Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 17th August

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

A slight return; breaking up is hard to do. I have been looking at this painting for over thirty years, but the thrill has gone. Have we come to the point where is there is little left to say we haven’t said? Except of course that it’s been a good year for the roses.

What does one do after a breakup, go and find another painting to look at for the next thirty years? I’m feeling guilty about it but I have been drawn, increasingly so, to the Rembrandt room especially the ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’.

Rembrandt: ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’, 1669, oil on canvas, 86 x 71 cm. National Gallery

I am not quite that old yet, but the gloom and weariness around the eyes, the way in which the texture tells us much as the head that it composes; there is a lot to look at there. Rembrandt died within a year of painting this, Rubens within four years of painting Het Steen, the methods by which an artist can summarise experience, without resorting to iconography or narrative, are always fascinating. And it is next to that great painting of concupiscence (longing, lust, desire etc), of Heindrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt: ‘Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels’, 1654-6, oil on canvas. National Gallery.

So, back to Het Steen, is it imagination or does the painting look rather brown and tired? A young woman sits on the bench in front of it texting, she has a large purple bag with Etretrat printed on it. Fitting somehow that I should be saying goodbye to a painting that (through the collection of George Beaumont) influenced Constable who, won the Gold Medal in the Paris salon of 1824 for the Hay Wain.

John Constable: ‘The Hay Wain’, 1821, oil on canvas, 130 x 185 cm. National Gallery, London.

His broken brush work much influenced French romantic artists like Delacroix. Delacroix’s colours and evident brush strokes was part of the mix that leads us to Impressionism, along with Constable’s subject matter and his work directly from the motif that Pissarro and Monet studied whilst they were in London during the Franco Prussian war. Many artists painted in Etretat, both Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix: ‘Cliffs at Etretat: The Pied du Cheval ‘, 1838. watercolour on paper. 15 x 20 cm. Musee Marmottan, Paris

and Monet. Monet  in 1868 and 1883, but it was in 1885 that Monet developed his series ideas, painting fifty one canvases in this small seaside town.

Claude Monet: ‘Etretat, Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour’, 1885. Oil on Canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Apparently he would work at up to six different sites at once, employing his children to walk behind him carrying the canvases between them. The young woman with the Etretat bag does not look at Rubens’ landscape before she leaves.

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

So do I change my relationship status? When you’ve lost that loving feeling, you need distance from a relationship before you can evaluate it; ‘you don’t miss your water till the well run dry’ as one reggae lyric puts it. So I just walk away, walk on by, that sun in the top right hand corner ain’t gonna shine anymore, but there’s always something there to remind me. Etc. etc.

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 10th August

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

Rising dawn, the sun chasing away darkness, brightness sweeping across the land taking the carter with it.

In any long-term relationship what do you see when you look at your co-relatee? When that relationship is with a painting you see (mostly) the history of your discoveries. For example when you tried to find figures on the tower. Or, thought about the role of the fallen tree trunk. Or, wondered about the walk to Malines (the tower on the horizon) and how long that walk would take (three or four hours if memory serves). Sitting down to see the work again becomes a reunion not an analysis.

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

There are new things to find, in life as in paintings I’m sure. I’ve just noticed that the horizon is higher at one point, between the trees, without real reason; again demonstrating that this is a painting made for personal pleasure. How are the tallest group of trees today?

Leonardo, in his notebooks says that:

“All the branches of trees at every stage of their height, united together, are equal to the thickness of their trunk”.

Rubens does not quite follow that prescription, perhaps because they are mostly silver birches, Northern trees not following Southern idealised formulas. Although  Ruskin some three hundred and fifty years later writing in ‘Modern Painters’ said much the same thing:

‘First, then neither the stems nor the boughs of any of the above trees taper [oak, elm, ash, hazel, willow, birch, beech, poplar, chestnut, pine, mulberry, olive, ilex, carubbe and such others], except where they fork. Whenever a stem sends of a branch, or a branch a lesser bough, or a lesser bow a bud, the stem or the branch is, on the instant, less in diameter by the exact quantity of the branch or the bough they have sent off, and they remain of the same diameter; or if there be any change, rather increase than diminish until they send off another branch or bough. This law is imperative and without exception; …so that if all the twigs and sprays at the top and sides of the tree, which are and have been could be united without loss of space, they would form a round log of the diameter of the trunk from which they spring”

It’s no wonder Ruskin wrote so much, it took him some seven or eight hundred words to say what Leonardo put in twenty.

