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Dogs in Art

In common with the theme of this post, the form of this writing follows a meandering path. I have just returned from walking in the Scottish Highlands. The walk is a familiar theme in contemporary art[i], Long and Fulton are probably where one usually begins,

Richard Long: 'A Line Made by Walking', 1967

Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ is the most straightforward and refers us, perhaps, backwards to the rural walk. For the urban walk there is the ‘dérive’ starting, arguably, with Guy Debord, looking backwards to the ‘flaneur’.

Edouard Manet: 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens', 1862. Oil on Canvas. 76 x 118 cm. National Gallery, London

(Manet’s self-portrait in the left corner of ‘Music in the Tuileries Gardens’, his monocle referring to Baudelaire’s original description of the term flaneur, Baudelaire is also amongst the painted throng), and forward, via Ron Herron’s ‘Walking City’ maybe, to pyscho-geography and Ian Sinclair[ii].

The Romantic Experience

I practise both, but standing on the top of Beinn Resipol,

 the Romantic associations were uppermost, the line which runs from Keats: ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, 1816

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

The Wanderer (I roam around, around, around)

Or Caspar David Friedrich’s painting from a year or so later: ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’, 1817 [iii].

Caspar David Friedrich: 'Wanderer Above the Sea Fog', oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm, Kunstahalle, Hamburg.

Look at the ‘Wanderer’ carefully; the spatial construction makes the figure static and solid. It is directly on the central vertical axis

Caspar David Friedrich: 'Wanderer Above the Sea Fog', oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm, Kunstahalle, Hamburg. Detail 1

and the waist on the horizontal,

 the crag and head form a strong pyramidal structure.

Caspar David Friedrich: 'Wanderer Above the Sea Fog', oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm, Kunstahalle, Hamburg. Detail 3

This pictorial strength, as it were, makes the wanderer a form of god in the way that he dominates the rest of the space, his Romantic imagination, and by extension, our own, creates the view. ‘The Wanderer’ is one of the first paintings in which we look with the figure from inside the painting, not at a painted figure looking at it. Friedrich takes the notion of the internal spectator and makes it the central focus of the painting, and makes that act of internal viewing the paradigm for all acts of viewing this side of the picture plane.

A Literary Device?

Powerful stuff, but to be honest it is a device and a literary one at that. We can see the apotheosis of experience on a mountain top. We can understand the analogous nature of viewer and internal viewers experience. But, there is very little particularity about what we are actually experiencing; it is a generic scene. It has none of the genuine nature of what it was really like to walk up there and stand above the clouds; cold and wet in my own experience.

‘Wanderlust’

As Rebecca Solnitt points out in ‘Wanderlust’, to walk is to be embodied. But is the figure in the Wanderer embodied, in the sense that it is corporeal and fully sensate? I think the precision of the co-ordinates that place it in pictorial space, militate against that reading. This is an intellectual body, a minds eye body, not someone who has toiled up through bog and slippery footholds, out of breath with the wind in their face, wondering which path to take. Can art ever present the embodied walker?

A better work on this theme was John Cale’s ‘Dreaming in Vertigo’ section of ‘Dark Days’,

John Cale in front of 'Dreaming in Vertigo'

shown at the Welsh Pavilion of the Venice Bienalle in 2009. If memory serves, he strapped a video camera to his chest and walked up endless steps on a Welsh hill. The soundtrack is of heavy panting as he struggles up a steep slope, the view is of a man working hard to keep walking.

Our Forbidden Land

The book of photographs by Fay Godwin: ‘Our Forbidden Land’, describes the real experience of a walk. The journey as a political tool is extended by showing the journey denied.

Fay Godwin: 'Meall Mor Glencoe', from 'Our Forbidden Land'.

