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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

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?

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.

“Everyone knows that envy is usually aroused by the possession of goods which would be of no use to the person who is envious of them, and about the true nature of which he does not have the least idea.

Such is true envy – the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness closed upon itself … It is to this register of the eye as made desperate by the gaze that we must go if we are to grasp the taming, civilising and fascinating power of the function of the picture”

Jacques Lacan, from ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’ ed. Macey,D. Penguin Books, London, 1994, page 116

For example Jan Van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. which I have mentioned before, another old friend in the National Gallery, London. I know nothing about boats, or water, or 17th century Holland and am not that keen to know more, so why can I happily sit in front of a painting of such things? Are we envious of these complete worlds that function quite well without us? In front of this painting recently I drew up a list of other possible reasons for sitting there:

· The pleasures of melancholy: it is a painting about boredom – ships becalmed waiting for wind – the only thing that moves are two birds to the right. Why is an image of boredom, not boring? It is carefully composed, low horizon, close tones, strong verticals and horizontals create an image of stasis.

· My feet hurt, there is a convenient bench in front of the painting.

· The illusion of depth is intrinsically pleasing? Although not mathematically derived there are clues to Albertian methodology, the left foreground boat lies on the diagonal that would check the tiles of a Renaissance pavement,

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

the distance from top mast to horizon is similar to that of the bottom of the canvas to that same distant boundary; ie a symmetrical recession of ground plane below and boats above. As James Ellkins points out in his highly recommended book, ‘The Poetics of Perspective’ the creation of most fictive spaces owe little to true perspective, but van der Capelle has made a convincingly ordered static world, is that what makes it ‘lookable’?

· Do we have an instinctive appreciation of harmony? All paintings have to be balanced and we enjoy that harmony or balance in the arrangement of forms and colour. Are these harmonics permanent though, as in the Golden Section and Pythagorean harmonics, or are they culturally conditioned? Colour and tone very possibly, is the balance of form in a later Dutch artist (Mondrian) equivalent?

Piet Mondrian: ‘Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

· I have an hour to wait before my train home; one way or another paintings conquer time.

· We like stories, all paintings contain possibilities, what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next? (time again)

· Enjoying the skill of the maker must be part, but that skill also builds intellectual content. The curvature of the earth as seen on that painted horizon, the careful positioning of each object on a constructed surface, but a surface that equally and disquietingly, has it’s own sense of depth. Depth and distance in a crowded world, images of quietude, map making, exploration, colonisation, trade and narrative combine in an object about luxury, the past and the future (time again)

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

· An image of quiet for an unquiet world.

· This room itself is quiet though, perhaps that is why I choose it. Few others bother with a room full of static, Dutch landscapes, the rest of the gallery is frantic with pleasure seekers.

· As those other rooms prove, looking at art is a communal activity, do we derive satisfaction from such a joint process? Perhaps we receive sustenance from those accumulated gazes, like the notion of a church as a prayer repository.

· This is a modern spiritual space, art as worship? Icons? Great God Culture? A thing that takes us from the dull here to the transcendent there? To the blue horizon in a satisfyingly complex manner?

· Historical interest and identification across the centuries. After a twenty minute wait on my train into London and ten minutes stuck on a tube station this afternoon, earlier problems with transport seem easy to appreciate. (time again)

· I see an old thing therefore, as Antiques Roadshow tells me, a thing of financial value so worthy of respect.

· Is there a parallel with fishing, another very popular activity that often involves no actual activity? Is looking at a painting an opportunity to:

“Turn off your mind relax and float down stream

It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.”

As Lennon wrote in “Tomorrow Never Knows”

· Maybe it’s just showing off, demonstrating high status cultural knowledge. Is that sort of knowledge still high status? Wouldn’t it be better to know all about financial derivatives or the offside rule in football? (something I know  even less about than boats).

the-offside-rule

The key here is I think the term multi-layered, multiple layers of fictive space, multiple layers of narrative, multiple layers of paint in an image that is apparently undemanding. An image that slowly draws you into its depths. (time gentlemen please)

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.

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”?

In the ‘Metamorphosis’ show at the National Gallery in London, three artists (Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger ) respond to three Titian paintings.

Mark Wallinger: ‘Diana’, 2012, multi media installation, view through keyhole.

