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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

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

Is your mobile a Black mirror or a spittoon?

18th century Romantic visitors to landscapes, looking for the Picturesque, used to put a Claude Glass, between them and the scene. The Claude Glass was a small tinted mirror, eg this one from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, you turned your back on the landscape and held up the mirror.

Claude Glass, from the Victoria and Albert Museum © 1775-1780

Claude Glass, from the Victoria and Albert Museum © 1775-1780

Essentially the same effect as an Instagram filter, the curving on the mirror focused the reflection slightly to key points and the reduced tones gave the impression of a painting by the 17th-century French artist, Claude Lorrain; the famous ‘Master’ of the hazy and vaguely classical Picturesque view.

Claude Lorrain: 'View of La Crescenza', 1648–50. Oil on canvas, 39 x 58 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Claude Lorrain: ‘View of La Crescenza’, 1648–50. Oil on canvas, 39 x 58 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Taking your Claude Glass, or Black Mirror, you either stood and appreciated the selected view over your shoulder or drew from the affected image. You used technology to remove you from direct perception to elevate you to the higher plane that was the point in choosing the view in the first place.

Taking photographs in the National Gallery is now allowed. Does taking photos with your phone, the most common method, change the way we look at art, another frame through which to look, another proscenium arch? Apart from shortening viewing or contact time with the art object, how does that process affect our perception of the thing/s we have come to look at?

Viewer at the National Gallery, London

Viewer at the National Gallery, London

Are gallery visitors with their mobiles constructing their social selves, taking images to post later? Probably not, Maybe the phone is a sort of spittoon, spitting out what you have chewed over and used up? Perhaps a slightly more active metaphor, a self sorting rubbish bin? Perhaps we are assuming the phone acts somewhat like the brain, we chuck everything in and hope that important experiences will somehow autonomously rise to the surface and claim their due significance. This process though, assumes that a painting is a signboard, like an advert designed to direct the viewer to a single message. But, paintings, like all art forms, work in layers and take time to understand.

Viewer at the National Gallery, London

Viewer at the National Gallery, London

It is difficult to just stand and look, it has taken me many years to learn how to just look at Het Steen for example. We need to feel that we are doing something active, are actively involved in our looking and need to have some sort of certified authority, a guidebook as it were, to lean on. You can see this in William Gilpin’s illustrations for his guide book: “Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; – particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland. (1788)”, look at how the format echoes the Claude Glass he recommended and how the tones are reduced to get the Picturesque effect. Most of the photographing visitors in the National Gallery use audio guides to get them to the best works.

William Gilpin: 'Rydal Water' from 'Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; - particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland', printed 1788.

William Gilpin: ‘Rydal Water’ from ‘Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; – particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland’, printed 1788.

Surely looking at a painting via the phone is doing much the same thing as standing with your back to the view and looking into a black mirror. Our phone photo not only makes a digital record of having been there, made our own postcard so to speak, but we have also digitised our presence in front of celebrity and wealth (art). In the same way that the Romantic viewer in front of Tintern Abbey or wherever, needed the Claude Glass to validate their own looking, we use the phone image to validate us in front of a famous painting.

Mostly Chinese/ Korean and Spanish tourists in the gallery this afternoon with a sprinkling of indigenous families, the children nobly doing their Christmas ‘duty’ whilst looking at their phones. I have done my duty to Het Steen, been an hour in front of the painting, perhaps a quick photo then it’s time to go.

Het Steen with Viewer

Het Steen: viewing in progress

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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

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

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?

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991. Oil on Canvas

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991. Oil on Canvas

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

Fred Auerbach: Head of William Feaver', 2003. Oil on Canvas

Fred Auerbach: Head of William Feaver’, 2003. Oil on Canvas

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.

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991 drawing. Felt-tipped pen, graphite, coloured chalks, crayon pencil and charcoal

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991 drawing. Felt-tipped pen, graphite, coloured chalks, crayon pencil and charcoal

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.

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 Midground

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 Midground

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?

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.

Tracey Emin: 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995'. 1995.

Tracey Emin: ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’. 1995.

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.

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

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.

 

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight', 1960. 1024x1024mm. Oil on Canvas

Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’, 1960. 1024x1024mm. Oil on Canvas

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.

Peter Lanyon: 'Glide Path', 1964. 1540 x 1220mm. Oil and plastic on canvas

Peter Lanyon: ‘Glide Path’, 1964. 1540 x 1220mm. Oil and plastic on canvas

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,

Giacomo Balla: 'Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash', 1912. 910 x 1100 mm. Oil on canvas.

Giacomo Balla: ‘Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash’, 1912. 910 x 1100 mm. Oil on canvas.

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.

