Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great Forest

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Forest, 1655-60

Peter Handke's text The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980) unsurprisingly focuses on C├ęzanne and the landscape of Provence, but it ends with a painting by Ruisdael, The Great Forest, which can be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a detailed description of a walk to an unregarded stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Salzburg.  As Handke points out, the title of Ruisdael's painting may simply refer to its size (1800 x 1390cm) rather than the scale of the forest it depicts, which at first sight hardly appears 'great'.  Then again, perhaps in this picture we are only at the beginning of the forest.  The wayfarer may simply have 'turned to cast a look before going deeper into the woods.  The feeling of spaciousness is further intensified by a peculiarity of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes: for all the minuteness of their forms, they nevertheless, with their patches of water, their roads over dunes, their dark woods (under spacious skies), begin to grow as one beholds them' (trans. Ralph Manheim).

The woodland Handke walks to from Salzberg is also nothing like a great forest, 'yet it is wonderfully real'.  Few in Salzberg know of this space, lying between the city and the castle of Hellbrunn: 'here there are only logging roads and irregular paths, and you seldom see a walker; at the most you may hear a jogger's panting and see the skin of this face, mask replacing mask, change from dead to alive and back again at every step.'  Handke's description of the forest is as detailed as Ruisdael's and as attentive to light and colour.  Trying to follow his route on Google Earth (see my aerial view of the woodland below) only emphasises the unreality of that medium as it currently stands and its inadequacy in comparison with Handke's prose.  But this is not an idyllic landscape isolated from the surrounding suburbs.  At the end of his walk, Handke stands looking at polystyrene floating on a pond and a woodpile covered in plastic tarp.  We know from earlier in the book that a woodpile has complex associations for Handke and here in the woods it stimulates a kind of epiphany, a brief Tree of Life-style cosmic reverie.  The forest opens onto a vast spaciousness that encompasses both space and time.  Then it is over and he takes a deep breath and sets off back along the path to return to the city.

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