Mark Wallinger in ‘Diana’, 2012, sets up a black box in a dark room and inside that box, brightly lit, is a bathroom. In that bathroom a young woman is taking a bath.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London

A direct reference to Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, we are now the young hunter and the retinue-less bather presumably the hunter goddess. Voyeurism is a theme that is often raised when discussing the painting, the keyholes and broken window viewpoint through which we see the bather in ‘Diana’, emphasise that way of seeing the original story.

Is that really the case? Is that really what ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is all about? The nudes are arranged as in a frieze, or rather we have horizontal emphasis in a shallow pictorial space, the rows of arches behind tending to further emphasise this notion of looking through. Diana herself lifting her arm to look through as it were (unfortunately it looks more like she is checking her armpits, doing the BO test) All three paintings are about looking and finding, but is that finding as sexual as the first sight and early reviews of Wallinger’s might imply?

Conrad Shawcross: ‘Trophy’, 2012. Multi media.

The Shawcross machine, ‘Trophy’, 2012, a large metal prosthetic limb moving in a huge vitrine in front of an antler on a pole, is an intriguing thing that is impossible not to think of anthropomorphically. The limb ends with a light on a stick, that arm/ body probes, strokes and almost caresses, but never actually touches, itself or the antler. Technically extraordinary, far more delicate and sensual than either ‘Diana and Actaeon’ or the Wallinger, it says I think, a great deal about the medicalised manner in which we approach the human body now.

Chris Ofili: ‘Ovid-Desire’, 2012. oil on canvas.

The Ofili paintings, ‘Ovid-Desire’, 2012 seem lost to me, somewhere between figuration and patter. They seem etiolated, enervated by heat and humidity; Douanier Rousseau meets 19th century yellow fever sufferer.

How we actually see paintings is also informative, in the exhibition set up the three Titians are arranged in a sort of dark vestibule where all the visitors congregate. This means that seeing the central painting (Diana and Actaeon) is difficult, you view her through people. One assumes that in the original setting we would be alone, hiding in the woods metaphorically speaking.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London

We look I suppose through the eyes of Actaeon. A figure within a painting (usually male) seen looking at something they shouldn’t and thereby exciting the (usually male) viewer; illustrating and creating titillation is something that artists have always been good at. It is a characteristic trope; all those Susannah and the Elders paintings for example. We can see some of that familiarity here, although the goddess hides herself from Actaeon, the way in which she holds up the white cloth succeeds in showing the viewer more of her naked body. But is this exciting? That awkward pose of Diana’s perhaps tells us something else might be going on.  The figure poking out behind the pillar to Diana’s right strikes me as the key to all this.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Peeping Girl

In the poems published by the National Gallery, Wendy Cope shows she has noticed this figure as well. Her poem ‘Actaeon’s Lover’ describes the hidden girl as his secret lover, horrified by her murdering mistress

“This moment: the last time I saw his face

Before the horror of the horns, the hide.

I rage and mourn. There can be no redress

Against divine Diana, murderess.”   

Voyeuristic seeing is aggressive, it is about power, the active male gaze. But look at Actaeon, our internal male viewer, he seems tentative, moving backwards out of the pictorial space. Where is he looking towards? His head is tilted and turning, he looks as much to the peeping figure from behind the pillar as he does to the goddess. As Cope points out, the girl seems separate, a contemporary figure whereas the rest live in the usual vague classical timelessness, ie the peeping girl is a figure from our ordinary world.

Perhaps that is where the link to Wallinger comes in, his installation is not particularly titillating either, certainly not erotic. It is a domestic setting as though a sister or partner has beaten you to the bathroom and has been there for hours. Notice the figure washing Diana’s foot, equivalently banal and ordinary. These are works about the disturbance of domestic privacy, a different sort of privileged viewing.

Titian: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ 1556, oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Actaeon

Actaeon is killed, not because he has seen the goddess naked, but because he has penetrated her private world. Pulling aside the curtain, he discovers that underneath the trappings we are all awkward and much the same. Like discovering that the Queen eats breakfast cereal out of Tupperware or that the Prime Minister doesn’t know how to use text speak, it is the sort of transgression that demands a horrible death.

The border though is slight, that curtain, red of course to link to Actaeon’s death, but as George Szirtes describes in his accompanying poem ‘Actaeon’

‘O, my America, discovered by slim chance,

Behind, as it seemed, a washing line’

It is not much of a boundary is it? Anyone would just push it aside, where is the security detail? Where is the man with clipboard, list and radio preventing access? Or did Diana outsource the job to G4S as well?

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.