Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1650-1
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alain de Botton's recent ideas for making art more popular have not gone down well with the critics: 'pointless''smarmy and banal', 'merely stupid or simply patronising'.  Perhaps an alternative to trying to engage with 'Art as Therapy', would be for more people to take a lead from T. J. Clark's unpromisingly-titled but highly rewarding book The Sight of Death.  The idea behind it was a simple one: to return repeatedly to an art museum (the Getty) and look at the two Poussin paintings I've reproduced here, engaging with them as paintings and writing down each day's discoveries.  Clark deliberately did not research them in advance, he just looked at them closely, in a way that any of us could.  The result, as writer/psychotherapist Adam Philips wrote in his 2006 review, is more than just a detailed account of these landscapes, it is a book 'about what having a good look might mean at a time when most contemporary imagery, by showing us everything, doesn't want us to see too much'. 

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When you attend closely to a painting you start to appreciate all the choices the artist made - in Poussin, for example, there are his tiny details, like the two figures talking on the brow of the hill in Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake.  This part of the painting is discussed in The Sight of Death (in the entry for 13 April 2000) and I will quote a few sentences to exemplify the way Clark writes about it.  Here he is thinking about the extent to which Poussin's details relate to the painting's overall structure:
'Right in the middle of the crisscross of greenery here Poussin suddenly interjects a partial opening into the sky, and not content with the offer of a roofline and white light that this enables, he puts a marvelous tiny square of white into the architecture, as if finally we are looking at the sky through an empty (ruined?) window.  Or maybe somehow a pane of glass is glinting in the sun.  The blip of white connects with one or two others close by, picking out the sky higher up in the foliage.  But the window is essentially gratuitious - profoundly unnecessary, un-structural.  It is pure delight.'

Clark's final entry in November 2003 is rather dispiriting.  Snake had been returned from the Getty, where it was on loan, to the National Gallery.  There he encountered it hung right near the exit, in the Yves Saint Laurent Room, under 'lighting apparently borrowed from an indoor swimming pool in Tooting Bec'.  He describes sitting, 'miserable and stupefied for an hour or so, listening to the songs played by the cell phones', along with the 'mild hysteria of twelve-year-olds' and their shushing teachers in the assembly area for school visits next door.  He estimates that thirty-plus people a minute stream past Poussin's painting, 'one or two of whom give it a passing glance.'  But, then, he reflects, this painting has suffered many indignities over the centuries, from the darkening effect of smoke to the pressure of a restorer's iron.  He ends on note of optimism: 'one of these days Snake will go on its travels again - back to Room 20 would be a start - daylight will catch it, and new viewers stop at the sight of death.'

Although not a new viewer, I did go and have a long look at Snake on a rainy Bank Holiday afternoon this week, to see what new things I could see in it.  I am happy to report that it is no longer in the Yves Saint Laurent room -  that unfortunate spot now seems to be taken by Claude's Landscape with Cephalus and Procris reunited by Diana.  Instead it can be found in Room 19, surrounded by other Poussins and directly opposite the extremely sexy Nymph with Satyrs.  Of course I was not able to sit contemplating it undisturbed, but it was possible to ignore the groups of teenagers wondering through the room chatting.  At one point an insistent ring tone was finally answered by a woman standing right in front of Snake, but she was ushered away fairly quickly by an attendant.  The National Gallery may not be as tranquil as the Getty, but I still spent a satisfying half hour in the company of Snake.

The longer I looked the more I found to think about, and despite having read T. J. Clark's 260 pages I came away convinced I had seen one or two things he doesn't mention (for instance, that the postures of the three fishermen seem to rhyme with the running man, the washerwoman and her bag).  Perhaps those visitors walking past me and ignoring all this would have been detained by a philosophical or therapeutic post-it note, like those Alain De Botton has had placed around the Rijksmuseum, although I like to think they really just needed persuading to stop for a while and look.  As Anita Brookner points out in her review of The Sight of Death, Poussin himself is usually seen as a ‘peintre-philosophe’, but Clark shows us how he was also a pure maker.  What the book demonstrates 'is that the best antidote to reading is looking.' This, she concludes, 'is the way to see pictures.'

