Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London
The thirtieth time I have written about sitting in front of this painting for an hour or more. Sometimes there is a lot to say, sometimes I just sit and watch what happens behind the picture plane, and how we behave in front of it; this was one of those times.
A young couple have stood in front of Het Steen for a while. She is wearing those tiny shorts made from jeans, paired with big boots and a leather bag so large she could climb right into it. He has light tan trousers, a black jacket, a black and white spotted scarf tied like a cravat and bright blue shoes. He stands straight, she leans against him. They move their hands in front of the painting mimicking the different brushstrokes; he moves his forefinger rapidly up and down in front of the central island. She makes small curving motions around the curving treetops. They both trace the lines of the ditches and then point out the different objects on the cart, making circular movements around the brass milk container.
All the while, on the bench behind me a middle aged couple are fast asleep, their day bags on their laps, holding hands. Next to them, two young men, Spanish at a guess, are singing sotto voce: Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Dah; “appy ever aftah in ve market playce” etc.
In Modern Painters (Vol 1) Ruskin wrote about the embedded local characteristics of a painter:
“No man ever painted or ever will paint anything but what he has early and long seen, early and long felt and early and long loved”.
Is it the same for a viewer? Do we always and ever respond with pleasure to that which we have early loved? In landscape terms that is, in love itself I’m sure we all still believe that the first cut is the deepest.
Enter an elderly English couple in pale creams and khakis and yes, he is wearing sandals with thick, light coloured socks.
“Just got to have a sit down, don’t know why I’m so tired, must have been that rest after lunch”
“I expect so”
“Is this [Het Steen] by the same chap that did those two? [he points to the two flanking Judgements of Paris] “Looks a bit different, big women with nothing on there and people pulling stuff around in carts there”
“I’ll bet you’re wrong”
“You go and have a look then”
“I will” she does so and returns triumphant “Ha, that’s where you’re wrong, they’re all by the same one”
“Wouldn’t you like to know? You’ll have to get up to find out”
“Can’t, too tired”
“Do you know, looking at those fat women, I think I must have worn this very cardigan last time we came here”
All of these posts have built up to a belief that the composition of the pictorial space, to some extent, determines our physical behaviour this side of the picture plane. Works of art have always been designed to be viewed in certain places, under certain conditions, in certain prescribed rituals. How might this work for art about landscape? In a recent interview to mark a new exhibition, Richard Long the land artist and walker, talked about
“The mud of the Avon forming him. ‘I was born with my feet in that material. That is in my DNA, that mud”
A true art historian would immediately latch on to the iconography of clay; in Christian art the material from which God forms Adam. But, I think we should go deeper than iconography and, steering clear of pyschogeography for the time being, ask ourselves this question. When we respond to an art work whose very form echoes that which we “have early and long seen, early and long felt and early and long loved” as Ruskin wrote about Turner, or is in your DNA as Long puts it. Do we do something with our bones, our body language, our behaviour that corresponds to the range of ways in which a traveller can traverse that landscape? Would an American used to huge skies and wide horizons, behave differently in front of a wet green Dutch, or English landscape with restricted views and short distances; Would that American behave differently to a native of that represented form, if so, how?
Whilst thinking about how native Flemings might behave in front of Het Steen, a couple appear speaking Dutch; that unmistakeable sound of the clearing throat and the gathering mucus. The couple are short but substantial figures dressed in sludge colours. They stand next to each other at right angles to the painting and make odd movements in which they hardly lift their feet or hands but glide along beside the art. It takes me a long time to place where I have seen similar movements, then it comes back: on a bowling green. Surely not? Far too pat maybe? They glide off.