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Month: January 2021

Sunday after Sunday

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884/86). Art Institute of Chicago.

On April 15, 1958 a fire broke out at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One panel of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies was ruined and a Jackson Pollock painting was damaged by smoke, which drove the museum to create a Conservation department. In a bit of bad luck, Georges Seurat’s Sunday at La Grande Jatte was on display on the floor below the fire, on loan from permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Museum curators grabbed artworks off the walls and ran down stairwells with them, though it’s hard to imagine how they managed this particular 7’x10’ canvas. Though Seurat’s painting wasn’t damaged, the Art Institute may have felt burned anyway. The painting hasn’t left Chicago since.

On May 22, 1884 Georges Seurat began what would become his most famous painting, then exhibited it at a Salon des Independents in 1886 to great acclaim, But the painting never sold and at Georges’ death his mother inherited it. Then at her death his brother inherited it. It passed through several hands until 1923 when Frederic Bartlett, art student and heir to a hardware fortune, brought it home with him to Chicago and gave it to the Art Institute in 1926, the year my father was born.

My father, who arrived in New York City from Chicago in 1951 to make it as an Abstract Expressionist, may have seen the painting in New York, but he definitely knew it well from the art classes he took at the Art Institute as a child and later as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 1958 was a good year for him. He was about to have a solo show at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in May. The Whitney Museum, which had bought his pastel “Orange Flowers” in 1955, lent it back to the Borgenicht for the show. Later that year he would have a painting in the Whitney’s annual show for the second time.

Seurat based his painting on afternoons spent on an island out in the Seine, watching families lounge on the grass amid the landscaped gardens. The composition is forced into a rigid pattern by his method of applying individual dots of paint to create forms that appear blended and whole from a distance. Women stand in severe profile, like figures on the prow of a ship. The dark shadow creeping over the grass on the lower right mirrors the pale blue shape of the water at the upper left. Seurat apparently told contemporaries that he wanted to mimic Classical Greek friezes like the Parthenon, and the painting indeed seems more like sculpture than painting. It may be flat like a canvas but its perfect stillness seems statuesque. In 1926, when La Grande Jatte left Paris, art critic Roger Fry wrote that it represented “a world from which life and movement are banished and all is fixed for ever in the rigid frame of its geometry.” The scene itself may be still but Felix Feneon, Seurat’s major champion in the art press, believed the pointillist method made the canvas itself vibrate.

“The sense of motion in immobility.” That’s how novelist E.M. Forster described the painting after seeing it in Chicago in the 1940s. He used it to explain how art creates worlds unto themselves, manifesting their internal order as external form. Unintentionally, La Grande Jatte bridges the growth of modernism and consumer culture in fin-de-siecle Paris with the advertising and design boom in 1920s Chicago. Seurat documented the Parisian pedestrians who strolled along the grand boulevards, window-shopping in the new department stores like Galeries Lafayette and gathering in cafes and cabarets. These pedestrians, like the Sunday visitors in Seurat’s painting, formed a new sort of bourgeois public, who had more leisure time for arts and entertainments.

Early in the twentieth century American collectors travelled to Europe and brought that modern art, and the lifestyle it represented, back home. With its flattened, simple design, La Grande Jatte reads like a gigantic billboard, easily legible from afar, that advertises the very leisure it represents. It displays the figures in ways that anticipate merchandising strategies to come: one at a time and in high contrast for easy recognition. It resembles a page in a catalogue from Montgomery Ward, the world’s oldest mail order business, or a window display in the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store, where my grandmother worked before she married. Like Bartlett in the 1920s, my father had left that commercial world in Chicago behind to study art in Europe in the 1950s. He toured around and lingered in Positano, Italy, which had a well-known American-run art school.

I have a daughter who loves jigsaw puzzles and she and I have spent many hours during summers on Cape Cod fitting together pieces of a Simpson’s version of Seurat’s Grande Jatte. (It has become a consumer object after all, and a piece of pop culture.) Cut into irregular pieces of cardboard, the image dissolves into its dots again, then is reconstituted over and over, though with great effort. Like most jigsaw puzzles, the key to success is matching colors rather than shapes. The process requires close observation, patience, and a large flat surface. It brings surprises to the foreground — like the mysterious white figure of a girl near the center, the only one to face the viewer. She is a bit of blank canvas to be writ upon as only a young girl can be.

scene from John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

This girl plays a key role in John Hughes’s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: when Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his friend Cameron cut school one day in Chicago one of their stops is the Art Institute. After a striking montage of still shots of various paintings from the collection the film lingers on Cameron studying La Grande Jatte. Hughes’s camera cuts back and forth between Cameron and the painting, getting ever closer to each until we see only Cameron’s eyes and the girl in white, who has become an unrecognizable patch of multicolored paint. It’s a coy statement about pointillism (those dots!) and human vision (the perception of color and light!) but it’s also a psychological turning point of some kind.

