Archive

Het Steen

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 17th August

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

A slight return; breaking up is hard to do. I have been looking at this painting for over thirty years, but the thrill has gone. Have we come to the point where is there is little left to say we haven’t said? Except of course that it’s been a good year for the roses.

What does one do after a breakup, go and find another painting to look at for the next thirty years? I’m feeling guilty about it but I have been drawn, increasingly so, to the Rembrandt room especially the ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’.

Rembrandt: ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’, 1669, oil on canvas, 86 x 71 cm. National Gallery

I am not quite that old yet, but the gloom and weariness around the eyes, the way in which the texture tells us much as the head that it composes; there is a lot to look at there. Rembrandt died within a year of painting this, Rubens within four years of painting Het Steen, the methods by which an artist can summarise experience, without resorting to iconography or narrative, are always fascinating. And it is next to that great painting of concupiscence (longing, lust, desire etc), of Heindrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt: ‘Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels’, 1654-6, oil on canvas. National Gallery.

So, back to Het Steen, is it imagination or does the painting look rather brown and tired? A young woman sits on the bench in front of it texting, she has a large purple bag with Etretrat printed on it. Fitting somehow that I should be saying goodbye to a painting that (through the collection of George Beaumont) influenced Constable who, won the Gold Medal in the Paris salon of 1824 for the Hay Wain.

John Constable: ‘The Hay Wain’, 1821, oil on canvas, 130 x 185 cm. National Gallery, London.

His broken brush work much influenced French romantic artists like Delacroix. Delacroix’s colours and evident brush strokes was part of the mix that leads us to Impressionism, along with Constable’s subject matter and his work directly from the motif that Pissarro and Monet studied whilst they were in London during the Franco Prussian war. Many artists painted in Etretat, both Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix: ‘Cliffs at Etretat: The Pied du Cheval ‘, 1838. watercolour on paper. 15 x 20 cm. Musee Marmottan, Paris

and Monet. Monet  in 1868 and 1883, but it was in 1885 that Monet developed his series ideas, painting fifty one canvases in this small seaside town.

Claude Monet: ‘Etretat, Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour’, 1885. Oil on Canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Apparently he would work at up to six different sites at once, employing his children to walk behind him carrying the canvases between them. The young woman with the Etretat bag does not look at Rubens’ landscape before she leaves.

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

So do I change my relationship status? When you’ve lost that loving feeling, you need distance from a relationship before you can evaluate it; ‘you don’t miss your water till the well run dry’ as one reggae lyric puts it. So I just walk away, walk on by, that sun in the top right hand corner ain’t gonna shine anymore, but there’s always something there to remind me. Etc. etc.

Advertisements

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 10th August

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

Rising dawn, the sun chasing away darkness, brightness sweeping across the land taking the carter with it.

In any long-term relationship what do you see when you look at your co-relatee? When that relationship is with a painting you see (mostly) the history of your discoveries. For example when you tried to find figures on the tower. Or, thought about the role of the fallen tree trunk. Or, wondered about the walk to Malines (the tower on the horizon) and how long that walk would take (three or four hours if memory serves). Sitting down to see the work again becomes a reunion not an analysis.

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

There are new things to find, in life as in paintings I’m sure. I’ve just noticed that the horizon is higher at one point, between the trees, without real reason; again demonstrating that this is a painting made for personal pleasure. How are the tallest group of trees today?

Leonardo, in his notebooks says that:

“All the branches of trees at every stage of their height, united together, are equal to the thickness of their trunk”.

Rubens does not quite follow that prescription, perhaps because they are mostly silver birches, Northern trees not following Southern idealised formulas. Although  Ruskin some three hundred and fifty years later writing in ‘Modern Painters’ said much the same thing:

‘First, then neither the stems nor the boughs of any of the above trees taper [oak, elm, ash, hazel, willow, birch, beech, poplar, chestnut, pine, mulberry, olive, ilex, carubbe and such others], except where they fork. Whenever a stem sends of a branch, or a branch a lesser bough, or a lesser bow a bud, the stem or the branch is, on the instant, less in diameter by the exact quantity of the branch or the bough they have sent off, and they remain of the same diameter; or if there be any change, rather increase than diminish until they send off another branch or bough. This law is imperative and without exception; …so that if all the twigs and sprays at the top and sides of the tree, which are and have been could be united without loss of space, they would form a round log of the diameter of the trunk from which they spring”

It’s no wonder Ruskin wrote so much, it took him some seven or eight hundred words to say what Leonardo put in twenty.

