“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,
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?
· 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)
· 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 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)