Twenty First Approach to Het Steen: 1636

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Landscape with St George and the Dragon', 1630, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection

On first sight, I thought that the two blasted oaks in the newly exhibited Rubens: ‘Landscape with St George’ at Tate Britain were closely related to the foreground clump in Het Steen. On sitting in front of the latter, I think probably not.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

From a generic stock of trees perhaps, but not the same. In Het Steen the trees are sturdy/ healthy, whereas, deliberately/ iconographically in the St George they are all peeling bark and thinness. That Flemish bent silver birch – with a bend to the right – seems surprisingly unconvincing today, particularly when compared to the carefully painted fruiting tree with the weeping tendency in the centre.

Stock Figures

Unlike St George and the Princess, these stock figures (the carter and passenger and the hunter) look suitably lumpen and graceless. Even more so in comparison to the apotheosis of St James 1st, in Rubens’ Banqueting House ceiling in Whitehall. Gestures and poses derived from Michelangelo and others would clearly have no place in such a personal landscape.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Apotheosis of James 1st'. The Banqueting Hall, Whitehall

Thinking further about stock figures: in Trafalgar Square in a parallel line to the front of the National Gallery, as I came in there was, counting from the left:

An amplified violinist playing either ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’ or possibly ‘Don’t Fence Me in’, not easy to tell

An entirely silver man

A Charlie Chaplin

A man dressed in Union Jacks held on by rubber bands and sellotape, his thematic purpose was unclear

An entirely gold man

A Shrek, or rather a fat man in ordinary clothes with a beer can in one hand wearing a green rubber Shrek mask

Two young men playing noodling jazz on a double bass and a saxophone, no tune was obvious here.

All the dressed figures stood on wheeled tool boxes. These metallic men seem to have their iconography relatively fixed: the all over spray; a non-descript hat; the plain slightly industrial clothing; often with mock rubber bare feet; always a very large nose. They seem to have no relation to, for example, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, what is their ultimate derivation I wonder? When I first saw them, many years ago in front of the Pompidou centre, these figures where completely static, living statues. Now, they make sweeping arms movements to beckon in children to stand next to them and be photographed. They have moved, as it were, from skills based activity to a form of celebrity; proximity rather than admiration is the current role of the viewer, although no one wants to stand next to the increasingly belligerent Shrek.

Het Steen

In front of the painting I keep coming back to a different version of that question: there must be more to our interest/ enjoyment in the painted representation of depth than admiration of skill, of a magic trick. It is always enjoyable to find a specific skill, but once you have seen it a few times the trick becomes less entrancing; not so here, painted depth always seems to excite. It must be more than just the daydreaming of an internal spectator, walking the illusory fields that holds the eye? More than the urban enjoyment of a lost rural scene? More than the joy of looking at something celebrated by others?

An animal or bird is always aware of what is above its horizon, that’s why dogs can react so strongly to hot air balloons, and a few dirigibles floating in this Flemish dawn would not look out of place. Something floating just on your skyline is threatening, think of small birds looking out for birds of prey. Do we delight in representations of a clear horizon because of some sort of atavistic pleasure: our way is clear, we dominate the land in the same way that we dominate the pictorial space?

“Daddy, can I do some drawing and draw the Mona Lisa?

When you get home you can

I don’t want to go home”

Or am I just overcomplicating something very simple? The reactions of my fellow viewers seem straightforward: the colours harmonise in a pleasant manner, the view looks nice and we like a view for the same reason we like the painting of a view: ‘it takes us out of ourselves’.

Two very young Spanish boys are running around the bench and choosing which section to jump on, chasing each other round a safe landscape I suppose; time to go.

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