The gallery is empty this afternoon, a combination of the Olympics and the twenty five minute bag search queue to get in; the theatre of surveillance. Everyone in London seems to be wearing a lanyard around their neck with a huge laminated pass, the most important have several. Are the hunter and the carter and companion wearing their access all area passes to this celebratory pictorial space, the dog too? There are no visible gates and fences, is it an inclusive open area, retirement to a grand manor and vast grounds open to all?

How do you know when a relationship, with a painting anyway, has come to an end or needs a bit of space? I have been writing about this painting for years, ten or more, and looking at it for thirty maybe. But, sadly it might be time for a trial separation. How do you say to an art work: “It’s not you, It’s me”?

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

I have recently been in discussion with a fellow writer, Ann Marquez, about the ways in which land communicates/ holds on to intense past emotions; melancholy or loss, perhaps, particularly in her sense of foreboding in a pre-flood trip to New Orleans. We also mused on whether we have ever found anywhere that resonated with happiness; I can think of none, or rather not a real one.

An Image of Happiness?

‘Het Steen in the Early Morning’ is, as I think I have established in these posts, a painting about contentment, about retirement, success; all those sorts of descriptions. It is that unusual image; art about personal joy.

How does he do that? The very gently rising ground plane, from foreground to horizon. Well, to be strictly accurate, we go down from a slight hill on which our elevated view-point is situated, sloping towards the house then slowly rise to the tower and the rising sun on the horizon.

The colour contrasts that establish the foreground are not, for example, the vicious jumps of a Caravaggio, There is a unifying, autumnal, colour scheme. The rising sun is a warm yellow, it lights objects of material achievement, the house, the cart of to market, the girl collecting milk. Colours that indicate ripeness, fertility, light filtered by early morning mist, but the space is easy and reassuring to comprehend. The visual traverse to the horizon, slight serpentine curve around the midground trees; this route is benign, gentle and comforting, it resonates with happiness.

Lights Out

The lights in the gallery go out suddenly, Het Steen becomes a study in browns and green washes. Even so, the rising sun still lights the land, white on pale to make it stand out, yellow edged by its complementary; light blue. The close parallel lines of trees and fields that lead to, and constitute, the horizon, are even more noticeable in the gloom; mirrored by the clouds above.

Man-Made Nature

The ramshackle nature of this disorganised world is predictable, we can see how it might have got to its current state and how that current state will not change: we hope. Pleasing on the eye, the sort of effect that Capability Brown would be hired to create in English Eighteenth Century landscape gardens. Man-made nature, the easeful view that only money brings, you need serious cash to buy ‘natural’ space, a sophisticated grown out nature, dependent in need on Pliny and Horace perhaps.

Lulu and The Flying Babies

The gallery is as crowded as I have ever known it, if it was possible to walk into this painted space, getting one’s feet wet on the morning dew, nodding a greeting to the carter, some milk warm from the cow, if that was possible, I would.

Posy Simmonds: ‘Lulu and The Flying Babies’. Publ. Red Fox, 2003.

I remember reading ‘Lulu and the Flying Babies’, a wonderful picture book by Posy Simmonds, to my daughter. Lulu, the fictional child, bored in a museum joins a lively life behind the picture plane, feeding royal horses with crisps, joining a Dutch winter scene, a Dufy seascape, a Rousseau jungle tiger. Today, I would prefer the quieter contented world of Het Steen with its bucolic stock figures and rising sun. That world might be better than here, this side of the picture plane, with the huge crowds of wandering Koreans and Italians.

The light has gone out again, the double sided bench I sit on is narrow, the Italian girls behind me flick their artfully tousled hair with the just washed look. Their hair is long and painful as it swishes in natural, easy serpentine waves across my own thinning coiffure. They are happy, looking at an image of a happy land?  Time to go.

 

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

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.

But If I had by my Side a Girlfren

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.

Marley Lets the Children Lend a Hand

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.

The First Cut is the Deepest

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.

Semi-Detached Suburban Mr Jones

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”

“Who?”

“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”

I Was Born by the River

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”

Guardian Saturday Review 16 June 2012

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?

Double Dutch

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.

Friday Evening, National Gallery, London

The gallery is the emptiest I have known it, perhaps because it is a fine evening. Trafalgar Square is packed, but there are only so many jugglers, human statues and buskers murdering Bob Marley’s finest that a chap can take.

