Over the years, Georges Seurat’s iconic painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86) has served as inspiration for numerous artists in a variety of disciplines. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine turned it into a Broadway musical in 1984. Two years later, John Hughes had a set of school-skipping teenagers visit it on a joyride from the Chicago suburbs to the heart of the city in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. More recently, the painting served Chicagoans in a different way, when two city residents used photoshop to empty it of figures, creating an image of lockdown—and urging people to stay home.
They weren’t the only ones thinking of the Pointillist masterpiece in the context of the pandemic and the isolation it brought about. For her first show at London’s White Cube gallery—it opened last Thursday—painter Julie Curtiss did her own riff on La Grande Jatte with a painting called Le Futur (2021). In it, she weaves in references to at least one other Seurat painting and infuses the image with her signature Surrealist touches, all in an effort to convey some of the feelings she herself has experienced during lockdown. Curtiss, who grew up in Paris, is currently based in New York. She got on a Zoom call with ARTnews last week to talk about Le Futur, La Grande Jatte, and the complex themes behind her new body of work.
ARTnews: At first glance, your painting Le Futur looks like a riff on Seurat’s Grande Jatte. But when you examine it more closely, you see there are references to other paintings, including another famous one by Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (1884). What was your thinking, as you began this painting?
Julie Curtiss: I like doing this pastiche kind of thing—not like the movies or remakes but overtly, and with no shame. I’ve done my take on Courbet’s The Origin of the World , for instance. Le Futur was the last painting I thought about for my White Cube show. I work very intuitively—the show kind of makes itself. I follow one branch, and it branches out somewhere else. Eventually I went into this theme of dyads and monads. And that’s when I started to make all the tondo-shaped [circular] canvases [and diptychs]. I wanted a conversation between the singular shape, and the double—the opposite.
I think it came from the longing of wanting to see nature and the outside and being free after a year of being confined. Then remembering the beautiful Seurat painting La Grande Jatte, and thinking of leisurely Sunday afternoons and parks. I don’t even remember when I decided to make half of the figures naked. But I was thinking a lot about the circle in art. My husband was reading this book about the archetypes of numbers in science, nature, and art. And there is this painting—when the book explains the monads—that’s actually in the Met, of Adam and Eve being chased from Eden.
That painting—Giovanni di Paolo’s The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, from 1445—is fascinating.
It almost looks like Hilma af Klint. So I saw that painting and I was thinking of the painting I was making as a kind of Eden, a paradise. And I was thinking of Seurat. It was an interesting period of history when he painted, when there were new ideas about leisure and the class system. The really posh part of Paris, utopia with urbanism and nature, the balance between the two. In my painting, that half of the people are naked and half are dressed is a bit like the original sin. Within that monad, within that perfect image of paradise, there is a split in two, which is where the dyad comes in. The painting kept opening up. I put these buildings in back that reminded me of the Williamsburg waterfront [in Brooklyn]. Gentrification. So it looks on the surface like a very positive painting, and it’s called Le Futur, but it’s actually dystopic, much darker, and about a shift that divides an impossible unity, and a longing for nature and freedom. There’s a shady character in the back that represented, for me, a little shadow within the painting.
In La Grande Jatte, the couple in the foreground, seen in silhouette, is so formal and stiff. In your painting there is the same formality, but the woman is naked. Were you interested in the humor of it? You’ve also said in interviews that you are interested in depicting the world from a female perspective.
I much prefer painting naked women, so that’s why it is her that is naked, not him. I purposely wanted to paint the figures not as nude but as naked. The woman has a little pearl earring. One of the dudes in the forefront has a watch and one has red sneakers. It’s the idea of you wearing just one thing and that making you look more naked. It’s also the dream where you realize you aren’t wearing pants. I wanted the nakedness to be a kind of allegory, about what is conscious or less conscious. It may not be visible to the naked eye, but is actually is there. It’s a [Luis] Buñuel, farcical kind of thing.