The gallery is empty this afternoon, a combination of the Olympics and the twenty five minute bag search queue to get in; the theatre of surveillance. Everyone in London seems to be wearing a lanyard around their neck with a huge laminated pass, the most important have several. Are the hunter and the carter and companion wearing their access all area passes to this celebratory pictorial space, the dog too? There are no visible gates and fences, is it an inclusive open area, retirement to a grand manor and vast grounds open to all?

How do you know when a relationship, with a painting anyway, has come to an end or needs a bit of space? I have been writing about this painting for years, ten or more, and looking at it for thirty maybe. But, sadly it might be time for a trial separation. How do you say to an art work: “It’s not you, It’s me”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This moment: the last time I saw his face

Before the horror of the horns, the hide.

I rage and mourn. There can be no redress

Against divine Diana, murderess.”   

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

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

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

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

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

‘O, my America, discovered by slim chance,

Behind, as it seemed, a washing line’

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

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

Het Steen National Gallery, London, Friday Afternoon

You are at an event in the country, you have come to commune with nature, to be at one with the land and to listen to music. Around you are thousands of others doing the same. My own overriding memory from such ‘bucolic’ events is the smell. A combination of the preparation for what goes in one end of the body and the lack of preparation for what comes out the other, mixed with damp, dope and all those unwashed bodies. I have just come from a small exhibition in a London art gallery– A Bucolic Frolic – that attempts to recreate a mythic period and an approach to land and nature; early 1970’s Britain and the first free festivals. Aside from their wish to get away from oppressive and violent law enforcement, those festivals also looked back to earlier attempts to set up arcadias (Blake of course, or the Diggers post English Civil War etc.). Fighting for the spiritual freedom of the land is engrained within strands of British culture from Winstanley and the Diggers attempts to occupy St George’s Hill,  to John Clare to ‘Free the Stones’ (Stonehenge not Mick and Keith)

Tune in, Drop Out, Save the Poster and the Ticket Stub

I’m not sure the exhibition worked, it was neither ephemeral reportage, nor meaningful statement; it was too bland, corporate, and slick. It had none of the edge, anger and lyricism of Butterworth’s play, ‘Jerusalem’ that tackled a similar subject. The gallery didn’t smell either; the show had none of that intensity. It was branding, commodifying the past; reinforcing capitalism by heroising souvenirs of those who wanted to destroy it. Depressingly, that seems the fate of any recent period trying to stand outside economic and social structures; look at punk. Don’t throw away those flyers from grim gigs in your youth, they’ll be worth money soon.

Fun with Archetypes

The way in which we manipulate, and perhaps more tellingly, perceive standard tropes/ stock figures/ clichéd set-ups is a useful diagnostic tool. Each culture perceives ‘Nature’ in a characteristic manner, ‘Family’ in another and so on. Here are three descriptions of figures from my train journey this afternoon, each could be read in different ways. The way/s in which you think of them could illuminate how we perceive imagery about our period (contemporary or not, nostalgic or descriptive), the myths through which we negotiate our world.

  • Alongside the delayed train that waits sighing and clicking, are vivid purple buddleia flowers, coated with dust from the rubbish reclamation plant. Looking through them to a set of stacked containers that served as offices, I see at ground level, a man in bright orange overalls standing in a familiar pose with his back to the tracks. He finishes urinating against the lowest container, zips up his fluorescent boiler suit and climbs the ladder up to the top row office.
  • Later, during another stop, I watch an older man (grandfather?) in a new playground. Each activity is shiny and sits separate in its own circle of rubber matting. The man is turning a bright yellow roundabout peopled by large plastic figures, a child (grandchild?) watches from a distance.
  • On the train I can see a man in a strikingly pink polo shirt eating from a large bag of crisps. He has a brushed forward and dyed haircut that largely covers the face. A style popular with 1980’s pop bands, now current amongst public school boys (usually without the dye). I assume he is the latter until see his face, portly, lined and unshaven; perhaps the former then.

