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 » . 

what remains?

Out there in the garden C. was conferring with her brother.

What to do with the old parental house, now that their elderly mother had passed away, two years after their father’s death.  

What to do with the house? And what to do with all the stuff that had accumulated over the years?

There was stuff in the house, stuff in the backyard, and, not least, stuff in the extension to the house: a workplace cluttered with many cases, rusty tools, an ancient wooden workbench and no less than five old bicycle frames. Billions of dust particles were dancing in the light-rays falling through a window shrouded in spider rags.

In the overgrown garden a boisterous abundance of wild flowers and weeds was celebrating spring – flies and bees were humming, high in the sky a plane whirred and somewhere in a tree  a couple of invisible birds added their joyous chirps to the chorus.    

I wandered back inside into the house, through the once cosy kitchen into the formal living room with its sturdy furniture and musty smell.  A rather sombre, oppressive room, especially with the blinds drawn.

But the corridor was full of light, brilliant spring light streaming in through a window in the stair case.    

A transparent plastic laundry bag with a skirt hung on the coat rack. The yellow laundry ticket was still stuck on the coat hanger, conveying a sense of lively immediacy – as if the owner had only just walked through the door, suspending the bag on the rack to go into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of coffee. 

war weather reports, “plein air” painting and the aesthetics of pollution

War reporter or flâneur?

I was not going to read any more first world war books. But there was this one book I had started reading a couple of years ago and that for some reason or other had migrated out of sight, to the bottom of a pile of books.  Scanning the room for readable matter, my eye now was attracted again by the red letters on the spine and the picture (of a painting) of a woman in a red dress, with white-grey hair in a knot, calmly gazing at the spectator : "Oorlogsdagboeken - Virginie Loveling"

Virginie Loveling was 78 years old when she started these war diaries in 1914.  A well-to-do, independent,  intellectual woman – opinionated, highly sensitive, full of energy. She could have rested on her laurels as a renowned Flemish writer, but no – there she was, determined to chronicle the life in occupied Ghent (Flanders).   
She watches, she listens, she observes and she records - tirelessly she records everything she sees and hears : triumphant columns of German soldiers  marching on, disintegrated columns of wounded soldiers piteously shuffling by, the avalanche of both critical and petty occupation regulations, the shameless (albeit disciplined) German looting, the rampant rumours, the war profiteering,  the bombings ….

Indefatigably she evokes life on the streets in war-time Ghent – citizens and soldiers, proletarians and bourgeois (not that she is above class prejudices), high and low life – life as it goes on in the parks, on the squares, in the streets, in the shops and on the trams.  Was she an undaunted reporter or a tireless flâneur? or both?  Anyhow, it almost seems as if she went out into the streets every day – walking, taking the tram, sometimes boarding carriage or train for an excursion.

Suggestive weather reports 

I’m completely mesmerized by her lively writing, impressed by the power of language to evoke, well, impressions.  I turn the pages, compulsively reading, ever curious about the next day in her diary , curious to see and hear this bygone world, as viewed by an observant and sensitive mind, brought to  life through her words.

And, always, almost as in a book of hours, these pages conjure up the seasons and the weather variations.  She writes about the weather not purely subjectively- lyrically as a romantic would do, but rather suggestive-descriptive, in the very best tradition of Belgian “plein air” painting (1). 

Why do I find this so moving, this sensuous evocation of banal atmospheric conditions – be it via paintings or via words?  It probably has to do with a deep stirring, a rousing of the senses and of the imagination, a miracle-like mimesis of some of the most basic human experiences:  looking at the sky, watching the sun break through the clouds,  battling with the wind, shivering in the foggy cold,  feeling the rain on one’s skin.  

“en nu valt een floersige morzelregen, die kil door de klederen dringt”

(It would obviously take a real translator to render these words in English – the only literal translation  I can come up with : “And now falls a shroud of finely sprayed rain, chillingly permeating one’s clothes”)

But then, of course, for all my pensiveness, I’ve always been a world & weather-loving flâneur.  Whenever I go out, leaving home for the day, or leaving the office in the evening, there’s always this immediate elation when stepping outside:  sniffing the air, testing the wind and the temperature,  gauging the luminosity of the sky, appraising the drift of the clouds and the strength of any sunrays.

From Belgium  to Beijng 

I’m of course also a consummate worrier, and that (i.e. an incessant stream of ruminating worrying) is the worst enemy of plein-air appreciation.  
 But empowered by Loveling’s example I am resolved to bolster my weather-observant habits.  And these days in March, hesitating between winter and spring, punctured by showers, really make for excellent observation case studies.   

Atmosphere and luminosity, too, are dazzling, especially when walking home in the evening, at that blue hour when the light of street lanterns merges with the last day light, when rays from multiple light sources are refracted in a luminous greyish haze.
These visually so attractive hazy atmospheric conditions are in fact an aesthetics of pollution (alas also inducing coughing, a running nose and watery eyes).  Last Friday, was truly of a shimmering bluish-grey visual perfection : that day the emission level of fine particles in Brussels was allegedly higher than in smoggy Beijing.  

More frivolous Belgian-Chinese associations pop up when wandering about an exhibition of Gao Xingjian's work  in the little museum of Ixelles .  His poetic works feature smears  and splotches of Chinese ink on rice paper, soberly but magically evoking atmospheric variations, hazy landscapes of astounding depth, patches of illuminated skies, drifting stormy clouds.  

In the other museum rooms hangs the permanent collection with paintings of 19th century Belgian landscape painters, they too evoking, via smears & splotches of oil paint,  atmospheric variations, hazy landscapes of astounding depth, patches of illuminated skies, drifting stormy clouds.

It’s important to carefully hoard reasons to be cheerful, to adduce evidence that not all things delicate are bound to disappear in a vortex of global mass-consumption.  To find at least some reassurance that the (disastrously disappearing) contemplative attitudes I’ve grown to love in this world do have some claim to permanence, to universality.  So, what more could I ask: an exhibit of a  French- Chinese writer/artist  working today, concerning himself with « une sédimentation des sensations, la lumière et une sorte de profondeur dans les paysages, les lumières et les reflets »     

a single chauvinist note
(1) I admit I have a particular soft spot for those late  19th century/early 20th C  Belgian « plein air » painters. They’re not well known internationally, considered as a minor local variant of the more famous Barbizon school which itself has of course been eclipsed by the success of the impressionists. But for all the dazzling luminosity of the impressionists, something got lost: depth, observing dedication.  The pre-impressionists better render the grandeur and depth of landscapes and skies. And when it comes to capturing the many nuances of changing shades and atmosphere in these northern climes, I of course favour the Belgian landscape painters. So praise be here to  the likes of Hippolyte BoulengerJoseph-Théodore Coosemans , Franz Courtens and Louise Heger. Little remains from the latter’s words and works – but the surviving fragments do intrigue: a quote (“j’ai soif d’un grand ciel »), a handful of paintings ( ah, that solitary lakeside view "au bord du lac" / at the lakeside),  her family affiliation (daughter of Constantin Heger, teacher of the Brönte sisters in Brussels)