he sees Dot and tells her his fears and desire to create, to stay alive:

“I want to make things that count
Things that will be new”

Dot encourages him to embrace the unknown, to free himself from the fear of failure. Just as she moved on from George all those years ago, this George, too, must move on:

“Stop worrying where you’re going
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on

Stop worrying it your vision
Is new
Let others make that decision
They usually do
You keep moving on

Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see”

“Move On” performed by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters who originated the roles of George and Dot in 1984

By reminding George of his great-grandfather’s key principles (order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony), Dot is able to inspire him anew and to show him the infinite possibilities of a blank canvas.

Composer Sondheim filled his canvas through a technique very similar to Seurat’s pointillism. Most of the music accompanying George’s artistic endeavors consists of a few single notes repeated in quick succession. This represents both George’s painting style of adding up single dots and his thought process, as showcased in “Color and Light”:

“Red red red red
Red red orange
Red red orange
Orange pick up blue
Pick up red
Pick up orange
From the blue-green blue-green
Blue-green circle
On the violet diagonal
Di-ag-ag-ag-ag-ag-o-nal-nal
Yellow comma yellow comma
Numnum num numnumnum
Numnum num”

Theater scholar Christopher Balme has written extensively on the process of realizing “in one medium the aesthetic conventions and habits of seeing and hearing in another medium” – translating colors into sound, music into light. According to his definition, Sunday in the Park is an “intermedial” artwork: it combines the media of music, lyrics, acting and stage props while each medium affects and changes the others.

The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, just like George’s dots: by directly relating to one another, the colored dots add up to something brighter and more brilliant than any one could on its own.

George creates relationships for his dots,
but forgets about his and Dot’s.

He fails to realize that his principle is true for life in general. The world is not black and white, and it’s not just “blue” or “green”, either: in the final number, the chorus reminds us that we are surrounded by “blue, purple, yellow, red water” and “green, purple, yellow, red grass”, even on an “ordinary Sunday”.

“Sunday”, the finale of the show

Sondheim and Lapine’s work recreates the process of making art to confront us with its pain and its power. They remind us that no art is created in a vacuum and that “no one is alone” (we’ll return to that in Into the Woods). Together we can create great things, and only together.

From this perspective, that blank page doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

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