Het Steen

There is no obvious ‘Nature’ myth here really, no green man peering through the trees, Flora is not wafting about in a Laura Ashley nightie, nor are her majesty’s finest marching across the beanfield.

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

The often quoted references to Horace or Virgil are more in supposition, reference to the sources the classically trained Rubens would know, rather than any specific illustration. It is an idealised version of a contemporary landscape without English whimsy or outright reference to Flemish genre. You could make a case for the carter and companion, or perhaps the hunter, but Het Steen lacks the heavy handed references to bucolic peasantry and moral tales that characterises such imagery; Bruegel’s  ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ for instance.

Pieter Bruegel: ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, 1558. 73.5 x 112 cm. Oil on Canvas. Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

He’s Got This Dream About Buying Some Land…

There is, as I have established before, no outright moral purpose or didactic intent; the land just is. Unlike sharp young men in London galleries and ambitious academics seeing an opportunity, Rubens is not trying to make any overarching statements about alternate worlds, hoping for someone else’s radicalism to rub off on him. There are just rounded trees, golden light, no bountiful crops or cornucopia, merely lots of soothing greens and yellows suitable for a man ending his days.

Come to the Het Steen Free Festival, Phun for All

Mind you there is enough space here, across those flat fields to stage a serious Glastonbury Fayre. Like the first Pilton Festival on Worthy Farm in 1970, you could easily use the house as the headquarters, and free milk for all from the cows, of such things are myths and art shows made.

 

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

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

Artists Rooms: Richard Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circling Around the Problem

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

Richard Long: ‘Concentric Days’, 1996

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

Does a Painted Circle have the Same Meaning?

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

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

No? How do we know that is so?

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

A Ring of Hands

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

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

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

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

That ring is the crucial image.

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

Pictorial Space

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

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

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

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

The Viewer Within the Painted Space

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

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

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

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

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

and a circle?

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

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

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

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.

 

Art is about things, about our relationship to things, to the thing that is the art and our nuanced return to things after seeing the art thing.

Perhaps to emphasise the haptic in our relationship with the world, perhaps because I wanted too many things, my parents once set me a task. I would have been about twelve or thirteen, I had to make my own bowl to eat from, make it with what I could find from the woods around our home. I dug the clay from the garden (and yes inevitably it was from the centre of the lawn), built a bell shaped kiln with bricks and more clay (from another part of the lawn), kept it alight for a day and a long night. Broke up the kiln, glazed the bowl with ash from the fire and water from a stream, re-built the kiln (more holes in the lawn), fired it again over an even longer night.

It would be nice to report a beautiful wood ash green, glazed bowl in an elegant Bernard Leach form. My lumpy, burnt coil pot had a certain pre-school aesthetic, there were bits of stick and brick in the glaze where it stuck, and it leaked. So, no epiphany then, but a greater understanding of process and it was great to be out in the woods at night, the opposite of scary; quiet and thoughtful.

Encounters with Art

As part of the National Gallery’s ‘Encounters with Art’ series of talks, Edmund de Waal the potter and writer, spoke, (very well indeed) on writing about art, his difficulties with the complexities of such encounters, in particular his search for art work once owned by a relative: Charles Ephrussi. Not, as he pointed out to his son in the audience, that any of the paintings he identified would form any part of his own inheritance.

Still Life and the Stilling of the World

In his discussion of the importance of still life De Waal described it as an art form that

‘stills the world…giving us time to look…the Still Life takes you back to when an object is put into the world and the world goes into silence… an object taking dominion of being there, about the rendezvous between object and person’

Back Into the Gallery

Zurbaran’s ‘Cup of Water and a Rose’ was a painting he came back to several times.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

After the talk, as instructed, I returned to it, a small painting in the corner of Room Thirty  surrounded by larger, bombastic Spanish paintings. This image of a cup, plate and flower draws the eye like nothing else in that large corridor like room of art works queuing and jostling for immortality.

