Sat in front of Rubens’ Het Steen (as always when in London), having just come from the Frank Auerbach retrospective at tate Britain. Looking at the sky above Malines and the Cathedral of St Rombout (the tower on the horizon) in the Rubens landscape, I realise that Auerbach was also a careful placer of skies and horizon lines, aerial space in his compositions carries weight and importance. Who knew that the air above Mornington Crescent, an undistinguished part of north London, could have such presence?
Auerbach is all about the translation from drawn line to painted surface, from flat graphic notation to the thickest possible build-up of deeply textured surface. This works best on the smaller scale of portraiture, less so in the landscape
In the larger pictorial depth of his cityscapes, the relationship between determinedly flat drawn mark and three dimensional space is too close, the repeated zig zag of Auerbach’s notational system tends to flatten space.
Het Steen is a painted world first not a graphically derived one, but both artists use an illusionistic ground plane on which to build their constructions, both depend on a viewpoint suspended way above the usual eyeline of a standing figure. Tone in Rubens is carefully modulated with a tightly limited palette related to narrative, autumn in this case. Although there are seasonal and diurnal references in his titles and the play of contrast, Auerbach favours a range of pinks and greens; an early Modernist palette in fact.
Our route through Auerbach’s space tends to be organised by the planes of buildings, scaffolding and other big forms that follow roads and boundaries. In Het Steen, hedges, or rather grown out hedges lines marked by trees; field boundaries lead us to Malines. In England hedges have a political aspect, the Enclosure Act, but here the boundary marker, a hedge for example or dyke or ditch in the Low Countries, is such a useful device to delineate the ground plane, to act as an orthogonal or transversal, how would Western Landscape art have developed without them?