Railing Against It: Art about Waiting

On the Platform

An empty station, Friday afternoon. I am on the platform alone. A man walks purposefully down the long empty space, it is hot, the sun very bright. He stops less than one pace in front of me. He is middle aged and red faced with a shiny suitcase on wheels, resting over the handle is a vividly crimson, highly decorated Chinese silk suit. He does not acknowledge me, although I could probably breathe down his neck if I wanted to, I do not, so I don’t.

Art about Waiting

Paintings are busy spaces, and the people depicted are busier still. They are always doing something, about to do something, having something done to them.

Conversely, travelling on public transport is all about waiting, long periods not going anywhere, not having anything done to you etc. There are few works of art that fit this state.

A Large Ferry

There is a painting in the National Gallery, London that shows stasis: Jan van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665.

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

It is calm, still, waiting for the tide, or a wind; the ferry by the way is the boat in front, lying diagonally. Apart from the gentle tonality, I have always been fascinated by van der Capelle’s treatment of the ground plane.

“This is the guard speaking with a message for the customer who just got on with a large plain (plane?) cross; you left half of it behind on the platform. I’ve got it here with me now. I’m in the fourth carriage from the front waiting for you”

Albertian Space

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

Traditionally in Albertian space, the ground plane, the Renaissance pavement, is an opaque, unyielding surface, where figures can stand, buildings can be constructed with no fear of falling through that solid ground. Even in marine paintings, the sea is usually fairly solid and boats sit/ float on top of it like a ruffled carpet on a hard floor. The power of a painted storm is the obvious departure from the comforting horizontal format.

For Albertian space to be convincing, we must feel we can traverse it, usually on foot. In this van der Capelle image the ‘pavement’, the skin of the world is the thickness and transparency of a soap bubble; we would fall through. But fall through to where? The reflected world is equally real, as though, in fact, it is us that is upside down and the reflection is reality. The boundaries between one world and the next are confused. In a very calm world there is unease. To some extent this is the familiar artist game with mirrors, playing with spaces within pictorial spaces (think of The Arnolfini portrait, or Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres). These mirror reflections are in planes parallel to the picture plane, parallel to us looking at them. The game relates to the role of pictorial space in the first place; the function of illusion. Can we say the same with a horizontal plane?

Outside the British Car Auctions, in front of an enormous queue of waiting cars, two young men are playing football with a very white ping pong ball.

The Reflective Ground Plane

To get closer to what is happening in ‘Large Ferry’ try comparing it with another familiar image of reflections in calm water, Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’,

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', 1648. oil on canvas. 118 x 198 cm. National Gallery, London

look at the lake in the mid ground, the reflections of the buildings do not, surprisingly perhaps, destroy the flatness of the surface, the watery ground plane still happily continues on its journey to the infinite horizon. Or, any of Turner’s reflections in calm waters:

J M W Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up', 1839. oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London

‘The Fighting Temeraire’, or

J M W Turner: 'Norham Castle Sunrise', 1845. oil on canvas, 90 x 121 cm. Tate Britain.

‘Norham Castle Sunrise’, you could traverse these flat, reflective ground planes without once thinking of falling through. Their function is to create space, to reflect the sky, to promote the narrative; but they are always an unyielding surface. Depth in these paintings goes horizontally, into the space not, as it were, down through it, as we can see in ‘Large Ferry’. Down into another world? Where does that other world lead to, do they do things differently there? This is the familiar trope from children’s fiction: the land behind the wardrobe; the rabbit hole; the looking glass. As Auden wrote in ‘As I walked out one evening’

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead’

 

The Viewing Experience

Maybe this sense of unease is why this room of unassuming Dutch landscape paintings is always empty. Or, it might reflect my thesis that our behaviour this side of the picture plane is, to some extent, governed by the organisation of the space on the far side of the picture plane. This painting is hung in one of the quietest and calmest areas of the National Gallery, I have rarely seen anyone in this room, the few viewers rarely stay for more than a minute or two. Numberless hordes pass nearby, yet, like this painting, all in Room Twenty Two is still: waiting.

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