What about this painting makes the world go into silence? Is it in the gentle lowering of ellipses from the back, upper rim of the cup into the water, echoed by the bottom of the cup on the plate?

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Ellipses.

The circle is a perfect and spiritual form celebrated throughout most cultures, but Zurbaran’s circular forms are human, battered slightly, removed from god to man. Not quite as battered as my coil pot though, far more elegant. ‘Cup of Water and a Rose’ doesn’t have the mathematical, compositional perfection of his near contemporary, Cotan, for example.

Juan Sanchez Cotan: ‘Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber’, 1602. Oil on Canvas, 69 x 85 cm. San Diego Museum of Art.

Nor does Zurbaran, like Dutch Still Life painters, invite us to believe we are looking at real objects; it is always a painting, the close tonal relationship of the colours slowing and calming the eye.

Iconography?

You can make an iconographic analysis of Zurbaran’s painting.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

You could say that it refers to the Virgin Mary and the Sevillanos fascination with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Water is the Marian symbol for purity, silver is a material associated with the moon and femininity and so on; but I think that would miss the point. This is not, fundamentally, a Vanitas nor is it entirely a Christian meditation. In essence it is, as De Waal showed, a painting about looking, about what it is like to look at things; it is also about what it is like to look at things in order to paint them. In that sense, the representation of the act of creation, one could say that it is a religious study; the creativity of the artist mirrors/ is guided by/ is inspired by that of his creator.

Getting a Handle on it

The clue to all this is in the right cup handle,

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Handle.

the one in shade that just catches the light; we are all in the shadow but we can all be beautiful. The turn of that handle, the edge of the earthenware, the slight upturn where the potter stuck the cheese hard clay with water to the recently turned cylinder (see the pair of lines between handles and rim) brings us to the very processes by which that object and this painting was made; craft. Craft perfected over time, time after time. As the hand that painted that handle, so the hand that squeezed the clay to make the handle; both had performed that act countless times to give it that nonchalant placing. Perhaps if I had spent many, many nights in the woods, I too could have made pots like this, or perhaps not.

An Elemental Art

It is that familiarity with materiality that pervades this painting; it is where the meaning lies. We have here, if you want to look at it that way, basic elements: earth in the clay and in the ore that will provide the silver; fire in the heating of that clay and the turning of ore into metal and of course we have water. We have the juxtaposition of hard and soft: rose and cup, solid and fluid: fluidity in the water and in those liquid materials that have now turned solid, molten metal and the glaze that waterproofs the cup and of course in the reflections that run around rim of the plate. Beauty, the rose and function, the cup, a perfect balance.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

Formed of the Dust of the Ground

The representation of the transformation of materials from the earth is presented in the act of looking via materials taken from the earth. The basic palette here is composed from metals: lead white; tin yellows; verdigris , minerals: lapis lazuli for the ultramarine; all the earth colours like umbers and red and green earths, and organic materials: reds from insects and carbon blacks from burning of things like bones. Hard intransigent materials, rocks and bones are (like earth into cups and dug ore into plates) made liquid and like the carefully squeezed handle, transformed into a beautiful record of the beautiful things that have been seen.

What Doest Thou Here Elijah?

“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

(1 Kings 19:11-13. King James Version )

I’m not sure Elijah got this quite right, if we shift the spirituality a bit and take the Lord to be the process of creativity, then creativity is as much in the fire as it is in the result of that fire, and that is, after all, why this painting stills the world. We see in this still, small image all those processes, but balanced and at rest, a ‘stilling…the ‘capturing of something in flight’ as De Waal put it.

A Happy Haptic World

It is also why a twelve year old boy didn’t mind that his pot looked awful, it was the elemental making of it that mattered, a process that perhaps put him on the route to being a maker of art things in the future; although definitely not a potter.

Oh and if you haven’t already, and why not, you must read ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ and ‘The Pot Book’ both by Edmund De Waal.

Edmund De Waal: ‘The Plain Sense of Things’, 2011