Monday, May 26, 2014

Coniston Water

During our trip to the Lake District last week we stayed in Coniston and went to visit Ruskin's old home at Brantwood (above).  There was much of interest there, although Mrs Plinius expressed some disappointment that the decor, objects and furniture were not more beautiful.  Ruskin, it seems, cared little for interior decoration.  In the 1883 Preface to Modern Painters he wrote that he had often been asked 'by the æsthetic cliques of London' (maybe that's people like us) why
'in the pictures they have seen of my home, there is no attempt whatever to secure harmonies of colour, or form, in furniture. My answer is, that I am entirely independent for daily happiness upon the sensual qualities of form or colour; that, when I want them, I take them either from the sky or the fields, not from my walls, which might be either whitewashed, or painted like a harlequin’s jacket, for aught I care; but that the slightest incident which interrupts the harmony of feeling and association in a landscape, destroys it all to me, poisoning the entire faculty of contemplation. From my dining-room, I am happy in the view of the lower reach of Coniston Water, not because it is particularly beautiful, but because it is entirely pastoral and pure. Were a single point of chimney of the Barrow iron-works to show itself over the green ridge of the hill, I should never care to look at it more.'
Happily, as you can see in the photograph I took below from The Coniston Steam Yacht Gondola, the view from Brantwood is still 'pastoral and pure'.  There was even a cow posing obligingly for me at the edge of the lake.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Yellow & Blue

A poetry reading by Thomas A. Clark is a rare and special occasion, so we took leave this week and headed up to Grasmere to hear him.  Earlier this year Carcanet published a new collection, Yellow & Blue - 'a series of small acts of attention, repeated attempts to step outside the circle of human concern and into a wider responsibility to the natural world.'  It begins in an empty landscape, as a scree slope tumbles unregarded into a green lochan, but signs of human activity soon become apparent - in a dripping rope, plastic piled up by a storm, the remnant of a net clinging to a teasel head. And whilst this book, like his earlier collections, suggests ways of being in the world and attending to rocks and water, trees and flowers, light and shadow, it does not neglect the history of the Highlands and Islands, imagining moments in the lives of those whose abandoned homes are only occupied now by the sheep.  'Bending down / by the burn / to pick fresh / water mint / did they pause / for a moment / out of the wind.'  As we listened to these poems in the comfortable book-lined reading room of the Jerwood Centre, thunder could be heard gathering outside over the darkening fells.  The storm died away, the reading came to an end and we headed off into the night.  Yellow & Blue ends in two forms of illumination... 'a lamp of fish oil / with a wick of rushes / gathered by the light / of the full moon.'

Postscript: Before the reading began we saw staff at the Jerwood setting up a new exhibition, 'Wordsworth and Basho: Walking Poets', which will feature new work by contemporary artists.  It was a pity to miss this - it starts this weekend and runs until November - but we managed one or two other things in the Lake District that I might mention here.  The photograph above is from a walk we did near Coniston Water on the morning of the reading.

Friday, May 09, 2014


We were in Margate recently and saw the new installation by Edmund de Waal, atmosphere.  As usual in his recent work, the vitrines and their arrangement in space are as important as the small porcelain vessels they contain.  The title comes from Turner's remark to Ruskin, "atmosphere is my style" and the vitrines floating in the gallery correspond to Thomas Forster's poetic cloud classifications (the lists above are part of an accompanying text piece).  One of these vitrines is fully transparent but the pots in the others are only partially visible as shadowy forms behind clouded glass.  "When thinking about the changing landscape of clouds," De Waal writes, "I remember Constable's beautiful letter about lying on his back and doing 'a great deal of skying.'" The gallery provides cushions to encourage you to look up at the vitrines from below and do some indoor skying, although for me this emphasised how unavoidably static these sculptures are compared to the real cloudscape outside. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Blood Meridian

