Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ottawa 1968 & 2015: A Meditation on Urban Form

Not many entries of late, mostly because of travel on business.

I returned from Washington a few days ago; I might write about that later.  There is a great deal to say.

For now, I will remark on another capital city: my own, Ottawa, Canada.

On the You-Tube site some months ago, I came across a clip entitled “Ottawa 1968 1969”, the entirety of which can be viewed here:

The blurb at YouTube, by "Gwood's Gang", states: "My uncle drove around Ottawa in the early spring, about 1968 and again about a year later. He takes us from Maitland Avenue along the Queensway to downtown, around Parliament, to Champlain point, along the Ottawa River, Dows Lake and many other places in town. How the city has changed!"

Last summer, on a lark, I took the same route as the home-filmmaker, recording the same scenes with my cell-phone camera, in order to edit the two scenes together. 

The uneven result of this can be found at the link directly below.  The chief problem of my own retracing of Gwood's Gang's uncle, is that I was recording the scenes from memory, and thus they are often shot from different angles from the original; as well, it was summertime when I took the cellphone movies, whereas as Gwood's uncle was evidently filming during the early spring, and thus the foliage and sunlight are very different from the earlier film to the new one:

Nevertheless, and contrary to Gwood, it is striking how recognizable the city is in the older footage, when compared to today. 

If, hypothetically, film existed of the same areas in 1921 (i.e. forty-seven years before 1968), the city would have looked very unfamiliar. 

It would have, for example, been impossible to travel from the west-end to downtown by car on the same road, because it was then occupied by a railway. The vast majority of the buildings in the downtown core, as seen in the 1968 film, would not have been constructed in 1921 (whereas many from forty-seven years ago are in existence today). The McGregor Easson elementary school and neighbouring houses on Dynes road from ‘68, were no doubt pastures 47 years before. 

As it happens, there is an an aerial photograph of Ottawa taken, according to notations on the image, in 1922: one can view the various neighbourhoods of the old city, like the Glebe, Ottawa South, and the area I grew up in, Ottawa East:

Ottawa, Ontario, 1922: the waterway extending from the south to east
(i.e. bottom to right) is the Rideau River.  The Glebe quarter is central left,
where the circular playing field is situated.

There was very little of the latter to call it a neighbourhood. It was a vast farmer’s field, with Main street merely a dirt laneway (a bridge over Rideau river would not be constructed for decades). In spite of its status as a capital city, Ottawa was until the Second World War, no more than a large town. 

During and after the war, it underwent qualitative change, becoming a modern city. This is the form in which it remains today. While it is probably twice as large now as in 1968, its physical features have been refined but not drastically altered since then.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Pointillism of Science

I’ve long been fascinated by the work of the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, most famous for Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte, which was unveiled in 1886. 

Sunday Afternoon on the Isle de Grande Jatte.
Georges Seurat, 1886.

I consider Seurat my favourite of the nineteenth-century French painters, if not of all time (but I like Rembrandt van Rijn almost as much). Though the subject-matter of Seurat’s works is antique, his technique renders them strangely contemporary in appearance. 

Recently, I watched a short docudrama with actors portraying Seurat and his contemporaries, Seurat and the Realm of Light, produced by the French arm of the National Film Board of Canada in 1992.  

In this, the painter’s so-called pointillism is described by a narrator as “a technique which consists of painting juxtaposed points of pure colour. Seen from afar these small dabs of pure colour blend together optically in one’s eye, become a homogenous image. A visionary artist, Seurat anticipated by half a century modern techniques of colour division, used in photo composition, television, and digital images.” 

In fact, though, the term “pointillism” is a misnomer. It is more accurately called “divisionism”, as Seurat did not compose the Sunday Afternoon and other works by placing dots of paint on the canvass, as is usually believed. 

Instead, Seurat used tiny strokes of the brush to achieve a divisionist effect (as seen in the detail of Sunday Afternoon below). 

Detail from Sunday Afternoon on the Isle du Grande Jatte.