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

In Front of Het Steen

This autumnal view across sixteenth century Flanders is, obviously, a pre-Claude landscape; I have just come from the Turner/ Claude show downstairs. I highly recommend it although Claude suffers from the comparison, rather than the other way around.

Claude: ‘Landscape with the Arrival of Aeneas before the City of Pallanteum’, 1675. oil on canvas, 174 x 221 cm. Anglesey Abbey.

His sense of scale is in some places absurd, for example the elongated figures and horse sized sheep in ‘Landscape with Arrival of Aeneas’. Rubens use of scale in Het Steen is equally odd, look at the vast ducks and flowers.

Unlike a Claude or post Claude composition, Het Steen is not framed in a symmetrical, repoussoir manner, there is only one set of foreground trees, which are balanced by elongated horizontal rather than echoing forms. Those horizontals are buttressed by the rising sun on the far right. This is a sturdy, aesthetic, non-rational solution that owes very little to classical symmetry, there is no central sun and a relatively high horizon. It is also clearly contemporary although it wouldn’t take much to return this view to Roman/ Greek myth. Rubens was quite happy to set his judgements of Paris against apparently Flemish trees for example, and viewers of Het Steen would have been expected to make references to Virgil’s Georgics.

Northern versus Southern Pictorial Space

As Svetlana Alpers pointed out in ‘The Art of Describing’, a unified pictorial space is not always the point of a Northern European painting. Celebrating the Ideal, the harmonious, the classically perfect characterises Southern art from the Renaissance and beyond, so we should expect Claude to have produced a consistently receding pictorial space. Alpers describes how Northern art produces pictorial space by accretion, we see areas grouped by where the eye lands (hence the vast ducks). Whereas the mathematical rules for constructing a unitary space that Claude follows in his paintings of land and trees, somehow falls flat (as sometimes does Turner by the way) with his unconvincing scales of figures and buildings. A Claude landscape is thematic, it takes us back (in both composition and subject) to the classical approach, in that sense it is a moral landscape. The moral landscape was also (post Aristotle) a medieval concept much represented in the North (post Fall etc).

The Tree Trunk

Thinking about all this I have, at last, I have worked it out: why is the tree trunk here? A question I have been puzzling over for ages. Why is the tree trunk there then? Answer: because it was there. This is not, well not wholly, a constructed moral landscape. Het Steen is a painting of land just being land, it has no purpose except being there.

This Land is My Land

Or rather, and this is the point, that is what Rubens wants the viewer to think. It is of course, ultimately a painting about the man who owns the land. That man wants to celebrate his land, not by its fecundity (a la ‘Good and Bad Government’) not by its god given purpose (to support mankind after the Fall) nor by representing the underlying harmonic principles of Nature (Classicism), not even, despite Autumn in the title, to celebrate the diurnal rhythms and the eternal process. No, what Rubens wants to celebrate is the fact that there is an awful lot of it.

Thomas Gainsborough: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’, 1750, oil on canvas, 76 x 119 cm. National Gallery, London

He doesn’t, unlike Mr Robert Andrews, have to work that land in the most modern and efficient way possible. He just has to enjoy it in all of its unkempt glory in the autumn of his days, in glorious golden light (no stress as my pupils are wont to say, often inaccurately). Why? Because he is worth it.

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

Pleasure

That is why it is pointless to look for hidden symbolism in the fallen trunk in Het Steen, even though it is an image that goes right through Flemish art. Yes alright it is to some extent a composed image and yes, the tree trunk creates the foreground and marks the centre of the painting, i.e. has a key compositional role. But, look at the hunter, that tree trunk is for him, it is for pleasure, the whole landscape is for pleasure, he shoots the ducks for sport and because they taste nice, rather than for economic necessity. The tree trunk is here, because it was there. I am here, but I should be there because I have a train to catch, time to go.

Het Steen, Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

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

We expect life behind the picture plane to conform to our expectations of life in front of it. But, after a good long look it is far odder than you might think.

