Arts & Books

Art review: Why Seurat knocks spots off Bridget Riley

A detail from Bridget Riley's Pink Landscape

The recently – and so sadly – departed Brian Sewell was not a great fan of Bridget Riley.

He described her work, among other things, as being “of the second rank”. Now, thanks to the Courtauld, we have an opportunity to decide for ourselves, in Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat.

Here, a selection of her paintings are held up to one of her major influences, the Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat. In the late 1950s, Riley was so taken with Seurat’s pointillist technique that she copied one of his masterpieces, The Bridge at Courbevoie, not to replicate it, but to try to understand the Frenchman’s creative process.

The Bridge is the only work by Seurat in this small exhibition and it’s extraordinary. Up close, Seurat’s creation, made up of thousands of overlaid dots, is a technical marvel. But it is when the viewer steps away from the picture that its wonders truly reveal themselves. Haunted, or possibly haunting, figures stand alone on the riverbank, while a boat pushes off across the water. Meanwhile, the bridge in the background appears to fade away before our eyes, along with the smoke rising from the factory chimney. It’s a deeply moving masterpiece, worth the price of admission alone.

The Bridge at Courbevoie by Seurat
The Bridge at Courbevoie by Seurat

Unfortunately, Riley’s rendering is rather clumsy by comparison and another pointillist effort, Pink Landscape, also fails to convince. The other paintings use lines and geometric shapes in an attempt to develop Seurat’s approach. Late Morning 1, with its vertical stripes of red, white, green and blue, shimmer off the canvas. Technically impressive perhaps, but held up next to Seurat’s genius, Riley’s paintings feel, well, from a lesser rank.

It’s probably a good job that Brian Sewell died before The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern came along. I’m sure he’d have hated this underwhelming mish-mash of garish pop art drawn from a range of cultures and countries. One man who would probably love it, though, is Jeremy Corbyn, as it contains more right-on 1970s leftiness than even the vested one might know what to do with.

Images from adverts, cartoons and corporate branding are used to hammer home messages about the evils of America and the horror of the atom bomb. There’s also a touch of aggressive feminism and a lionising of Fidel Castro, in the form of an appalling Warhol/folk-art inspired set of portraits which Jezza, I’m sure, would go nuts for.

The blurb claims these artworks are “subversive” and “relevant to today”, but a selection of flags of colonial powers (including, of course, the Stars and Stripes) smudged with blood is about as deep as the satire gets. There’s the odd highlight (a couple of the paintings by Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu and a video installation by Öyvind Fahlström), but otherwise this show is an overstuffed, headache-inducing jumble.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (9/10/15)

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