Archive

the Picture Plane

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

The Paradox of Apparent Movement

Stuck, unable to go anywhere, waiting for a train, I was thinking about our acceptance that a painted image contains movement. Why, when looking at that static image do we: happily predict what will happen next; what has happened before and what, from analysis of that movement, is the mental state, ideological position and historical context of all involved? Do we like looking at paintings because there is a comforting pleasure in knowing, or working out, what will happen next? Or perhaps when looking at a landscape painting, knowing that nothing will happen next, that we are in a comforting world of ‘not going anywhere’?  

“My cousin right, she wants to go to Tenerife to swim with Dolphins”

“Oh, I don’t fancy that, they’re big fish. No, I couldn’t do that. I want to go to Australia”

“What, and swim with Aboriginals?”

The Story in the Object

Viewers in the National Gallery, London, seem more interested in the story of the object, than the story in the object; is that because these stories have been lost? Look, for example at Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’, 1601, the earlier one in the National.

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, 1601. 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

At the centre of a shallow rectangular pictorial space, a young man gestures meaningfully with his right hand and waves his left over a loaf of bread. To his left an older man symmetrically stretches out his arms. Above the young man to his right, another man stands, casting a circular shadow over that younger seated one. Nearest to us, in the left foreground, a man with a hole in the elbow of his jacket pushes his arms down onto the arms of his chair, as if to lift his body upwards.

Good Lord, it’s You!

The original sixteenth century viewers of this painting would have recognised the story, and known that it is about sudden recognition. It is in the bringing together of the gestures: with the immediate story; with the past that led these figures up to this point; with the subsequent future affecting us all, that this painting extends the movement beyond what we immediately see. That bringing together, or conjunction, leads us back to the dusty road en route to Emmaus and the inn where the painted action happens. On that road the older, seated men had met the younger, discussed the recent crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, and the disappearance of his body from the tomb and the appearance of angels saying that he was alive. They persuade the, as yet unknown, younger man to eat with them.

“30. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

31. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him….

35. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in the breaking of bread.

36. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you”

Luke 24. 30-36.

The Significant Gesture

They (Cleopas and possibly Peter, possibly James) recognize the resurrected leader of their group (Christ) through one of the last gestures that they saw him make (breaking bread at the Last Supper).

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Detail: Christ’s gesture.

The actual last gesture, as it were, that they saw him make is reflected in the outstretched arms of the right hand disciple: the crucifixion.

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’; 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. Detail: Disciple with arms outstretched.

I suppose you could call this conjunction; potentialities. There is a range of those potentialities, the striding movement of walking for example, and don’t these worn, sunburnt and slightly battered figures look like they have done a lot of walking in their lives. Notice by the way the cockleshell on the leather jerkin, the symbol of the pilgrim, the walker. The significant, human movements that pinpoint or focus, key points of the story. Notice also that those gestures scoop in the viewer, draw us into the heart of the story.

“I’m not going nowhere because I literally can’t walk no more than, like, one mile an hour”

“Like, I can’t even do that”

Viewpoint

Viewpoint is always crucial in a painting, where are we the viewer situated by the artist’s construction of the pictorial space? In this case, we are below the head of Christ, at roughly the same level of the two disciples. Although we are not close up to the table, that viewpoint is certainly from someone seated in front of Christ, drawn into his circle. The vigour of the painted gestures demands that the viewer makes equivalent movement this side of the picture plane, in our own recognition of the story and its importance.

I have just remembered, thinking back to earlier posts about what we as viewers bring to our viewing position. A boy once told me that this painting was all about telling lies and fishing:

‘You see that bloke on the right Sir, well he’s telling the others that he caught a fish and it was thiiiiis big (boy stretches out his arms in imitation) and the others Sir, well you can tell they don’t believe him”

Hurry Up and Wait

I wrote part of this waiting for my train, in the ticket area of the station. A rectangular area, parallel to the tracks. At one end: ticket sales, here the endless complexities of ticket types are negotiated. At the other: a newsagent, usually shut. Doors on each long side exactly bisect the space. These doors are automatic, over sensitive sensors open them unexpectedly and violently with an uncontrolled shake at their full extent. The track faces due north, the prevailing wind is westerly. Each time the doors suddenly fling themselves open, the wind charges through as though it is late for the fast train to London Bridge.

On each of the four benches, like points of the compass, are static middle aged men:

  • To the North West, one in brown cords and shoes, green socks and light blue striped shirt, blue jacket and bright orange Apple laptop.

  • To the North East, another, in grey suit, white shirt, pale grey tie, permanently speaking on a black shiny mobile.
  • South East, in a charcoal suit, cream shirt, black bag on lap, reading white A4 documents.
  • And me at South West, all in black with a black A5 notebook.

We are all waiting, our gestures are subdued, our composition is precise, and appropriately measured for the subject.

The Composition of Pictorial Space

Figures in pictorial space are often symmetrically arranged, usually about a central axis, ie placing the viewer directly in front of them. Think of Egg’s Travellers, that I have mentioned before,

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

that overt symmetricality has meaning, as does the lack of precise composition in Veronese’s: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood’ .

Paolo Veronese: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?’, 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

In Supper at Emmaus the viewing point would seem to be directly in front and significantly below the normal eye level so that the vanitas bowl of fruit on the lip of the table appears to be falling on top of you.

Caravaggio: ‘Supper at Emmaus’; 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Detail: Fruit Bowl.

