Twenty Third Approach to Het Steen: 1636

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

It is half term; the National Gallery is full of enthusiastic parents with reluctant children, occasionally vice versa. I have just come from the Courtauld Gallery, partly to see the Ben Nicholson/ Piet Mondrian exhibition, also to visit old favourites: Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres’; Rubens ‘Deposition’ etc.

In front of Rubens landscape: Het Steen, it occurs to me that you could make a strong case to say that Mondrian, even late Mondrian, is also about landscape, certainly about ‘Nature’. As Mondrian wrote:

“It took me a long time to discover that particularities of form and natural colour evoke subjective states of feeling which obscure pure reality. The appearance of natural forms changes, but reality remains. To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to constant elements of form, and natural colour to primary colour. The aim is not to create other particular forms and colours, with all their limitations, but to work toward abolishing them in the interest of a larger unity.”

Much of De Stijl’s philosophy came from splendidly esoteric stuff, like this from Dr. Schoenmaeker:

‘The two fundamental, complete contraries which shape our earth and all that is of the earth, are: the horizontal line of power, that is the course of the earth around the sun and the vertical, profoundly spatial movement of rays that originates in the centre of the sun.’

(‘Principles of Plastic Mathematics’, 1916)

Or from Theosophy, another search for deeper realities largely inspired by the engagingly dubious Madame Blavatsky. Before discovering the lucrative forces of the mind, she is supposed to have been a trick rider in a circus, a piano teacher, and manager of an artificial flower factory. An exposed ex-Spiritualist, apparently descended from Russian nobility, she mixed Western and Eastern mysticism by claiming direct contact with the Goddess Isis. Her writings and teachings were hugely successful and influential, although largely plagiarised. Mondrian later played down the importance of such fakery, but at the time it provided a philosophical underpinning to early De Stijl.

Moving from Cezanne’s ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ of 1887,

Paul Cezanne: 'Monte Sainte Victoire', 1887

to Mondrian’s pre-American abstractions, e.g. ‘Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

Piet Mondrian: 'Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

and then back to my bench in front of a Flemish autumn landscape, it seems logical to ask if there any obvious similarities, apart from the fundamental theme: man and nature. I would suggest that that ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ is closer to Mondrian, or the other way round, than it is to Het Steen. The clue to that closeness, to developing Modernism as a whole I suppose, is in their relationship to the picture plane.

Rubens, like all artists before…before when? Manet and the theatrical flatness of ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’, or more likely, Cezanne’s posthumous retrospective at the Salon d’Automne, Paris in 1907. This was where artists like Picasso and Braque picked up the threads that would lead to a pictorial form (Cubism) that was entirely about relationship to the picture plane.

Incidentally, after seeing the ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ show at Tate Britain, one would have to agree with Wyndham Lewis that Picasso was entirely studio bound. I still think Lewis was little more than an illustrator, a maker of posters to illustrate the importance of Wyndham Lewis in fact, but in that observation he points his finger exactly at Picasso’s limits.

“So, what are we meant to be looking at Mum?”

I think, we need to think about what we want to see next. Right, are we ready? Shall we move on?”

Back to Cezanne and Rubens. Both paintings involve receding planes, framing trees, natural forms at specific angles under light. The earlier artist as you might expect, apparently ignores the picture plane; like all those brought up on the mathematical construction of pictorial space.

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

This world is designed to physically position the viewer, the agency (as it were) happens on both side of the vertical non existency. Whereas Cezanne’s pictorial space is composed of horizontals and verticals that work in exact parallels with the picture plane. That parallel format means that nothing is projected beyond it, the space stops dead at the plane. We can view it from any position, but that is all we are doing: viewing.

“The new vision… …does not proceed from a fixed point. Its viewpoint is everywhere, and not limited to any one position. Nor is it bound by space or time”

Piet Mondrian.

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

In Het Steen, the verticals (the trees, the house) and horizontals (lines of the ditches, shadows) operate in relation to the space and the presumed viewer enclosed within that space. They curve according to the depicted topography, the painted world, it seems, precedes our viewing of it. Whereas in ‘Monte Sainte Victoire’ the artist is imposing a method of viewing upon the subject, and that method becomes the subject.

Paul Cezanne: 'Monte Sainte Victoire', 1887. 67 x 92 cm, oil on canvas. Detail

Look at Cezanne’s famous ‘passage’, the repeated, parallel, hatched brushstrokes, strokes that refer us to process, to flatness, to the art work. In Het Steen, brushstrokes (where they are visible) are mimetic, they curve around forms; the curve varying according to what is seen, not how it is seen. Rubens does use parallel brushstrokes, for example blue transparent lines in the willows in the mid-ground, but then, that is how willows grow. Look at the sky above the mountain, Cezanne’s ‘passage’ tells us about the visual tension between two painted horizons/ edges (of the tree and the mountain) and their relationship to the top and sides of the painted canvas. We might also think that this relates to climactic conditions, heat haze for example, but after carefully looking I would suggest structure of the painting comes first.

“O que bello!

“Mamma, Andiamo?”

“Bello”

“Mamma, Andiamo!”

“Uno, Duo, Tre, Hup”

Rubens methods are of course, equally stylised, the intention of his stylisation is to make an apparently neutral world, a world in which each painted space operates to rules we can easily understand. Whereas Cezanne is measuring the distance from each part of the view to…? I used to think it was from each part of the view to the artist’s eye, but after a while in front of this particular Monte Sainte Victoire, I rather think it is from the view to the picture plane.

Next to me, a young Asian boy of impressive width is playing a game on his phone. The game appears to involve building towers, or perhaps cranes. He builds them in a series of different settings, buildings grow as he taps the screen, swiping from right to left with his little finger. Every now and then he does something to collapse the whole scene and start a new one. Sometimes it is at sea, sometimes on land, sometimes mountains.

He changes to a cyclist pouring down narrow bridges across torrential rivers and mountain chasms. The bridges run directly into the picture plane exactly in the centre of the phone screen. The bridges have breaks in them and with his little finger he must make the cyclist jump, or plunge into the abyss. It is all very exciting and he has not looked up once.

I look upward and notice that we are surrounded by small beings with names like Giles and Charlotte and Harriet. Giles is, oddly, given that is about 1 degree outside and drizzling, wearing a light straw hat, large bushes of blond hair push out beneath it, enough I think rather grumpily to spare for those of us of a slightly older vintage; time to go.

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