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Walking and Art

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.

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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.