Thursday 17 December 2015

Bridget Riley - Learning from Seurat

Bridget Riley, Learning from Seurat at the Courtauld.

'In a way the fact that my copy of The Bridge at Courbevoie still hangs in my studio, all these years later, tells you all you need to know about my feelings for Georges Seurat'.

In 1959 Bridget Riley painted a copy of The Bridge at Courbevoie. She wanted to understand Seurat's method in which dots of pure colour are juxtaposed on the canvas to produce a powerful visual experience. Working from a reproduction from a book Riley worked intensively on her version of the painting, 'looking, learning, internalising, applying', as she put it. It proved a significant breakthrough for Riley at the beginning of her career, setting her path for abstraction.

The exhibition brings together Riley's version and the original by Seurat and presents them alongside seminal works by Riley to explore her profound engagement with Seurat's art. She drew upon Seurat's method to create her first black and white abstract paintings. She later introduced colour with her stripe paintings radically extending Seurat's approach to create works that heighten our perception of colour and space.

Georges Seurat, The Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886087 (oil on canvas)

Seurat painted this view of the Seine at Courbevoie using the pointillist technique. Pointillism relies on the theory that colours intensify when juxtaposed in small dots rather than being blended. He began by brushing broad planes of colour to block in different sections. He then added a 'skin' of coloured dots carefully calibrated to create a vibrant and harmonious visual effect. 

Bridget Riley, Copy after The Bridge at Courbevoie by Georges Seurat, 1959 (oil on canvas)

Because Riley used a reproduction of the painting from a book, there is a disparity in colour between the two works. She chose a larger canvas for her version and scaled up her dots as her objective was never to reproduce Seurat's exacting touch faithfully, but to reveal his train of thought.

Bridget Riley, Vapour, 1970, (acrylic on linen)

Here, Riley used a subdued palette to stimulate our perception of colour and form. She painted thin diagonals of colour within each vertical band, which seem to be twisting and create subtle visual distortions. The hues bounce off the white edges and against the surrounding shades, generating zones of colour that appear to spread horizontally across the canvas.

Bridget Riley, Late Morning I, 1967, (acrylic on linen)

This is one of Riley's first abstract paintings in colour. Like Seurat, Riley is fascinated by the instability of colour. Our perception of a colour changes radically in relation to the others around it. In the later 1960s, Riley started to use stripes to harness these dynamic colour relationships. She felt the stripe provided a direction, length and volume that Seurat's dots lacked. Here, using alternating stripes in just three elementary colours on a white background, Riley creates a remarkably powerful visual experience.

Bridget Riley, Ecclesia, 1985 (oil on canvas)

This painting marks Riley's return to vertical stripes after a period of using other forms. Compared to her earlier Late Morning I, Riley broadened the range of colours and thickened the bands: this asserts the specific characteristics of each colour and makes their interaction more powerful when seen as a whole. The work is also a return to Riley's early engagement with Seurat and her own pointillist paintings. Produced more than 25 years later, Ecclesia is, in Riley's words, 'essentially Pink Landscape in lines'.


Bridget Riley, Pink Landscape, 1960 (oil on canvas)
After copying The Bridge at Courbevoie, Riley pursued her exploration of Seurat's method by creating her own pointillist paintings, including this view of the rolling hills outside Siena. Through a gradation of coloured spots of paint, ranging from light yellow at the bottom of the canvas to deep purple at the top, she captured the shimmer of the Italian countryside as the scorching heat dissolved the outlines of the landmarks.

Bridget Riley, Tremor, 1962 (emulsion on board)

In this painting Riley created a powerful visual tension by alternating small triangles with varying curved and straight edges. The vibrating effect produces 'buried images' within the abstract composition. The tall peaks that emerge make interesting comparison with the rolling hills in Pink Landscape.


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