Learning from Seurat (and Bridget Riley)

Riley Copy after Seurat's Bridge at Courbevoie 1959

Riley Tremor 1962

If anyone fancies a bite-size exhibition to see in London over the next couple of months, I would strongly recommend the Courtauld Gallery’s gem ‘Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat’.

The little exhibition explores the (artistic) relationship between pointillist Georges Seurat and abstract artist Bridget Riley. I liked the underpinning concept that artists don’t live exclusively as autonomous entities, but are influenced by the outer world and their art evolves also as a response to other artists’ works.

The starting point is indeed the copy Riley made in 1959 of Seurat’s ‘Bridge at Courbevoie’ (1885-6). The artist claimed she wanted to learn more about Seurat’s colours and technique, and wanted to try her hand at pointillism. It’s incredible to see how two paintings representing exactly the same subject – in fact, one being a calque of the other – can be so different. Riley’s version is already oozing with abstraction, especially in the way the space is organised, the colour is applied, and the brush-strokes are arranged one next to the other.

The exhibitions then displayed other works by Riley stemming from her experimenting with colours, shapes, lines, and visual experience as a whole. They belong to the abstract production of Riley, which initially seems to contrast with her pointillist landscape, but upon close inspection the juxtaposition proves fascinating. ‘Tremor’ (1962), for example, seen after the rework of Seurat’s painting almost shines with orange and pink hues, as absurd as it may sound. The whole picture seems to dissolve and recreate itself endlessly.

Thus Riley and Seurat are fruitfully put together to enlighten not only the starting points of Riley’s production but more generally to explore how artists are interested in other artists, and how from this interest new art can arise.

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