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

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

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

Sat in front of Rubens’ Het Steen (as always when in London), having just come from the Frank Auerbach retrospective at tate Britain. Looking at the sky above Malines and the Cathedral of St Rombout (the tower on the horizon) in the Rubens landscape, I realise that Auerbach was also a careful placer of skies and horizon lines, aerial space in his compositions carries weight and importance. Who knew that the air above Mornington Crescent, an undistinguished part of north London, could have such presence?

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991. Oil on Canvas

Frank Auerbach Mornington Crescent Early Morning 1991. Oil on Canvas

Auerbach is all about the translation from drawn line to painted surface, from flat graphic notation to the thickest possible build-up of deeply textured surface. This works best on the smaller scale of portraiture, less so in the landscape

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

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

In the larger pictorial depth of his cityscapes, the relationship between determinedly flat drawn mark and three dimensional space is too close, the repeated zig zag of Auerbach’s notational system tends to flatten space.

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

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

Het Steen is a painted world first not a graphically derived one, but both artists use an illusionistic ground plane on which to build their constructions, both depend on a viewpoint suspended way above the usual eyeline of a standing figure. Tone in Rubens is carefully modulated with a tightly limited palette related to narrative, autumn in this case. Although there are seasonal and diurnal references in his titles and the play of contrast, Auerbach favours a range of pinks and greens; an early Modernist palette in fact.

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

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

Our route through Auerbach’s space tends to be organised by the planes of buildings, scaffolding and other big forms that follow roads and boundaries. In Het Steen, hedges, or rather grown out hedges lines marked by trees; field boundaries lead us to Malines. In England hedges have a political aspect, the Enclosure Act, but here the boundary marker, a hedge for example or dyke or ditch in the Low Countries, is such a useful device to delineate the ground plane, to act as an orthogonal or transversal, how would Western Landscape art have developed without them?

Art that creates interest, often does so by locating the viewer. Interesting art asks the question: ‘where are you?’ van Eyck’s ‘Arnofini Portrait’ for example where we are made to stand in the doorway as witness, Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ where you have to bend down to look into the tent, diminished and voyeuristic at the same time.

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

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

Or Mike Nelson’s installation ‘I, Impostor’, which turns you into an investigator as you try to work out what you are walking through.

Location of the viewer is most obvious, obviously, in landscape painting, pictorial space designed to take the viewing eye to the distant horizon. The triangulation on the far side of the picture plane is mirrored on the viewing side, we are located; the traditional one eyed viewing position etc.

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

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

I am sat once again in front of Rubens’ ‘Het Steen’ in the National Gallery, London, I have not been here for three years. I have just come from the Peter Lanyon gliding exhibition at the Courtauld. Rubens and Lanyon: two ends of representing landscape on a two dimensional surface.

 

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

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

Lanyon matters, he was essentially a figurative painter in that he clearly derived his mark making from external sources and specific personal experience; the paintings at the Courtauld are taken from gliding above the coast around St Ives, Cornwall in the South West of England.

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

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

But, it seems to me that Lanyon was one of the first, if not the first, figurative painter to reproduce the three dimensional movement of the artist (in his glider), the movement of air around and land beneath the artist, in such a way that the viewer is enfolded within that movement. Futurism presented a moving figure within the usual box like painted space,

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

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

Cubist forms might be opened up, turned around and stuck on the picture plane, but they are still manipulated for the eye/s of a studio bound painter inside a rectangular room. The celebrated flatness of High Modernism? I have always felt that one is supposed to kneel in front of a painting by Lanyon’s friend, Rothko and process parallel to the painted surface of a Pollock. There is no static viewing position in Lanyon’s Gliding paintings because this is not static pictorial space, it is fluid and boundaryless, there is no horizon arranged according to Golden Section and linear geometry. This is art that is genuinely moving in every sense; particularly given that Lanyon died in a gliding accident not long after the last of these paintings was made.

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

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

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

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

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

The scene is laid out for our pleasure; we own the view. My first sight of the painting after many adventures in lands that do without pictorial space (see markandmaryinuganda for more), reminds me of the oddity of the proportions of the constituents.

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

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

The large ducks under the miniature but detailed thorn tree for example, particularly when compared to the full sized tree of the grown out hedge lines that recede in reasonable depth. Other figures do not correspond either, the carter, his wife and horses are too small to match the hunter.

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

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

The house, oddly given that it is the central point of the painting, is too small for the traditional rules of pictorial space receding to a vanishing point on a distant horizon.  This ‘staffage’ (art history term for unidentified figures in a painting) is used to make areas of focus, again a Dutch method of moving the eye around inside a painting. But, and here is the difference to Lanyon, such a technique assumes a stationary contemplative viewer not an active one moving through all three dimensions.

Sitting on the bench in front the Rubens I am also reminded of the behaviour of my fellow viewers. They march, never still always on to the next painting, nothing static about them either as they take selfies in front of Het Steen; their faces are areas of focus in front of flat decoration.

Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap

As I walked the Lanyon exhibition with a colleague from the old days of punk, discussing the role that pictorial space plays in the relationship between viewer and artist, we arrived at a wonderfully unconvincing metaphor. The artist wielded traditional pictorial space like a would-be rock god, standing high on the stage, hair streaming in the wind machine, huge guitar thrust towards the adoring audience dominating them all with his prowess and genius. Art like Lanyon’s, art that moves on either side of a notional or actual picture plane, that sort of art reminded us of a few folk musicians setting up in the bar, all could join in, experience and prowess were neither necessary nor a barrier, everyone would be part of the show. OK, maybe the image wasn’t so good or very accurate either, but you get the picture?

From the Garden in Kirombe, Gulu, Northern Uganda, 2014

From the Garden in Kirombe, Gulu, Northern Uganda, 2014

From the 17th of January I will be in Northern Uganda, working as a  VSO volunteer in the vocational training institutes set up to help youth displaced by conflict. I will be writing another blog: Mark and Mary in Uganda

Do please visit to see how we are getting on. Or, if you wish to contribute something, please have a look at our Just Giving site

I hope to be writing about art and the imagery I find here in the near future.

Back of the Compound, Kirombe, Gulu, Northern Uganda, 2014

Back of the Compound, Kirombe, Gulu, Northern Uganda, 2014

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)

Cy Twombly: ‘Untitled (Camino Real II), 2011. Acrylic on Canvas, 252 x 187 cm

Britannia Street is in refurbished Victorian warehouse land, near three major London railway stations. The architectural fantasy of the London Midland Hotel in front of St Pancras station and the lesser glories of Kings Cross and Euston; machines made for moving goods from here to there, for making money by relocating materials.

The gallery is a whitewashed box with polished grey concrete floors. Important men in preppy American clothes, slightly too young for them, boss about the inevitable blonde young women sitting on reception. Eight rectangular paintings are symmetrically arranged on the walls, red and yellow gestural marks in looping dripped paint on a vivid light green background. In traditional imagery these are rich colours their combination could suggest the glories of a late summer, the warmth of the sun, wealth of the earth and the fecundity of nature; is that the case here? The yellow is semi-transparent and makes orange where it lays against the red, but against that flat artificial green any depth, pictorial or metaphorical, dies away.

The marks then: in some of the paintings they are similar to handwriting, familiar from much earlier Twombly series, ‘Quattro Stagioni’ from 1993-5 for example.

Cy Twombly: ‘Quattro Stagioni: Estate’, 1993-5. Acrylic and Graphite on Canvas. 314 x 215 cm. Tate, London.

But the long repeated loops look closer to the Bacchus paintings from 2005 onwards, the loopings of practice examples that come before fully competent script.

Cy Twombly: ‘Untitled (Bacchus Series)’, 2006-8. Acrylic on Canvas.

The Camino Real gestures are quick, un-sensual. The flat acrylic paint has a slight industrial sheen, all painted with the same thickness of brush, 4 inches at a guess. There is evidence of re-painting, the green covering earlier red loops in some works. They are sections, the marks are not contained within their rectangles, they appear cut out from a larger surface. Any sense of movement and joy that one could find in those earlier paintings seems to be negated here by the aggressive verticals of the dripped red against the green background.

Cy Twombly: ‘Untitled (Camino Real IV), 2011. Acrylic on Canvas, 252 x 187 cm

We are made insistently aware by the gallery that these where Twombly’s last works, and therefore all the implications that might follow. The paintings avoid melancholy although there is a certain weary aggression about them all. Should we therefore be making comparisons with the notional purple period that signals an artist’s last resolution of painterly form, before he goes to the great Private View in the sky to swap prices and studio talk with the greats? After the Turner/ Monet/ Twombly show the useful comparison would be with the late work of these earlier manipulators of semi abstract paint surfaces. In the Camino Real Series do we see the final self-editing that leads to, for example Monet’s ‘Japanese Footbridge’ series

Claude Monet: ‘The Japanese Footbridge’, 1920-23, Oil on Canvas, 90 x 116 cm, MOMA, New York.

or Turners ‘Sun Setting Over a Lake’? 

JMW Turner: ‘Sun Setting over a Lake’, c1840, Oil on Canvas, 107 X 138 cm Tate, London

Twombly’s ‘Hero and Leandro’ triptych would, I suggest, fit this trope well.

Cy Twombly: ‘Hero and Leandro. Part 1’, 1985, Oil on Canvas, 202 x 254 cm.

These paintings at the Gagosian sadly, are thin, tired and peevish in comparison; the more probable descent into old age for us mere mortals. In this efficient and clinical space, around these eight paintings the modern mechanics who separate cash from materials continue their ceaseless toil.

Can I recommend this excellent review with some really useful information about the Tennessee Williams play ‘Camino Real’ which might, or might not, have some bearing on these paintings

http://icallitoranges.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/last-paintings-of-cy-twombly.html