There's no getting away from Bathers at Asnieres. Completed in 1884, it's become an unshiftable monument of modern art. It's now iconically stamped on the mind's eye of the art public, especially the British art public - it was bought by the Tate in 1924, and moved to the National Gallery in 1961, where it now stands as one of the most popular and reproduced pictures. It's also a very original work. Its fame has made it almost vacant, a nodding acquaintance. But in this case what its fame conceals is that it really is vacant.
This took work and ambition, and the exhibition Seurat and the Bathers, at the National Gallery, shows how. It brings together almost all Seurat's painted and drawn sketches for the picture, and a deal of his other early work, with pictures by artists that may have influenced him, pictures by other contemporaries who depicted the same part of the suburban Seine, and by those he may have influenced in turn, and some of his own later work. Bathers, then, is fully sourced, footnoted and cross-referenced.
But this completist art-historical enterprise is quite in the picture's spirit. Seurat's short artistic life - he died aged 31 - was structured around half-a-dozen set-piece canvasses, and Bathers, like the rest, was a fully-plotted masterpiece. It has beginner's hubris, too. It wants to do everything. It wants to incorporate, in a single picture, all the main tendencies, traditional and avant-garde, of current French painting. So it tries to combine a vivid open-air impressionism with classical figure study; and a realist scene of contemporary life with a composition of monumental grandeur.
As a brief, it sounds like a jam of incongruous wishes, promising discontinuities, frustration and bathos. And, following Seurat's accumulating sketches, it's not at all obvious what's going to be brought off. The paintings are free, bright and provisional rehearsals of the scene, gradually establishing the elements and the structure. Horses and bathing trunks come and go. Even what turns out to be the final painted sketch, and it's very small, doesn't look definitive. It could take another shift, and there's nothing to suggest how firmed up all the shapes will become. The drawings, meanwhile, made during the work on the big picture itself, are amazingly finely graded tonal studies of figures in studio poses. Without the finished picture - and there doesn't seem to be, what you might expect, a big drawn plan of the whole composition - it would be hard to see how it's all to be brought together.
But the synthesis happens. It happens by a process of neutralisation. By bringing out the neutralising potential of each of his different components, Seurat makes them co-operate.
For instance, there's the way everything in Bathers is generalised, non- specific. Seurat takes impressionism's vagueness, its luminous blur which cancels detail and texture, marshals it within firm contours, and uses it to make a classical simplification of forms. The bodies become very tubular and elementary, but this imposed classicism always has the impressionist alibi of it being a hazy sunny day. Then, from the repertoire of contemporary life, Seurat develops a subject in which almost nothing is happening.
Bathing, and largely sun-bathing - a non-event, with no action or psychological interaction, without sexual drama (it's all male), a scene that's plausibly modern but which consists of isolated poses. The lack of activity relieves any frustration at the lack of detail. You don't wish you could see the incident more clearly - facial expression, say - because there is no incident. The generalisation of forms in its turn plays down obtrusive contemporary specifics, making the protagonists semi-timeless. And the static, posed, non-event puts up no resistance to the monumental composition. There's no animation to strain against the very stable pictorial order.
So Seurat achieves his great composite by neutralising any awkward questions. You don't ask: what's going on, or what exactly is supposed to be so grand about this scene. It's a remarkable picture because, while it foregrounds its human protagonists so largely and clearly, it's designed to incite no human interest. It short circuits. Or at any rate, you can never be confident that this sort of interest is relevant. Is the central boy's profile meant to look a bit stupid (or just one more non-expression)? Are we meant to notice his prominent slouch (or is it just one more curve)?
A sociological observation of the picture hits similar difficulties. It's quite possible to think about the class status of the figures, about leisure and industry in the Parisian suburbs (there's the factory smoking in the background), and to discuss whether this particular spot on the Seine is just downstream of a massive sewage outlet. Possible, but these are questions in which the picture shows no interest at all. Likewise, the even more interesting reading of a gay sub-text in the picture, the all-male gathering representing cruisers looking out for a pick-up. How dramatic this view suddenly makes the non-event portrayed, how everything suddenly falls into place. But then, how clearly it supplies just the interpretative handle that the picture so signally refuses. And so, empty- handed, the temptation then is to consider Seurat as a determined formalist with his famous theories about colour and optical mixtures (though Bathers is pre-dot, using more or less tidy crisscross brush-strokes). He simply overlooks or sacrifices his subject matter in favour of balanced design and chromatic richness.
But that won't do either. Perhaps, in Bathers, Seurat didn't quite know what he was making, but in all his subsequent big pictures he returns to a prominent human subject. The National Gallery exhibition has some painted studies for his next, La Grande Jatte, including the very beautiful final study. The island location is almost exactly opposite to that of Bathers. And what you find in that very populous park scene is something similar, but tuned up a notch. You have all the material for an observed human comedy, which then fails to deliver. All the potential for satire, the stiff shapes of the strollers, and the likely sex-intrigue, are kept down, controlled by the rigid design and the anonymising pixellation of the dots. It feels like a tease.
"Endless boredom, the little man's hellish utopia... painted suicide," a Marxist critic wrote with welcome directness about that picture. But it seems welcome just because its emotional directness is precisely not Seurat's. It would be nice, and so much simpler, to say that Seurat was the great painter of modern boredom, of urban anomie - a nice way to take a whack at his fans too, whose unknowing love of the painter then becomes complicit in this "hellish utopia". But, if you take that approach to Bathers, and see it as an epic of stupefication, the whole picture then becomes an enormously heavy joke. All its grandeur would be ironised, and it's hard to believe Seurat laboured for that.
It seems to me that there wasn't more to Seurat than meets the eye, though perhaps boringness isn't quite the word for it. What Seurat discovered in Bathers, and discovered through following his artistic priorities, but not just for the sake of those artistic priorities, was that it's possible to view human life, full on, with no attitude at all. Yes, we can do it. That is, he discovered the point of view of perfect atheism, with its perfect indifference. Neither heroic nor wretched, neither meaningful nor absurd, about humanity there is nothing to say - except that it is there. Stay calmn `Seurat and the Bathers' is at the National Gallery, London WC2, to 28 Sept (Information: 0171-747 2885)Reuse content