The light in my waiting room is even and clear as fits the scene, but in Caravaggio’s inn, some three days walk from Jerusalem, the light is stark: bright highlights; pools of meaningful darkness; the shadow/ halo around Christ’s head; the darkness of the tomb from which he has risen.

A well dressed couple pass through from west to east, I just catch the end of their conversation:

 “We’ve got enough for the moment, we’ve got the six nuns in Peterborough”

Unlike the vigorous painted gestures, our bodily movements in the ticket area remain subdued, slow and undemonstrative. We are not going anywhere, no dramatic revelations of redemption here.

“South Eastern Trains would like to apologise for the delay to your service this morning, this is due to the late running of the train”

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?

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

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

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

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

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

The Romantic Experience

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

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

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

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

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

The Wanderer (I roam around, around, around)

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

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

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

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

and the waist on the horizontal,

 the crag and head form a strong pyramidal structure.

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

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

A Literary Device?

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

‘Wanderlust’

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

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

John Cale in front of 'Dreaming in Vertigo'

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

Our Forbidden Land

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

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

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

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

‘The Morning Walk’

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

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

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

Dogs in Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

The Cover of The Second Mekons Album

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

 

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

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

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

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

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

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

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

“Man, that’s not an ostrich”

“What’s it then?”

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

“Maybe that dog will eat it”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ground Plane

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

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

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

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

“Eurgh, my feet hurt”

“We should really report in”

“What time is the meet?”

“Now”

“Moving on then?”

Timelessness and Pictorial Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose so”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Platform

An empty station, Friday afternoon. I am on the platform alone. A man walks purposefully down the long empty space, it is hot, the sun very bright. He stops less than one pace in front of me. He is middle aged and red faced with a shiny suitcase on wheels, resting over the handle is a vividly crimson, highly decorated Chinese silk suit. He does not acknowledge me, although I could probably breathe down his neck if I wanted to, I do not, so I don’t.

Art about Waiting

Paintings are busy spaces, and the people depicted are busier still. They are always doing something, about to do something, having something done to them.

Conversely, travelling on public transport is all about waiting, long periods not going anywhere, not having anything done to you etc. There are few works of art that fit this state.

A Large Ferry

There is a painting in the National Gallery, London that shows stasis: Jan van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665.

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.

It is calm, still, waiting for the tide, or a wind; the ferry by the way is the boat in front, lying diagonally. Apart from the gentle tonality, I have always been fascinated by van der Capelle’s treatment of the ground plane.

“This is the guard speaking with a message for the customer who just got on with a large plain (plane?) cross; you left half of it behind on the platform. I’ve got it here with me now. I’m in the fourth carriage from the front waiting for you”

Albertian Space

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

Traditionally in Albertian space, the ground plane, the Renaissance pavement, is an opaque, unyielding surface, where figures can stand, buildings can be constructed with no fear of falling through that solid ground. Even in marine paintings, the sea is usually fairly solid and boats sit/ float on top of it like a ruffled carpet on a hard floor. The power of a painted storm is the obvious departure from the comforting horizontal format.

For Albertian space to be convincing, we must feel we can traverse it, usually on foot. In this van der Capelle image the ‘pavement’, the skin of the world is the thickness and transparency of a soap bubble; we would fall through. But fall through to where? The reflected world is equally real, as though, in fact, it is us that is upside down and the reflection is reality. The boundaries between one world and the next are confused. In a very calm world there is unease. To some extent this is the familiar artist game with mirrors, playing with spaces within pictorial spaces (think of The Arnolfini portrait, or Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres). These mirror reflections are in planes parallel to the picture plane, parallel to us looking at them. The game relates to the role of pictorial space in the first place; the function of illusion. Can we say the same with a horizontal plane?

Outside the British Car Auctions, in front of an enormous queue of waiting cars, two young men are playing football with a very white ping pong ball.

The Reflective Ground Plane

To get closer to what is happening in ‘Large Ferry’ try comparing it with another familiar image of reflections in calm water, Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’,

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', 1648. oil on canvas. 118 x 198 cm. National Gallery, London

look at the lake in the mid ground, the reflections of the buildings do not, surprisingly perhaps, destroy the flatness of the surface, the watery ground plane still happily continues on its journey to the infinite horizon. Or, any of Turner’s reflections in calm waters:

J M W Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up', 1839. oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London

‘The Fighting Temeraire’, or

J M W Turner: 'Norham Castle Sunrise', 1845. oil on canvas, 90 x 121 cm. Tate Britain.

‘Norham Castle Sunrise’, you could traverse these flat, reflective ground planes without once thinking of falling through. Their function is to create space, to reflect the sky, to promote the narrative; but they are always an unyielding surface. Depth in these paintings goes horizontally, into the space not, as it were, down through it, as we can see in ‘Large Ferry’. Down into another world? Where does that other world lead to, do they do things differently there? This is the familiar trope from children’s fiction: the land behind the wardrobe; the rabbit hole; the looking glass. As Auden wrote in ‘As I walked out one evening’

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead’

 

The Viewing Experience

Maybe this sense of unease is why this room of unassuming Dutch landscape paintings is always empty. Or, it might reflect my thesis that our behaviour this side of the picture plane is, to some extent, governed by the organisation of the space on the far side of the picture plane. This painting is hung in one of the quietest and calmest areas of the National Gallery, I have rarely seen anyone in this room, the few viewers rarely stay for more than a minute or two. Numberless hordes pass nearby, yet, like this painting, all in Room Twenty Two is still: waiting.