With hindsight

Hindsight has been producing many thoughtful analyses of the dramas that litter human history – the Greek crisis being no exception.  

With hindsight, many experts now agree that the 1st Greek bail-out in 2010 should have focused more on supporting the Greeks themselves instead of bailing out the creditor-banks (but then, at the time, there was still a pervasive fear of a collapse of the banking system, so vulnerable banks were to be sheltered from further damages ). 

With hindsight, everybody now agrees that Greece was not a country ready yet to join the Euro (but, then, how could a quintessential European project exclude the country that is the cradle of European civilisation? ) 

Throughout history, historians and economists agree, with hindsight,  that the vanquished party should not be humiliated with punitive reparation demands (but then, one cannot let rogue countries get away with everything . Moreover, in the heat of the historical moment, how can one know whether it is a Sarajevo or München -situation? )

Hannah Arendt called forgiveness one of the principal political virtues (alongside courage and the willingness to make and keep promises): because no one, upon deciding and acting, can ever fully foresee the consequences.  
(But should  one also forgive those of bad faith or of proven imprudence, be it Greek superrich who benefited from the fiscal laxity - and who in the meantime have funnelled their wealth to London and Switzerland - or greedy imprudent northern banks? )  

What The Economist writes:  “Brinkmanship and crisis […] are aggravated by the euro zone’s reliance on ad hoc bail-outs, which politicise every decision. They set one side against another, breeding contempt among the creditors and resentment among the debtors. They turn wise policies into concessions that should not be given up to the other side until the last minute.”

(Nod to b: what Stiglitz writes in the Guardian ) 

art history in the park

There are painters who appeal intuitively and who inspire a love at first sight. Others require more interpretative equipment, more training of the eye before they become an acquired taste. 

And then there are painters, however canonised, that continue to elude one. For me, Velazquez is such a painter. I’ve been duly reading up on him.  Marshalling the best of my concentration, I’ve been looking intently at some of his most acclaimed masterworks. 
But instead of being moved, instead of aesthetic elation,  this utter attention so far only produced bafflement (and the beginning of a headache). Clearly I’m not asking the right questions. Clearly I am not looking at what it is he has on offer. 

It’s as if I just cannot connect to his particular style. At best I see in his paintings evocations of other approaches, other styles.  
His earlier work fits into Spanish realism, with a hint of stark caravaggism. Some of his later paintings enchant (and equally trouble) as hazy reminiscences of Venetian paintings.  
 Other paintings seem adumbrations of later styles – a hint of melancholy Watteau here, a soupçon of cynical Goya there.  Many even seem to announce impressionist methods, albeit in a 17th century setting : they are fleeting visual impressions evoked by splotches of paint -  abandoning precision, reneging on the tactile values of corporeality and depth.  

But then, maybe it’s exactly because of this protean quality that he is called a painter’s painter?

However, there is some permanent Velazquez trait that I am becoming aware of – a certain pensive, even haunting seriousness in his portraits. And one which also applies to his  portraits of women.  

Take this portrait of a Christian martyr,  Saint Justa  , (a pottery professional persecuted for smashing heathen images)  – what kind of expression is that? Neither ecstasy nor devotion.  A rather serious expression, with a hint of sadness. The colour harmony is neither vivacious nor luminous, but quietly, autumnly harmonious.  The composition is simple, but interesting with its formal notes of a diagonal and circles. 

That Velazquez did not refrain from painting teenage queens about to burst into tears, was illustrated  earlier on this blog.
 A follower of his (de Miranda) painted Queen Mariana of Austria some 40 years later – widowed, burdened with regency responsibilities, fanatically catholic  and still  not looking happy .

ghost ships for grown-ups

 Then, as now, I was a naïve art lover.  So the enchantment was immediate:  gazing at those many, amazingly elaborate ships (with billowing sails and look, with canons firing!), at the miniature figures on the pier – dazzled by the panoramic vastness of sea and skies – savouring the sheer luminosity of the oil painting, with those gleaming greenish blueish aquatic hues (1), with the implausible but magic luminosity of the skies.  

Back then, it had been my own personnel pious Rome-voyage and I had been cramming as many Italian art splendours as possible in the space of a modest city trip.  And then, there, in the venerable Doria Pamphilj gallery, I found myself looking at a Bay of Naples painted by an ancient Flemish Italy-traveller.

In these interconnected times, globetrotting has become common, and yet, when an old master’s work travels , this still feels like an event (the insurance company must think so too) .  And yes, it is somehow touching that Bruegel’s Naples painting made it back over the Alps to the North – as proud centrepiece of the exhibit “la Flandre et la Mer” / "Flanders and the Sea" (2)  

The exhibit’s curators have well understood the appeal to the imagination exerted by ships and seascapes throughout the history of art:
  et la part de rêve qu’ils engendrent” (“and the dreaming they  breed”) - so says the notice introducing the room with the many graphical reproductions of Bruegel’s elaborate  vessels ...  and so says the the look of deep concentration and glee on the visitors’ faces.

Sticky notes

  1.   What a wise decision of the Doria Pamphilj gallery to feature a black and white photo – none of the many colour photos in Google’s database come even close to rendering these gleaming hues 
  2.      Heartfelt thanks go to the Northern French for their loving curating of Flemish art in Cassel’s  Musée de Flandre
  3.    In the age of giant containerships, it’s quite touching how attached our imagination remains to images of ancient vessels,  which have lost all utility or relevance.  

So, even in this admittedly frivolous (though poignantly genuine) activity of adults peering at little painted ships, one is tempted to see confirmation of Aby Warburg’s rather more tragic/melancholy definition  of art history as "ghost stories for grown-ups" -  une histoire de fantômes pour grandes personnes” .

Hopefully one may be forgiven to link this fascination exerted by little painted ships of a bygone era to the theory of the “survival” or “stickiness”  of images  in art history (cf as evoked by Georges Didi-Huberman discussing Aby Warburg’s concept of “nachleben”, “survival” of ancient images :  les pouvoirs d’adhérence et de revenance dont les images se montrent porteuses” […] Une image survivante est une image qui, ayant perdu sa valeur d’usage et sa signification de départ, fait cependant retour, comme un fantôme » .