Our Forbidden Land’ is a series of polemical photographs taken around Britain, Godwin’s photographs of natural beauty show how ordinary walkers are denied access to that beauty. Over 87% of this country is privately owned, and another 13% is made up of roads and railways etc. A walker has only a one in three chance of being able to complete a 2 mile country walk along public rights of way. Her photograph of Glencoe in Scotland shows a dark tarmac road leading to the white mountains, the road is almost central, the diminishing single viewpoint perspective almost perfect, the snow on the mountains white and exciting, the sky clear, beauty in the wild. But the pressure of tourism in the area, the demand for new roads and the amount of rubbish thrown from passing cars speeding through Glencoe is horrible; this will destroy that beauty within the next few years.

So then, most images about walking tend to be making some other point, Christ striding about with a cross, fresh from the tomb off to have a few words with dad (‘Noli Me Tangere’). ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’, the artist as The Wandering Jew, as the true seer of society. The group of walkers (the Bacchante) that meet the single walker (Ariadne) as she tries to call her lover Theseus as he sails away.

‘The Morning Walk’

Gainsborough’s ‘The Morning Walk’ might sum all this up.

Thomas Gainsborough: 'The Morning Walk', 1862, oil on canvas, 76 x 118 cm, National Gallery, London

Like ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’, it’s about ownership, walking the bounds of your property in your best shoes. Like the painting technique, this is a far more subtle painting than it’s predecessor, and infinitely grander. Compare the two dogs to get the sense of this change. The elegant white dog (a Spitz) versus the working gun dog; the dogs tell us who owns whom and what.

Dogs in Art

By the way, thinking of dogs in art have a look at ‘The Pont de l’Europe’ by Caillebotte,

Gustave Caillebotte: 'Le Pont de l'Europe', 1876, 125 x 181 cm, Petit Palais, Geneva.

the elegant hands behind the back, the swaying self-importance of the strolling flaneur. Notice the bustling dog though, which I have always thought stands as the internal urban viewer in this Realist/ Impressionist work.

The ownership theme is the same in both Gainsborough works, although the visual relationship between the white dog and the white dressed Mrs Hallet, makes her marital relationship to Mr H none too subtle.

The brushstrokes are the key to ‘The Morning Walk’; light, feathery, and gentle. The clothing was fashionable, not clothes worn for getting muddy on a long hike through real countryside. The delicacy of the paint matches the lightness of the walk through the grounds, they are on a well made path, the title is ‘The Morning Walk’, i.e. before the real business of the day. From the branches at the top left the eye is drawn to the pale background, then to the dog and back to the figures, the silks of the Mrs Hallet in particular. These light brushstrokes, made with a six foot brush, create serpentine movement, i.e. the type of movement expected for a gentle walk in one’s grounds, definitely not the earthy energetic rush of the hunter in Het Steen.

The view up to Beinn Resipol, Ardnamurchan, West Scotland.

Our return from Beinn Resipol was neither gentle, nor light, it was definitely earthbound and very soggy; like all proper walks,


[i]  I recommend this website on the theme as well: ‘Walking and Art a blog about the uses of walking in art

 

[ii] Might I mention here the existence of ‘The Suburban Hiking Association’ formed first in Leeds in the late 1970’s and then resuscitated with Adam Curtis and Mary Harron in Brixton in the middle Eighties. Us Suburban Hikers met in the centre of town and then travelled to the ends of tube lines to collect stories and characteristic objects to display to each other at the subsequent party.

 

[iii]I have fond memories of this painting, it was the cover of the second Mekons Album (from 1980 I think, memories of that period are a little vague).

The Cover of The Second Mekons Album

Originally there was to be a speech bubble coming up from the fog below with “It’s De Mekonns Bas” written in it. We thought this would sum up the ironic contradictions between attacking Capitalism, yet using it’s mechanisms to create profit. Virgin Records, and then Rough Trade, hated the content, we really were outside the system now. Somewhere along the line the name changed to cultish references to pop fiction.

 

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

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

Sitting in front of this painting, can we recognise a sense of freedom, a release from working to commission? This is, or so we are told in critiques of late Rubens’ landscapes, a painting made entirely for pleasure. It is certainly not one of Rubens’ machines, no muscular quantities of flesh and evident classical narrative.

“Man, why’s there so many dogs in all these paintings?”