I have been asked how it is possible to stare at the same work of art for such long, long periods – never less than an hour at a time in front of Het Steen, usually longer. Patience of course but more, like meditation, it is a matter of clearing the mind of those expectations/ prejudices/ outstanding thoughts that we bring with us, to find out what is really going on in this parallel world. Today these issues sprang up, leaping about in front of my field of vision, I don’t think I really got rid of them:

  1. It is very misty and wet outside, is that why the distant horizon in this painted world seems clearer today?
  2. How long would it take to walk from the tree trunk in the foreground to Malines and the Cathedral of St Rombout (the tower on the horizon). Difficult to tell how far it is away on foot, 5 miles, 10 miles, closer to 10 maybe? Average walking time is what: 3 miles? Ground is very flat and clear, so perhaps three hours, heavy dew on the ground, but not too waterlogged, under 3 hours then.
  3. The view we can see is not that from the large windows of the house. This painting and ‘The Landscape with a Rainbow’

    Peter Paul Rubens: ‘Landscape with a Rainbow’, 1636. Oil on Panel. The Wallace Collection, London

    were to be shown in a room on either side of those windows. Although the painted view is a sort of composite, I wonder which room it was painted in. Traditionally, studios are north facing to stop shadows and direct sunlight. Het Steen Manor faces south (we are looking east to the rising sun) it can’t have been made in a fancy room can it? Could Rubens keep a fancy room clean whilst oil painting? Leonardo famously said that a painter could work surrounded by beauty and listening to a fine musician. Leonardo was a careful, almost fastidious man, mostly dressed in lilac according to his inventories. Rubens was a painter of some bravura, and therefore a bit messier? Would he have painted at the back of the house, is this likely? Covered as I am in the white oil paint left behind by a student panicking about a deadline, I have strong feelings about this point.

  4. Going back to the walk idea, there are no fences behind this particular picture plane, no closed off areas. Some grown out hedges, several lines of trees suggest a slight fence hedge behind the milkmaid for example. But none of the post-enclosure English hedgerows and field boundaries, none of ‘this land is mine-ness’, that characterise the English countryside.
  5. One thinks of John Clare, the poet of the English countryside unhinged by the effects of The Enclosure Acts. That period of 18th and 19th century English history when landowners put boundaries across common land; expelling those who once used the land to work and walk. Clare was a great walker, for example in 1841 he walked 80 miles after escaping from his asylum, returning home to look for his first love, Mary Joyce (long dead); he lived on grass and air. As he wrote about her:

“And we will walk the meadow love

And we will walk the grove

And by the winding river love

We’ll walk and talk of love

And by the white thorn bushes love

Just budding into green

Where the shaded fountain rushes love

We’ll steal a kiss unseen”

(For the text of Clare’s diary from his walk see http://dawnpiper.wordpress.com/john-clares-walk-1841/, the John Clare WebLog is very good on his walking as well http://johnclare.blogspot.co.uk/)

 All this sense of rural freedom goes, as you can read in his : ‘Remembrances’

“…Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain

It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill

And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is

running still

It runs a naked brook cold and chill”

Or

“These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall

Is laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’”

Enclosure in a Gainsborough landscape?

I have always assumed the neat fields behind Gainsborough’s: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’ 1750,

Thomas Gainsborough: ‘Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews’, 1750, oil on canvas, 76 x 119 cm. National Gallery, London

are a reference to the economic benefits of the ‘rude philistine’s thrall’, it is certainly set at the beginning of the Enclosure Acts, Clare’s poetry towards the end. Look at the sharp meanness of those two faces and, despite the gun and dog, both look uncomfortable in the countryside that they so clearly own; she won’t have walked far in those shoes. As Clare put it some ninety years later:

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds

Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please

With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”

To the Painting in Front of Me

So, trying to watch the world of seventeenth century Flanders, these are some of the ideas from the twenty-first century I brought with me. I think walking kept bobbing up like a dog wanting me to throw the ball, partly because I was thinking of a response made to an earlier post by Ann Marquez from Desert Muse publications and her description that “growing up in the southwest I never imagined limited access to land”.

‘The Path Stopt’

And partly because a few days ago, I tried to take a walk through local woods on a path that, though not a formal right of way, has been a customary path used by many for many, many years. It was fenced off without warning or explanation; heart-breaking.

Walking and Rubens

Rubens’ figures don’t look like they walk much, Paris in the later Judgement  perhaps,

Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London

in the earlier version Paris is too much of a classical hero, despite his very pink bottom.

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘The Judgement of Paris’, 1597-9. Oil on Panel. The National Gallery, London

Moses and Eleazer in ‘The Brazen Serpent 1635 – 40’ look like they have covered a few miles.

 Mainly, Rubensian walkers are stock working figures, milkmaids and shepherds, many carts in his rural scenes, as in Het Steen. As Rebecca Solnitt points out in her book about the history of walking: ‘Wanderlust’, nobody walked for pleasure before the Wordsworths.  