As an artist, what do you take from Seurat? What is your thinking on him and his work, and La Grande Jatte in particular? It’s one of those paintings that has been reproduced so widely that, in a way, we don’t see it anymore, that is, its nuances.
Seurat considered himself as almost like a scientist working on the perception of light and what it means to look, to perceive. And, the opposite of most Impressionists, he didn’t paint outdoors. Even though he was really studying the light, he really composes this picture, in the very classical sense of the term, and everything is very deliberate. The figures are so unemotional, and the reserve of it all makes it so much more emotional in a really weird way. There’s this reserve that allows for so much projection into the paintings, and onto the figures. It’s very intimate, even though it’s set outdoors. And there are social indications that are very subtle.
You lived in Chicago briefly. Was La Grande Jatte, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, a touchstone for you?
It was not. I spent like six months in Chicago, and as a French person, I was more interested in discovering American culture. Classic French painting I could have seen every day in Paris. When I did go to the Art Institute of Chicago and saw La Grande Jatte, I thought, “Oh, that’s here?”
After his own death, Seurat went out of style for a time, then in the 1920s was rediscovered. The post World War I elite, according to art historian Kenneth Silver, saw in Seurat’s work “an image of the world that they found reassuringly ordered, geometric, and much like the world that they themselves hoped to reconstruct.” And in fact, as you said, you were thinking of Seurat in something of a nostalgic mode.
The Seurat painting is definitely a commentary on society. It’s truly a social painting, and that’s why when I was thinking about it as an Eden, this human construct of nature. And, yes, it’s a kind of naïve longing for being together, fusing together, creating a form of togetherness. You have these opposite desires and tensions, dynamics between nature, city, culture, men, women, different classes—the urban dream. In Williamsburg, they are creating this fancy waterfront where everybody can enjoy the view of Manhattan, public space, but it’s almost like a form of, not propaganda but—
A beautification effort that creates a veneer over gentrification.
But at the same time it really does fill a need. And it is very popular, and it is creating a place of being together in congregation. But it’s a double-edged sword.
People tend to associate your work with the Surrealists and you’ve talked about taking inspiration from them. André Breton actually considered Seurat to be a kind of proto-Surrealist—reflecting the chaos of dreams—even Seurat was being interpreted by others as a kind of longing for a return to order…
My White Cube show is a reflection on order and chaos, a consideration of systems and things that are misplaced, which is Surrealism. As someone at the gallery pointed out, Surrealism is often about things being out of place, the throwing of a wrench into a perfect system. But chaos and order: one doesn’t exist without the other. That’s maybe my Asian take on it. The yin and yang take on it, where one needs the other to exist. I’m interested in representing that tension.
Your paintings often seem to be like a portrait of a psyche. I think that in lockdown, a lot of us were isolated and sort of thrown back on ourselves. We haven’t yet seen the full scope of what might ultimately be called the art of the coronavirus period, but your paintings in this show seem to capture the mood.
The pandemic accelerated some of the themes of my new body of work. And I think it’s going to go there more and more. A lot of it had to do with the lockdown. The theme—dyads and monads—has to do with the atomization of society, how this is affecting us—the idea of control and of damage control. I needed to start working on it right away. I wanted to get all these things out of my head. But when I look at other figurative painting—in my circle of artists—I don’t see it yet. I think it’s this trauma and people have a hard time looking at it. Or maybe there’s a sense it’s not over yet. Or they need to keep their practice intact.
Seurat was said to have guarded his technique jealously. He didn’t want the secret getting out of how he created a coherent picture from all these tiny dots, using color theory and so forth. Do you think painters are still protective of their technique?
Yes, totally. Each artist is supposed to have his own voice. It’s the myth of individualism, the myth of originality, of being exquisite, unique individuals. So, people are very protective. It’s hard to develop a technique that is your own. Every time I’ve worked for an artist I’ve had to sign an NDA; I can’t share the secret of fabrication. At the same time, what’s really special about New York is how generous the artists are, giving each other studio visits and sharing information. Compared to Paris and Tokyo, where I’ve also lived, New York is special that way.