Thirty Second Approach to Het Steen, 1536: Phun and Frolics in the Country

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

Het Steen National Gallery, London, Friday Afternoon

You are at an event in the country, you have come to commune with nature, to be at one with the land and to listen to music. Around you are thousands of others doing the same. My own overriding memory from such ‘bucolic’ events is the smell. A combination of the preparation for what goes in one end of the body and the lack of preparation for what comes out the other, mixed with damp, dope and all those unwashed bodies. I have just come from a small exhibition in a London art gallery– A Bucolic Frolic – that attempts to recreate a mythic period and an approach to land and nature; early 1970’s Britain and the first free festivals. Aside from their wish to get away from oppressive and violent law enforcement, those festivals also looked back to earlier attempts to set up arcadias (Blake of course, or the Diggers post English Civil War etc.). Fighting for the spiritual freedom of the land is engrained within strands of British culture from Winstanley and the Diggers attempts to occupy St George’s Hill,  to John Clare to ‘Free the Stones’ (Stonehenge not Mick and Keith)

Tune in, Drop Out, Save the Poster and the Ticket Stub

I’m not sure the exhibition worked, it was neither ephemeral reportage, nor meaningful statement; it was too bland, corporate, and slick. It had none of the edge, anger and lyricism of Butterworth’s play, ‘Jerusalem’ that tackled a similar subject. The gallery didn’t smell either; the show had none of that intensity. It was branding, commodifying the past; reinforcing capitalism by heroising souvenirs of those who wanted to destroy it. Depressingly, that seems the fate of any recent period trying to stand outside economic and social structures; look at punk. Don’t throw away those flyers from grim gigs in your youth, they’ll be worth money soon.

Fun with Archetypes

The way in which we manipulate, and perhaps more tellingly, perceive standard tropes/ stock figures/ clichéd set-ups is a useful diagnostic tool. Each culture perceives ‘Nature’ in a characteristic manner, ‘Family’ in another and so on. Here are three descriptions of figures from my train journey this afternoon, each could be read in different ways. The way/s in which you think of them could illuminate how we perceive imagery about our period (contemporary or not, nostalgic or descriptive), the myths through which we negotiate our world.

  • Alongside the delayed train that waits sighing and clicking, are vivid purple buddleia flowers, coated with dust from the rubbish reclamation plant. Looking through them to a set of stacked containers that served as offices, I see at ground level, a man in bright orange overalls standing in a familiar pose with his back to the tracks. He finishes urinating against the lowest container, zips up his fluorescent boiler suit and climbs the ladder up to the top row office.
  • Later, during another stop, I watch an older man (grandfather?) in a new playground. Each activity is shiny and sits separate in its own circle of rubber matting. The man is turning a bright yellow roundabout peopled by large plastic figures, a child (grandchild?) watches from a distance.
  • On the train I can see a man in a strikingly pink polo shirt eating from a large bag of crisps. He has a brushed forward and dyed haircut that largely covers the face. A style popular with 1980’s pop bands, now current amongst public school boys (usually without the dye). I assume he is the latter until see his face, portly, lined and unshaven; perhaps the former then.

Het Steen

There is no obvious ‘Nature’ myth here really, no green man peering through the trees, Flora is not wafting about in a Laura Ashley nightie, nor are her majesty’s finest marching across the beanfield.

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

The often quoted references to Horace or Virgil are more in supposition, reference to the sources the classically trained Rubens would know, rather than any specific illustration. It is an idealised version of a contemporary landscape without English whimsy or outright reference to Flemish genre. You could make a case for the carter and companion, or perhaps the hunter, but Het Steen lacks the heavy handed references to bucolic peasantry and moral tales that characterises such imagery; Bruegel’s  ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ for instance.

Pieter Bruegel: ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, 1558. 73.5 x 112 cm. Oil on Canvas. Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

He’s Got This Dream About Buying Some Land…

There is, as I have established before, no outright moral purpose or didactic intent; the land just is. Unlike sharp young men in London galleries and ambitious academics seeing an opportunity, Rubens is not trying to make any overarching statements about alternate worlds, hoping for someone else’s radicalism to rub off on him. There are just rounded trees, golden light, no bountiful crops or cornucopia, merely lots of soothing greens and yellows suitable for a man ending his days.

Come to the Het Steen Free Festival, Phun for All

Mind you there is enough space here, across those flat fields to stage a serious Glastonbury Fayre. Like the first Pilton Festival on Worthy Farm in 1970, you could easily use the house as the headquarters, and free milk for all from the cows, of such things are myths and art shows made.

 

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