“I don’t know, maybe the Brits liked dogs”

“Look there’s one with that man with the gun”

“And see in that one over there, the one with all the fat women, the dog under the tree, and there’s an ostrich!”

“Man, that’s not an ostrich”

“What’s it then?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not an ostrich”

“Maybe that dog will eat it”

“Maybe, then we won’t have to know what it’s called”

The panel is made from many odd sections (twenty apparently), some of the horizontal joins are increasingly obvious. Earlier explanations believed this unorthodoxy showed Rubens adding new parts to the painting as ideas occurred; a genuine development not an allotted task. Recent research (e.g. Christopher Brown: ‘Making and Meaning/ Rubens’ Landscapes’. National Gallery Publications. 1996)  thinks this unlikely. It would be difficult if not impossible to add, prime and work in sections of oil painting, the already worked paint would be disturbed at the very least. Adding sections of panel is not like, for example, Degas sticking on extra bits of paper to his drawings as he expanded an idea.

Edgar Degas: 'Woman Drying Herself', 1880's. pastel on several pieces of paper. 104 x 98 cm. National Gallery, London

The reason for all the small sections then? Rubens was paying for it himself, the artist went for the cheapest option, something knocked up from oddments in the panel makers shop: lots of bits.

But, to be honest, after looking for so long at this large painting in such a public place, I still think it is a public painting, made for this sort of reception. You could say that the strong brown washes (the Burnt Sienna like colour, probably Cassel Earth) over white lead underpaint in the foreground have the effect of lighting the trunk and fallen branches from underneath; like footlights on a stage.

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

I’m sure this has more to do with paint ageing, than a deliberate attempt to reinforce the artificiality of the painted world, far too Post-Modernist. Nonetheless, the fact that one could hold such a notion about the work, emphasises that it was an image made for public consumption.

Was there any other type in this period?  Van der Capelle (looked at in the last post), is often described as a ‘Sunday Painter’ in that, as a wealthy man (the family firm made money in the dye trade: carmine) he did not need to sell his work. Unlike for example Rubens, and like for example, Cezanne supported by his father’s money.

The Ground Plane

Van der Capelle’s paintings look very similar, but I hope my digressions on the ground plane recently showed that something else going on, some wish to follow a line of enquiry. There is none of that same sense of personal investigation about Het Steen, personal display perhaps but not personal discovery. Rubens is not finding anything that he had not known before, unlike Cezanne or possibly van der Capelle.

Look at the ground plane in Het Steen, unlike the van Der Capelle,

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.

Rubens ground plane is entirely and deliberately solid, and for a reason. This is land that Rubens would like to us to believe generations of Rubens have traversed; there is certainly an ancient hill fort aspect to our viewpoint. It is also land, Rubens would like us to believe, generations of Rubens will traverse after him; in fact it was sold not long after his death.

“Eurgh, my feet hurt”

“We should really report in”

“What time is the meet?”

“Now”

“Moving on then?”

Timelessness and Pictorial Space

Another question: How does an artist go about creating this sense of timelessness in a scene which, through the contemporary dress of the carter and companion and hunter, is clearly set in 1636?

Answer: the deep pictorial space and elevated viewing point help a great deal. Think of a different painting, Rubens: ‘Samson and Delilah’, which you can just see from the bench in front of Het Steen.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Samson and Delilah', about 1609, Oil on Oak, 185 x 205 cm. National Gallery, London

It is made by the way, from six very carefully jointed and prepared oak panels, with the grain running perfectly parallel in all of them. Although Samson is a timeless story and the some of the clothes are vaguely timeless, the animal skin notwithstanding, it is set in a claustrophobic now. The long past and future are suitably indicated, but not really part of the show. The contemporary armour helps, but that ‘nowness’ is set, because there are no depths for the eye to travel to, therefore no indicated depths of time for us to wander about in.

The action in Het Steen is in the immediate fore and near mid-ground, the rest of the view though, is equally clearly painted, and clear for us to potter across. It is not though,  the mere scene setting landscape you can see on the flanking Judgements of Paris.