Divisionism in fact came out of Seurat’s ambition to create a science of art. The NFB film quotes him: “I dream of a science of painting, which can be taught, like music, a colour scale than can translate the effects of light. ... I apply minute dabs of colour, which are blended optically in the eye, and which translate the shimmering effects of light, a mysterious light that reveals textures, curves, volumes and the dimensions of space.” 

Seurat also stated, “just as a chemist separates matter, my eyes are clear prisms that break down the elements of light. Transform them in the crucible of the imagination, and give them new meaning. I am searching for a secret geometry of forms. Painting is the art of giving depth to surface.” 

Knowing very little about Seurat before, I was somewhat taken aback by his avowed pursuit of a science of art. I had thought that by the nineteenth century, and especially after the Impressionists, artists had given up the very Renaissance ambition to make painting into a science. 

Impressionism, as with modern art in general, was a conscious rebellion against the strictures of “Academy” art, the principles of which had been laid down centuries before. Seurat, who died in 1891 aged only thirty-one (of uncertain causes, but likely from a virus which also killed his young son soon after), embraced academic principles, however. 

Circus-Parade, Georges Seurat, 1887.

From a proper bourgeois family, Seurat dressed so conventionally that he was referred to by other painters as “the notary.” In another documentary about Seurat I viewed recently, one of the art historians interviewed speculated as to how, if he had lived a natural lifespan, Seurat would have affected the course of modern art. 

I think, on the other hand, Seurat would have remained an outlier even if he had not died young, as he was during his lifetime, in fact. Impressionism set out to convey precisely what the pictorial medium derived from chemistry — the photograph — simply couldn’t. 

In this way, the movement really was anti-scientific in so far as placed idiosyncratic perspective and technique at the centre of artistic endeavour. 

The post-Impressionists, on the other hand, were determined to return order and principle to painting — doing something more than “splashing paint across the canvas”, as an associate of Seurat’s is quoted in the NFB documentary. 

They were “post” in that Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and the others, didn’t reject entirely the Impressionist revolution in painting. They simply wanted to bring system and method to their predecessors’ treatment of colour and light, Seurat the foremost. 

Ultimately, however, the post-Impressionists failed in this goal, and modern art progressively rejected rationality and representation itself, during the course of the twentieth century. 

Seurat’s own quest to break down light into its constituent parts was achieved by engineers, not painters, with the invention of TV in the 1920s. 

But divisionism was the proper expression of the scientific approach to art. The inductive method separates and divides matter into its constituent parts. Seurat himself was only attempting more systematically the treatment of light and colour as pioneered by the Impressionists, whose works were intended to convey the psychological effect of a scene, instead of its literal features. 

La Chahut (The Uproar), Georges Seurat, 1890.

Near the end of the National Film Board documentary, there is a fantasy sequence in which Seurat is shown interacting with a young boy who, after transforming into an adult, is revealed to be Albert Einstein. 

An actor in voice-over recites (with a German accent) words apparently spoken by the relativity-theorist: “In reality all matter is nothing but condensed light.” Seurat is then quoted as saying, “perhaps pointillism was a way of painting atoms.” 

The scientific approach of the “notary” was confirmed by the amount of time he devoted to Sunday Afternoon and his other, later works, such as the Circus Parade (from 1887-88) or La Chahut (from 1889-90, translated into English as The Uproar, and depicting show-dancers and musicians onstage). 

Two of many sketches and studies for the Sunday Afternoon, Georges Seurat.

Whereas the Impressionists could complete a canvas in a few minutes or hours (though many Impressionist works took much longer to complete), Seurat worked intensively on Sunday Afternoon at the Isle du Grande Jatte for two years — not including the dozens of sketches and studies he took of the same scene and subjects beforehand. It is not only that placing minute strokes of paint on a canvas is in itself time-consuming. 

Seurat was attempting to get to the radicals of light, where the image has no resemblance to anything except itself. To break down any phenomenon (whether light or substance) to its digital essence, is to automatically slow down the perception of time, as it must be reconstituted in a step-by-step, serial fashion.