Peter Lanyon: 'Cross Country', 1960. 1024 x 852. Oil on canvas

Peter Lanyon: ‘Cross Country’, 1960. 1024 x 852. Oil on canvas

Our viewpoint in Het Steen is the traditional Dutch mid-air thing (discussed before) we are suspended like a god, or a king.

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

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.

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 Ducks

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 Ducks

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.

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

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

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.

Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap

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?

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.

 

Artists use fundamental forms, circle, square etc. The circle especially, with its long, long history as a spiritual shape.

‘Men an Tol’, near Boskednan, Cornwall, UK

Artists Rooms: Richard Long

The Richard Long exhibition at the Hepworth in Wakefield included his familiar collections of stones in circles, ovals and lines.

Richard Long: ‘Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle’, 2011. Welsh Slate

It is a wonderful light filled gallery, sitting right in the river.

The Hepworth Gallery. Wakefield. Architect: David Chipperfield, 2011

Notice how those familiar shapes recur outside, the circular tyres and the spherical ball.

The Hepworth Gallery. Wakefield. Architect: David Chipperfield, 2011. A View from the Gallery Window

Circling Around the Problem

How do we know how to understand these shapes in art? Why, for instance, do we not think that Long is trying to tell us something about Dante’s nine circles of Hell for example? Richard Long makes art about walking and Dante and Virgil walk through those circles after all.

Richard Long: ‘Concentric Days’, 1996

Answer: context and proximity. There is nothing in his work that leads the viewer to make those sorts of iconographic connections. Equally there is nothing to stop us doing so if we wish. I would think parts of the process, Day 5 for example, were hellish. Artists compose art, they put things next to each other for a purpose. The forms of that arrangement, the way they occupy the constructed space, are the essence of the art. Long places objects carefully, their equal spacing is reminiscent of the steps that make up his art, ie the walks that these arrangements refer to.

Does a Painted Circle have the Same Meaning?

In another place (National Gallery, London), in a different context, how should we understand another art work that features circular forms? Is Gerard David’s image also about a lone artist walking through what is left of the wild parts of the world?

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London

No? How do we know that is so?

An extraordinary painting, that celebrates the richness of material objects, look at the jewellery, the tapestries and the marble. All of this for a chapel dedicated to an ascetic hermit, you can see Saint Anthony lurking in the background between the right hand pillar and female saint. 

A Ring of Hands

Even more noticeable is the ring of hands, stretching from Mary Magdalene on the right, who turns the book of Saint Barbara.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 1

The Virgin Mary’s hands are interlocked (unusually) around the Christ Child, he is handing a ring to Saint Catherine who, in a beautiful bit of foreshortening is reaching out to touch the praying hands of the donor (Richard de Visch de La Chapelle).

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 2

That ring is the crucial image.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 3

Pictorial Space

My general theme is that artists are less interested in filling their paintings with text based puzzles (see for example James Elkins: ‘Why are Our Pictures Puzzles?) and far more interested in the using the fundamental tools of image making: in particular pictorial space. This was a painting for the altar of St Catherine.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London

She was martyred, eventually, first by being bound to a studded wheel (that attribute is just behind her to the right) and then finally beheaded. Christ offers her a ring to mark her mystic marriage to him (she refused to submit to the Emperor Maxentius, saying that she was already a bride of Christ). David has taken the opportunity, throughout this painting to stress the circular theme:

  • the semi-circle of figures in front of us
  • the ring
  • the jewelled ornament above Mary’s head
  • the tower/ attribute of Saint Barbara (she was walled up in a tower by her father) echoed by an octagonal tower behind her
  • the cylindrical ointment jar/ attribute for Mary Magdalen
  • the circular tile decoration on the marble floor.
  • And, of course the enclosing form of the walled garden, symbol of The Virgin Mary, that surrounds this group and includes us as the figure at the other side of this circle of initiates.

The Viewer Within the Painted Space

David has positioned the viewer as an internal spectator within the group, we are either sitting, or more likely kneeling directly opposite the mother and child, a position of great honour. We do not, conceptually, see the figures from the point of view of the painted donor, he has paid for his own representation, he wants to look at it too. We see from his position kneeling in front of the actual altar.

Everything about the composition and iconography of this painting leads us back to the patron saint, to the role of the Virgin Mary in our salvation and to the inclusion of the donor in that exclusive circle. David’s role is to construct the space, not to walk about in it and report back.

This might also be the place to ask another question: what is the difference in art between a hole

Barbara Hepworth: ‘Two Forms with White (Greek)’, 1963. Guarea Wood, part painted.

Barbara Hepworth: ‘Two Forms with White (Greek)’, 1963. Guarea Wood, part painted. Detail

and a circle?

Gillian Ayres: ‘Sundark Blues’, 1994. Oil on canvas, 244 x 213 cm, tate Britain.

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.