Copying art can be a good thing


Bridget Riley is one of the most renowned British painters of the 20th century. Riley’s artistic trajectory began when she copied a painting by Seurat (see image on right). She was intrigued by Seurat’s idea of using a “system” to depict perceptual sensations. He invented what is now referred to as “Pointilism”, to portray the ephemeral components of nature, such as the way light and colour reflect on a surface. Riley’s painting is not an exact copy of Seurat’s, but rather an analysis of his structure and form. A recent exhibition at the Courtauld Institute of Art focuses on the relationship between her work and Seurat’s: Learning from Seurat. As you can see  by the black and white image (below right), eventually Riley translated Seurat’s dots or dabs of colors, into something more definitive and structured: triangles.

The look of Seurat’s paintings and his process, are obviously significantly different from Riley’s, but you can see traces of similar paths of investigation. They are both concerned with the idea of perception and how the artist gives the viewer a role that requires some visual effort to discern what is happening on the surface. Things are not quite as they appear. Seurat’s dots merge together to create new colours; Riley’s work makes you question what you are looking at terms of a flat, yet very kinetic and vibrating surface. The visual system Riley used in the triangle painting on the left is that every triangle is the same on two sides, but in some of the triangles she has introduced a curve on the third side. This simple aberration in structure creates a sensation of undulating movement throughout the surface. While seeming like pure abstraction, many of Riley’s paintings are an attempt to capture experiences one has with light and movement in the natural world.

Listening to Adrian Searle discuss on of Riley’s circle wall drawings, one could almost imagine he is discussing a piece by Seurat. Seurat was not the only artist that inspired Riley. Here, Andrew Graham-Dixondiscusses Riley’s relationship to artists of the past in an exhibition at the National Gallery. And here, Riley talks with Waldemar Januszczak about one of her favourite Seurat paintings at The National Gallery.

Riley in a recent lecture gives a generous overview of her art career starting from figurative drawings to her more recent work: Bridget Riley, Tate Modern. An older documentary  focusses on the new ideas that Riley brought to the art world in the 1960s, such as the depiction of the energy of light and colour and how to use paint to translate these real world sensations. The tone of this documentary is somewhat melodramatic, as revealed by this excerpt: “You can’t force colour into a pattern, it doesn’t have its own identity of shape or form or outline. Colour does not have direction. It obliterates structure, eats it up, destroys it, because its energy spreads, radiates, hovers, like a presence in space.” It is definitely worth making your way through this documentary which has been divided into three parts on YouTube.

Like many contemporary artists who are making new discoveries, Riley’s work is deeply indebted to art history and her experience with getting to know one artist really well (Seurat). Her understanding of Seurat was deepened by the fact she took the time to really study the work by copying. Knowing Riley’s relationship to Seurat gives a new light on her coloured striped paintings and one sees them as a further abstracting of the ideas that Seurat began over 100 years ago.

Wendy Welch


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