Art that creates interest, often does so by locating the viewer. Interesting art asks the question: ‘where are you?’ van Eyck’s ‘Arnofini Portrait’ for example where we are made to stand in the doorway as witness, Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ where you have to bend down to look into the tent, diminished and voyeuristic at the same time.
Or Mike Nelson’s installation ‘I, Impostor’, which turns you into an investigator as you try to work out what you are walking through.
Location of the viewer is most obvious, obviously, in landscape painting, pictorial space designed to take the viewing eye to the distant horizon. The triangulation on the far side of the picture plane is mirrored on the viewing side, we are located; the traditional one eyed viewing position etc.
I am sat once again in front of Rubens’ ‘Het Steen’ in the National Gallery, London, I have not been here for three years. I have just come from the Peter Lanyon gliding exhibition at the Courtauld. Rubens and Lanyon: two ends of representing landscape on a two dimensional surface.
Lanyon matters, he was essentially a figurative painter in that he clearly derived his mark making from external sources and specific personal experience; the paintings at the Courtauld are taken from gliding above the coast around St Ives, Cornwall in the South West of England.
But, it seems to me that Lanyon was one of the first, if not the first, figurative painter to reproduce the three dimensional movement of the artist (in his glider), the movement of air around and land beneath the artist, in such a way that the viewer is enfolded within that movement. Futurism presented a moving figure within the usual box like painted space,
Cubist forms might be opened up, turned around and stuck on the picture plane, but they are still manipulated for the eye/s of a studio bound painter inside a rectangular room. The celebrated flatness of High Modernism? I have always felt that one is supposed to kneel in front of a painting by Lanyon’s friend, Rothko and process parallel to the painted surface of a Pollock. There is no static viewing position in Lanyon’s Gliding paintings because this is not static pictorial space, it is fluid and boundaryless, there is no horizon arranged according to Golden Section and linear geometry. This is art that is genuinely moving in every sense; particularly given that Lanyon died in a gliding accident not long after the last of these paintings was made.
Our viewpoint in Het Steen is the traditional Dutch mid-air thing (discussed before) we are suspended like a god, or a king.
The scene is laid out for our pleasure; we own the view. My first sight of the painting after many adventures in lands that do without pictorial space (see markandmaryinuganda for more), reminds me of the oddity of the proportions of the constituents.
The large ducks under the miniature but detailed thorn tree for example, particularly when compared to the full sized tree of the grown out hedge lines that recede in reasonable depth. Other figures do not correspond either, the carter, his wife and horses are too small to match the hunter.
The house, oddly given that it is the central point of the painting, is too small for the traditional rules of pictorial space receding to a vanishing point on a distant horizon. This ‘staffage’ (art history term for unidentified figures in a painting) is used to make areas of focus, again a Dutch method of moving the eye around inside a painting. But, and here is the difference to Lanyon, such a technique assumes a stationary contemplative viewer not an active one moving through all three dimensions.
Sitting on the bench in front the Rubens I am also reminded of the behaviour of my fellow viewers. They march, never still always on to the next painting, nothing static about them either as they take selfies in front of Het Steen; their faces are areas of focus in front of flat decoration.
As I walked the Lanyon exhibition with a colleague from the old days of punk, discussing the role that pictorial space plays in the relationship between viewer and artist, we arrived at a wonderfully unconvincing metaphor. The artist wielded traditional pictorial space like a would-be rock god, standing high on the stage, hair streaming in the wind machine, huge guitar thrust towards the adoring audience dominating them all with his prowess and genius. Art like Lanyon’s, art that moves on either side of a notional or actual picture plane, that sort of art reminded us of a few folk musicians setting up in the bar, all could join in, experience and prowess were neither necessary nor a barrier, everyone would be part of the show. OK, maybe the image wasn’t so good or very accurate either, but you get the picture?