Our weekends are precious to us. Ideally, they’re a time to retreat from the stresses and strains of the work week: time to be with loved ones, relax, stroll through the park…just like the characters in Seurat’s famous work of Pointillism (a painting composed of tiny dots) A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) But how often do our weekends really open up as a space of rest and relaxation? These days, many of us have to go to work, do chores, and take the kids to soccer practice. We often end up resenting our weekends and the people and things that make demands of us over these two supposedly work-free days. To our dismay, our own minds conspire against us as well. Even when we do get a break, it’s almost impossible not to dwell on the week before, or to start planning for the week ahead. We even have a term for this: getting a ‘head start’ on the week.
Maybe our expectations for the weekend are too high. Is there any hope of enjoying our weekends without worrying about the past, present or future? I think Seurat offers a convincing answer to this question.
Suitably for a painting about a day designed for the regaining of perspective, ‘La Grande Jatte’ doesn’t make sense if you stand too close- all you see is a bunch of dots. Scoot back, though, and meaning quickly emerges.
And here we are, in a beautiful park on a sunny afternoon. It would be idyllic if the rather stiff, prim figures that populate it could relax a little. The man in the top hat on the left is surely contemplating whatever business he has lined up for Monday morning. The woman holding the fishing line – a prostitute according to most art history scholars – has one day off when she gets to do the catching. Like the man in front of her, she’s retreated into herself. In fact, almost everyone in the painting is ‘pulled in’- retracting their claws, steeling themselves for the busyness of tomorrow. Scholars have described them as robotic and isolated, but there’s something peaceful about the quietness of the scene, and the earnest navel-gazing everyone’s engaged in. That’s partly what the weekends are for, after all. The problem is, nearly all of them have a companion with whom they could be sharing their thoughts, ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, laughing, about the week’s trials and tribulations.
Yes, that’s it. This is a painting in which everyone is so serious and uptight that Seurat hasn’t even bothered giving some of them faces; no need to when everyone has the same face. The foreground figures are as stern and emotionally blank as bank managers or, as a teenager I know once put it, as if someone’s farted and no one dare acknowledge it. We want to shake these people by the shoulders and say, come on, lighten up a bit! Yes, tomorrow’s going to be back to the grindstone or the humdrum, but let’s live a little, shall we?
‘La Grande Jatte,’ is often said to be about the static nature of the French class system in the late 1800s; a dystopian vision of bourgeois ennui and alienation. In other words, a political painting. But I think it has more to offer than that. Although this park was frequented by the rich, parks are inherently democratic spaces. No one here appears poor, but it seems unlikely that everyone here is from the same zip code either. For every woman with a pet monkey, there’s another who appears to be mending a shirt or dress. For every business man in a starched suit, there’s a soldier with his shoulders back. So whatever Seurat is saying about our weekends (and I think he is saying something about our weekends) I don’t think he’s directing it towards one class of people.
Look closer and you’ll see there are a few exceptions to the ‘uptight bank manager’ look. A young couple hovering in the middle-ground just behind a central tree appears to be engrossed in one another. It seems they are cradling a baby, wrapped in a white bundle of blankets. In front of them, a young child in red skips happily along. A bandstand leader (I presume) plays his trumpet. Four boys in a boat work together, pulling their oars in perfect unison.
Here, Seurat is saying, is what our weekends should look like: reflection is all very well, but let other people in, and lighten up. Shift your perspective; back up a bit, the way you have to to see my painting. Be in the present, mindfully…get lost in the moment, and each other. Play and laugh like the little girl; lose yourself in the emotion of a first day out with your newborn; sing and make music and don’t worry what other folks think of you; be part of a team and drop the ego.
Our weekends are capable of causing us a great deal of anxiety. The next time you’re lucky enough to get a day out in the park on a Sunday afternoon, think of Seurat’s painting instead of the unanswered emails, the school-run, and the groceries to be bought and, just for a little while, shift your focus to the people that you’re with, the beauty of the park, the fineness of the weather.