A young man pushes an older man (father?) in a rather splendid wheelchair (all wicker back and cane edged wheels) to position him centrally in front of the painting.

“A view of Het-Stern, whatever a hetstern is”

The older man points with his stick at the horizontal crack running between cart wheel and trunk. They wonder between them what could have caused this. The younger man points out the hunter, the older points to the fallen tree and says:

“I suppose it looked like those once” waving at the oak and birches in the mid ground.

“I suppose so”

The younger man wheels the chair away, he has Rebel Rock Radio embroidered on the back of his shirt, and big head phones around his neck.

This morning I saw some drawings by Robert Bevan (The Camden Town artist better known for his small painting of horses and horse markets) made during time spent in Pont-Aven.

Robert Bevan: 'Poplars by the Road, Brittany',early 1890's, charcoal on paper, 33 x 40 cm.

Heavily influenced by Gauguin, these drawings of trees had enormous energy and strength, not dissimilar now I come to look at them, to the lively forms of the trees the old man has been indicating with his stick. The different areas of sunlight and the curving masses of the painted leaves are full of movement and, well, youth really.

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

On the other side of the bench, a young man is drawing in his sketchbook, not the usual insipid copying, but strong lines of figures, thick and black and energetic. So different for example to the art student I saw recently, laboriously copying the biro lines made by Boetti’s assistants, and getting them wrong.

Alighiero Boetti: 'Al Mondo Il Mondo', 1972-3. Biro on Paper, 159 x 164 cm. Archivio Alighiero Boetti.

In the Boetti, the biro lines are entirely vertical, in hers they were both horizontal and vertical. Boetti’s ‘Mettare Al Mondo Il Mondo’ series are strong, thought provoking images, a record of the labour involved in making art, hers were not.

The young man behind me continues to draw, I realise that he is drawing people as they walk past, reflecting their vigour in this room (Room 29) of vigorous painted figures. The focus of his drawing is moving round the bench and will get to me soon; time to go.

Jan van Eyck: 'The Arnolfini Portrait', 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

I’m stood in front of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London, wondering why viewers queue so quietly to look at this image, and make such small gestures with their fingers, rather than run, talk loudly and wave as they do in front of others.

We, the viewers, seem to be caught in the doorway, or so the mirror tells us, although the composition might lead one to think that we are slightly closer to the couple. Are we, the internal spectators in our reflected complementaries, are we actually participating? Is there anything about the behaviour of the Arnolfini’s that makes any connection with us, apparently there in the room with them? They seem completely self-sufficient. We are anonymous witnesses, of the right social standing perhaps, but not active participants. Timeless witnesses perhaps with “a distinctive access to the content of the picture” as Richard Wollheim put it. Our access though is not to all areas. This is an, apparently, formal painting, as internal spectators we are not allowed through the velvet rope to the VIP area. The Arnolfini’s might defer to the court of Phillip the Good that is socially above them, but it doesn’t look as though they are going to let the future get away with too much familiarity. As far as they are concerned, they own the future, we will never be allowed beyond the door.

Our role in looking at this painting now, is not a passive one, (as Linda Siddel reminds us in, ‘Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon’, Cambridge University Press, 1993) nor was it when it was made. Ultimately, this is a painting about relationships, between people of different ranks, of different genders, between people and things. It is a painting that stands at the beginning of capitalism, I’m sure that van Eyck was no more aware of social/ cultural/ political or economic change than any other literate and aware participant in the upper ranks of Northern European society. But, the relationship between these people tells us, at the end of capitalism, where we have come from. It doesn’t tell us through some complex arcane code known only to initiates, it tells us through the ways in which people and things interact. We understand these interactions by looking at them; something artists are good at doing.

Jan van Eyck: 'The Arnolfini Portrait' (detail), 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

The figures in the doorway are clearly not a threat and they are known to the dog at least; it is not in guard dog mode. In the same way, the curled sleeping acceptance by the dog in Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, tells us of the probable status of that viewer.

Titian: 'The Venus of Urbino', 1538, oil on canvas. The Uffizi. Florence.

