A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Last week my husband and I saw a production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George. The show is inspired by Georges Seurat’s 1886 painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago; its creators have imagine a series of interrelated back stories involving the artist and the subjects – human, animal, and inanimate – that inhabit Seurat’s work. What’s notable about the painting is Seurat’s technique of chromoluminarism (the use of color and light, commonly called “pointalism”). The entire painting is – dots! The artist uses colors in various combinations of small dots to create colors and shapes. Several colors blend to become another color not by mixing paint on the palette or canvas but by allowing the eye to do the work of combining them visually. I’m told that Sondheim and Lapine spent many hours in the Art Institute, studying and observing the painting. This is evident in both the musical score – lots of staccato whenever Georges is painting – and the lyrics. When the characters describe their afternoon “on an island in the river”, for example, they sing of “Sunday by the blue-purple-yellow-red water.”

At one point Georges invites a fellow artist to his studio to view the work in progress. Jules cannot distinguish the shapes and colors; he only sees the dots. Georges explains that he must step back, get into the proper light, and let his eyes form the people, animals, and landscape that inhabit and cover the canvas. Up close, one sees dots. Viewed from a distance, an entire, complicated scene emerges. Color and light. It’s all in the perspective: how one looks, how one sees. Writing in Broadway: The American Musical (Applause Books, 2004), Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon note that “[Seurat] put hundreds of thousands of dots on that canvas. And every one was a separate decision. Some people say there were five million individual decisions. And that’s what art is.” 

Five million individual decisions. Five million “dots”. Five million representations of reality that are only complete and comprehensible when viewed from the perspective of the whole, because none of them exists in isolation. Just like us, just like life. Which is why, from time to time, we all need to back away from the confines of our own limited vantage points and look at the whole. Step back, and view the entire canvas. Move into the light, and let the colors emerge.


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