Eighth Approach to Het Steen. December 2010

So, I’m a successful diplomat and painter, I’ve bought my big house. I’ve settled down in the country. I must have my own art on the walls obviously, presumably along with the greats and the huge collection of drawings and copies I have acquired along the way. So, I make a painting of Autumn, a suitable if rather gloomy subject for my declining years. I show my house in the middle distance, large, grand like me, with many rooms lit up. In front of my grand house, tearing away in a cart I show a peasant like couple, who certainly don’t look very clean, with a large silver vessel and a recently dead deer. And, plum centre I show an upturned tree. Next to it, on the left, is a rotting log sheltering a slightly comic hunter and dog.
Rubens’ diplomatic paintings are steeped in layers of iconographic depth. So, iconographically, what is he getting at here? As I think we have established by now, this view is partly constructed, so why a prominent upturned tree? Going back to my roots (yeah). Is the upturned tree the equivalent of the horses backside that artists often included to show their versatility? Rembrandt drew and etched tree trunks, as did Durer, cycles of life? Genre scenes, Obviously these are stock images to be stored up for use in larger landscapes, but,as ‘I have made it’ artists satements go, this seems ambiguous to say the least. It’s not Hockney with his gold suit and bag going up to get the prize is it? Neither is it Durer’s self portrait of 1500.
If the ditches and the banks that appear to surround the house act as waves, and they have that sense. Are they rolling towards us, breaking on the dead tree? Or are they ripples spreading out from within the stand? One answer might come from a careful look at the house. If you look to the right of the large watchtower, through and behind the trees is a brick coloured smudge that easily be another building range and another tower. Peter Paul showing off even more. Or, it might be where he has re-sited the tower to a more prominent position and painted out the original and that overpainting is now fading away. But, the more I look at it, it seems to be further, deliberate, paintings of buildings. Again we come back to who this painting is for. Given that no painting is ever private and that Rubens is the most public of painters why is this house not on a central axis, close to the picture plane? Why is he hiding away what paint has brought him. John le Carre would no doubt say that this is the self effacement of the professional spy, really?
By the way I’m now with my new varifocal classes, I can see the painting and the notebook almost at the same time, once I’ve got use to these huge things on my nose, I hope. It is the greater focus that lets me see the second range of buildings, How are these paintings seen, by candle light? Would such details have been visible, would only Rubens have known they were there?


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