Twenty Fourth Approach to Het Steen: 1636. Structures

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

Late night Friday opening at the National Gallery, on the bench in front of Het Steen.

The way pictorial space is organised, the route through the painting that the viewer walks, conceptually as it were, creates our reaction as much as the iconography and the figures. The rectangular surface of this painting appears (almost) to divide into two equal squares.

 The dimensions are 131.2 x 229.2 cm, so in fact each ‘square’ is 131.2 x 114.6. Nonetheless, there is a possible vertical axis, at the central join of the two squares. It goes up between the lines of the silver birch trunks and bisects the two birds, just touches the right hand branches of the of the silver birch on the raised circular area. Each ‘square could be a complete painting in itself, one contains pure landscape, the other contains the house etc.

It seems to be Spanish visitor night in the Gallery, lots of leather handbags and jackets, large family groups with large shopping bags labeled with large names of west ends shops. The Spanish woman behind me has, at last, finished her phone call. Mostly it consisted of ‘Si, Si, Si’ in a manner reminiscent of Sybil Falwty’s ‘Oh I know, I know, I know’

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

A horizontal line of light and shade runs across the painting, approximately half way up; although none of these putative lines are exact. This doesn’t just apply to the surface, but divides the structure of the space into quarters

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

A contains all the figures

B contains the house

C contains the sky and mid and background

D contains foreground  and the milkmaid with cows and the oversized ducks.

Not much else is organised around these axes. You might for example expect the tower on the horizon, (the Cathedral of St Rombout in Malines) to mark the point where the vertical axis touches the horizon.

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

Or that the tower would be balanced by something on the left, equidistant to the vertical axis; but it isn’t. You could say that the vague branch of the of the silver birch dropping down at about 45 degrees, just touching the horizon, is that balance but I don’t think so, do you? You could say that the orthogonal made by the right hand ditch, just below the milkmaid and cows, will join the horizon where it is bisected by the possible vertical axis.

 As, by the way, does the almost exactly symmetrical orthogonal line made by the front of the house. This again starts from the upright side of the canvas at the same point as it’s symmetrical twin. It cuts the horizon at the same point, where the vertical axis and the orthogonals meet; just about.

A young Spanish couple next to me on the bench are trying to organise English terms,

‘With you…With me…You say I go with you…You come with me…We go on this tour”.

There is much hesitant repetition. Each time they get a phrase right, they kiss. An improvement on my own French language education with Monsieur Hervé. If we declined wrongly he would hit us, rhythmically in time with the right stresses as he repeated the correct form. I can still spell ‘old’ in French as a result, and it still hurts.

In ‘The Science of Art’, Martin Kemp points out that Rubens knew his perspective systems well, although he didn’t use them in an obvious manner. With a bit of effort you could say that underneath this bucolic autumnal dishevelment are some careful pictorial structures.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak.131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail Orthogonals 2

Even more debatable, look at the equilateral triangle made by the fallen trunk, you could say that the dominant lines are parallel with the orthogonals of the ditch and house. Above, as you travel up the vertical axis, is another meeting of orthogonals made from the lower of the ditches and a line formed by the angles of the horses hooves and cart wheels. I.e. a herringbone pictorial construction, that system of depth projection that preceded linear perspective. But in this case, unlike for example the Veronese I was looking at in an earlier post, I think this interpretation would be over-reading the visual evidence.

We can say is that the underlying structure creates a calmness and a logic to the pictorial space, which could otherwise be over-ridden by the figures in the bottom left quarter.

At this point a Spanish couple stand in front of the painting, one behind the other and both exactly on the vertical axis. He is very tall, his face very close to the picture surface. The top of his bright, bald spot, haloed by dark hair just touches the horizon. She is much shorter, her head directly below his, so that where his thinning hair stops hers starts. She is wearing a large brown leather coat that obscures their bodies and she is perfectly positioned so that his legs are obscured also. All I can see is the back of two heads in exact vertical alignment. His head is shining like an extra sun, placed where a less successful painter than Rubens might have positioned a painted version, centre stage.

By now all the other Spaniards seem to have gone, to shops and bars and restaurants. Behind me, a couple have been having a quiet and intense discussion for some time. Something about it is increasingly unnerving, and I can’t work out why. Then I recognise the language, they are speaking in Danish. After two series of  The Killing, I associate that sound, those characteristic stresses and language forms with fear, anxiety and rain. All the suns in the painted world in front of me cannot dissolve that association; time to go.

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