The Brussels Griffon in the Arnofini painting, a small expensive breed, indicates the notions of defence and power that a larger dog might display without the actuality

Anthony Van Dyck: 'The Children of Charles 1', 1637, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection

(Van Dyck’s portrait of the young Charles the Second with his hand on an enormous mastiff springs to mind) . It is a contemporary and ironic reworking of theme of guard dog; it is quite literally a toy.

Look at the Arnolfini dog’s mouth, it has the semblance of a smile (Jack Thomas in ‘Arnolfini: Reflections in a Mirror’, one of the many fictionalisations of the painting, devotes chapter 27 to the dog, calling it Hendrik). That turning up of the left hand side of the dog’s mouth, makes the viewer aware of the other mouths on show.

Along with strong verticals, the other dominant compositional arrangement in this painting is the upward curve of their joined hands. In his analysis of pictorial composition at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee made much of this type of arrangement. Lines or forms moving upward in an image move from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, in an arc points ideally related in tension create equilibrium, therefore harmony. A general shape we could call, simply, a smile.

Look at her mouth, on her left, the side closest to us, there is a highlight where the cheek meets the lips. They are a very cute, pursed pair of lips, idealised like much of her face; the eyebrows in particular. But look further at that mouth, the highlight can also be read as a smirk, her eyes might be solemn, fixed on a blank middle distance, but that is not a solemn mouth, she is thinking about something less elevated. Look again at his expression, look at his mouth, surprisingly full and sensual when you really examine it closely. Look at his eyes, they are, like hers, staring blankly. But, there is a turn to his left, towards her, in the position of those eyes. He is trying unsuccessfully, not to look at her. If you look carefully, he is not as old as that pallor might make one think at first, a pallor emphasised by all that ultra-fashionable black clothing. They are both pale, presumably underlining that, although they make money through trade, they are not artisans. His face is clear and relatively youthful, no lines, or fat or jowls,

Jan van Eyck: 'Portrait of a Man' 1433, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

compare with the man in the red turban to your left to see evidence that van Eyck can paint older male faces with great accuracy. Despite the need for formality and solemnity the eyes, of the Arnolfinis his in particular, appear to be sliding towards each other. This is a couple who can’t wait for everyone to leave the room.

Craig Harbison champions such an approach (in Chapter 4 of the ‘The Play of Realism’), like most other academics he over-determines the exactitude of the iconography, although I think his basic point stands: that there is a keen personal as well as a legal and financial relationship here. Ffor confirmation, look at the red cloth on the edge of the bed, see how it echoes the diagonal folds of her green dress and makes the parallel vertical folds of the hanging, potent, thrusting red bolster that much more emphatic.

A visual image, these are not literary, textual mysteries. This painting is far more straightforward than the professionals give it credit for. The details you are looking for, are those you would expect to look for when seeing a painting of two people entering some sort of relationship. These representations have the mass, and presence of figures, this is after all one of the earliest, full figure, standing double portraits of ‘ordinary’ people, therefore they relate to each other in the ways we might expect.

We respond then to the content, two people, but to come back to my original point, why do we respond in this particular manner?

“The entirely eccentric position of the central vanishing point reinforces the impression of a representation determined not by the objective lawfulness of the architecture, but rather by the subjective standpoint of a beholder who has just now appeared; a representation that owes its especially “intimate” effect in large part to this very perspectival disposition” (Erwin Panoksky: Perspective as Symbolic Form’, page 69)

If you are still not sure, watch how viewers behave in front of it. They stand, usually in couples, their poses unconsciously mirror those represented, like people falling into step as they walk together, or more likely people starting to adopt the accent of those to whom they are talking, and this painting does talk to us.

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

Whereas, watch viewers in front of that other personal favourite: Het Steen, a grand painting about land and reward. Viewers walk about in front of Het Steen, they make gestures they speak loudly, I can always hear what they say in front of Het Steen, never the quiet confidences, the whispered exchanges about what they are witnessing in front of the Arnolfini portrait.