Looking slowly at paintings is a process of clearing questions and relaxing and just looking, it takes about twenty minutes usually. Time to really start looking, or to walk away until the next time?

Het Steen, National Gallery, London, Friday Afternoon

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

The young woman in front of the later ‘Judgement of Paris’ is haranguing a large group of fellow Chinese. She has talked for 10 – 15 minutes without drawing breath, a small boy has his hand up; he is ignored. She is wearing cream trousers and a cream jacket zipped right up the neck, she does not look relaxed.

A complete contrast to a colleague I saw this morning, taking a large group of Year Eight students through a range of paintings about rooms and interiors: Dutch and Swedish ending with Rachel Whiteread. It was all about interaction, questioning, and the students lively responses.

How Do We See Art?

Returning to the central theme of all these posts: how do we see art, what do we get from looking at it? The students in front of the slide show had been led by careful pointed questions, what can we see? What might be the relevance of? What does that make you think about? The importance of composition/ light/ context/ new ideas about interiors. But I wondered, were they just showing their skills at a particular game: answering questions (very high) or were they actually engaging with images. Was this the equivalent of twenty questions,  just running around a museum pressing buttons. Their teacher by the way was wearing dressed down art teacher clothing; checked shirt and jeans.

Pictorial Space

I think these posts have established by now, that composition of pictorial space has a great deal to do with how a painting is approached; physically and mentally. But, schooled in iconographic analysis or not, you also bring assumptions about behaviour and meaning on the far side of the picture plane. For example, I remember a small boy’s response to Picasso’s ‘Woman Weeping’

Picasso: 'Woman Weeping', 1937, 60 x 49 cm, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery

‘I know she’s really upset’

‘Why do you know that Darren, is it to do with the shapes clashing together in the painting?’

‘No, it’s because she’s eating pizza, my mum always gives me pizza when I’m upset’

So, what do we bring to Het Steen? A general assumption about the reassuring properties of paintings about nature? A deep calm, from the gently lifting ground plane, the soft, close tonal range, the warmth of colours in the foreground, the bucolic carter and companion, the wealthy but not obtrusive house? Soft shapes rising sun: optimistic; reassuring; comforting. These are the sorts of terms that come to mind. It might be autumn, i.e. towards the end of a cycle, but time moves very slowly here.

Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris', 1632; Oil on canvas, 139 x 174 cm; National Gallery, London

Large numbers of Spaniards, smelling rather strongly of soap, not unpleasant but certainly insistent, are collapsed around the bench. It is a comfortable place to rest, they are exhausted, time this side of the picture plane is catching up with them. At the other end of the bench, a man is slowly making an extremely painstaking tonal drawing of the later Judgement; hours of evident labour. He is drawing from left to right and the proportions are gently getting away from him; the figures are beginning to elongate and lose their Rubensian plumpness as the drawing becomes widescreen.

The Spanish, distressed brown leather, sports gear and strange white tubular headgear rather like socks, do not look at the paintings. Later a middle aged English couple, beige trousers, grey anoraks, argue in a low monotone, carefully looking at an image, true; but it is a tube map. Most of the visitors, few are actually viewers, seem to regard being here as a form of labour, measured in miles walked, the occasional interesting painting is a bonus.

The ‘Art Study’ Problem

Perhaps this is behaviour learnt early. By and large students coming into an art room see making art as a subdivision of leisure activities; ‘Art’ is not real work etc. Whereas looking at art made by others is always more of a chore, any art teacher who has tackled the ‘art study’ will confirm this. I have written many books for teachers trying to overcome this reluctance, but never quite worked out why it is there; surely pictorial space is fascinating, isn’t it?

But What Shall I Wear?

Maybe it is to do with clothing, to make art in an art room you put on an overall, a paint spattered ‘cloak of creativity’ as it were. To study the art work made by others you are still in the clothes you wear for other activities, learning Maths for schoolchildren, travelling seems to be the main theme here in the National Gallery. I don’t mean that you should stand in front of Het Steen wearing seventeenth century muddy peasant linen bowing to the Lord of the Manor, but the awkward mismatch between formality and casual tourism is noticeable. At the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, that I saw earlier (highly recommended by the way, very well put together indeed) there was none of that awkwardness; art and viewers seemed to be well matched. So perhaps it does help to dress accordingly, I’m off to order my rough smock now.