'Blood Meridian is also a novel about place, about the landscape of Texas and Chihuahua and Sonora; a kind of anti-pastoral novel in which the landscape looms in its leading role, imposingly—truly the new world, silent and paradigmatic and hideous, with room for everything except human beings. It could be said that the landscape of Blood Meridian is a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia, laws by which time often manifests itself.' 
- Roberto Bolaño, Between Parentheses, quoted in The Paris Review.
There is extraordinary landscape writing in every chapter of Blood Meridian, although given the accumulation of bloody events described in Cormac McCarthy's novel it is perhaps not too surprising to see this went unremarked in the original New York Times review.  Nevertheless, in a recent Guardian article the Alaskan writer David Vann concludes that because 'we have no access to the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters ... the landscape and human violence in the landscape come to the fore.  Blood Meridian is the Inferno of our time, though the architecture has changed. Hell here is an open desert landscape, an endless journey past demonic shapes and beings living and dead.'  In fact this desert does come to an end eventually, but when the novel's protagonist finally reaches the ocean at San Diego there is no real respite.  He stands by the tideline, contemplating a single horse, dark against the darkening sky, 'watching, out there past men's knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.'

It is hard to convey the quality of McCarthy's metaphorical landscapes without quoting directly from the text.  Here then are a few sentences from the beginning of Chapter XIV, descriptions of the journey taken by the scalphunters after leaving Chihuahua, from where they turned west and headed, 'infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.' 
They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning rang the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals that would not be driven off.

They crossed a flooded plain with the footed shapes of the horses reflected in the water among clouds and mountains and the riders slumped forward and rightly skeptic of the shimmering cities on the distant shore of that sea whereon they trod miraculous.
They climbed up through rolling grasslands where small birds shied away chittering down the wind and a buzzard labored up from among bones with wings that went whoop whoop whoop like a child's toy swung on a string and in the long red sunset the sheets of water on the plain below them lay like tidepools of primal blood.

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wild-flowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest
serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising out of nothing like
the backs of seabeasts in a devonian dawn.

They rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Agony in the Garden

Paolo Veronese, The Annointing of David, c. 1550
During the spiritualism craze that swept Victorian London in the 1860s, John Ruskin would occasionally allow himself to be brought along by fashionable ladies to complete the circle at séances. On one such evening, Ruskin and a group of earnest seekers had seated themselves around an elegant table in a darkened Mayfair drawing room. They were trying to access "the other side" when the medium in charge suddenly announced in a quavering voice: "John Ruskin! John Ruskin! Do you wish to speak to your grandmother?"
"I do not," Ruskin replied with alacrity, "I wish to speak to Paolo Veronese."
- Dave Hickey in Art in America, November 2000.
Ruskin's admiration for Veronese is one good reason for visiting the National Gallery's impressive retrospective of the great Venetian (which begins with a striking quotation from Bernard Berenson: “It may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed.”)  Given Ruskin's importance for landscape art, I think it's fascinating that he was so inspired by an artist who rarely includes any scenery at all.  And yet many of Veronese's theatrical figure paintings are set outside - what Veronese does is create sheltered spaces that occlude the wider landscape almost entirely: the dark side of a ruin in The Annointing of David (above) for instance, or the rocky hillside in Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness.  The low viewpoint in The Resurrection of Christ leaves us looking up, like the soldiers shielding their eyes, at the ascending figure in a haze of heavenly light, but it also means that we can see no distracting scenery beyond the open tomb and ruined wall.  The National Gallery's Saint Helena sits at a window but all we can see outside is a grey sky and the figures in her dream.  At last, near the end of the exhibition I came to The Agony in the Garden, where landscape takes up half the painting, but it is a night scene and the closer I got to try to see into it, the more the features of the garden lost their form and revealed themselves to be merely the strokes of paintbrush.