In some ways the film is really Cameron’s story more than Ferris’s. Ferris is a readymade character, sprung fully-formed from the beginning of the film, but Cameron is in crisis and changes over the course of the film’s single day. Crippled by anxiety about his future, he learns from Ferris and Sloane first to relax and then to assert himself. The movie makes that transformation the cumulative effect of “the best day of his life” but the one place where Cameron has his own separate experience from the others is in the museum, in contemplating that painting. It’s a surprising testament to the impact art, even in its abstract representations of life, can have on “real” life and “real” people, even those merely represented in a more realistic medium like film. The meta levels are dizzying.

Paris-Chicago-New York. 1884-1926-1958-1986. Sunday after Sunday in perpetuity. George-Frederic-Earle-Cameron, and an unnamed girl in white, threaded together by a painting that almost went up in smoke.

Mixed Signals

QSL postcard sent by Earle Olsen, April 1936

It’s been about a year since I last updated my blog. What a year, huh? I finished drafting the family memoir detailed on these pages, wrote case studies for tech companies, trained and coached product managers, and sheltered in place. No more research trips! But there is still much to find—or stumble upon—online.
For example, last week I was looking for a 1955 print by my father that a fellow alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was selling on eBay, when I came across this unfamiliar postcard with my father’s name on it. At first I thought it must be something related to his military service because I didn’t recognize the acronyms, but the date was clearly 1936, when my father would have been nine years old. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it had my father’s name on it so I bought it for $8.
My first stab at research clarified that it was actually a QSL card, which amateur radio enthusiasts (“hams”) sent to each other to confirm conversations. From the 1920s on ham operators mailed these postcards after every contact, often as a point of pride to verify a particularly long-distance connection. I scrolled through pages and pages of examples, many for sale on eBay and other hobbyist sites, and discovered such cards from all over the globe. Some were simple typed lists, but some were individually designed, with visual images relating to the location or personality of the sender.
This card, with the personal radio call number W9VXK, came from Oak Park, Illinois, near where my father grew up, though the address wasn’t his family home. But the name had his less-common spelling, with the e at the end of Earle. And I had a vague memory of my father saying he had a ham radio as a child, though no one else could confirm it. I also knew my father had been a radio technician in World War II. Perhaps he had a history of tinkering with radios, an early interest or expertise? His family was well off and would have encouraged such a hobby, perhaps. It seemed plausible, even though he was only nine when this was sent to another hobbyist in Baltimore.
QSL is an abbreviation based on the Q Code developed for international maritime and telegraph communications in the early twentieth century. These brief three-letter codes could convey a wealth of information across languages and distances: from QRA? (what ship or station are you?) to QRN? (Is the atmospheric interference to this signal strong?). Receivers could respond with formal Q codes or invent their own language of abbreviations, like the C.U.L. for “see you later” on the card shown above. I could picture my father as a somewhat lonely child, a stutterer who liked to draw, enjoying this private and remote kind of intimacy, a closeness that bridged distances. But how could I prove it? I could find other such cards from my father in old archives. I could examine old family photos from the 1930s and look for ham radio sets in the backgrounds. I could search published directories of amateur radio callers from the 1930s…. The W9 prefix was assigned to callers in the midwest and members could list their names, call numbers, and addresses in published directories for one dollar a year.
However, I soon ran into trouble in making this case. First, the card’s seller told me that radio operators were rarely that young. Then it turned out that those five digit radio call numbers (the QRAs) were assigned by individual licenses, which seemed unlikely for a child to own. Finally, I scrolled endlessly through the archived pages of the Fall 1937 Radio Amateur Call book Directory, from the W9A___s to the W9V___s, through name after name until I confirmed that W9VXF was indeed assigned to a different Earle Olsen, nested between Homer G. Kuiper and L.W. Preston. This radio-operator Earle had the exact same spelling as my father and lived near him in Chicago but at the unfamiliar address of 531 Belleforte Avenue, Oak Park. I had speculated that perhaps that had been the location of a school or radio club, but nope.
That Earle Olsen’s QSL card is still in the air, so to speak. It was mailed from Chicago to Baltimore in April 1936 and is now winging its way on invisible communication paths from Baltimore to Truro, Massachusetts. I don’t know where else it’s been for the last 80+ years, or what other conversations it has witnessed. As a researcher, I appreciate randomness, which means I must allow and encourage it in all directions, including failures. Null experiments or failed signals are indeed evidence too, like the negative space Joshua Rothman described in his wonderful New Yorker essay on unlived lives. Rothman opens by suggesting a life he could have led, had things gone even a little differently, and then broadens his piece to consider all the paths not taken, the people we didn’t become. He asks, “isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real.”
Could my father have experimented with a ham radio as a boy? Sure. Could he have stayed a radio technician after the war instead of going to art school? No way. But it’s an alternate reality that, in its gaps, lends some shadow and highlight to the man I knew.