Art Historical Notes Washed Ashore : Guest Contributions to a Brief Art History of Rain

It seems that representations of rain are definitely on the mind of artistically aware bloggers, as witnessed by the generous reactions to my appeal for contributions towards an art history of rain.

Pensum confirmed the status of Turner (1775-1851) as notorious painter of rain & fog, and furnished a precious link to Georges Michel, a pre-impressionist French landscape painter who ostensibly did not shy away from some dramatic open air drizzle .
And as to non-western art, Pensum also drew attention to Indian artists’ delectation in rendering rainy subjects . Note the explicitly pelting rain in the image (coming from a 17th Century manuscript) of Krishna and Radha dancing in the rain!
Further thinking about “Rain in Art”, Pensum also became all the more certain “that earlier tribes and peoples must have depicted rain in petroglyphs and ritual art “ – suspicions backed up by some interesting articles he found, i.a. by Renaud Ego . And indeed, in view of the importance of “rain” for human life, it only seems natural that it should have turned up in ritual images. Which leaves one speculating whether “Rain” was perhaps too much linked with pagan rain rituals to be admissible for depiction in Christian art?

However that may be, Pensum found further delightful examples of rain in eastern art (quoting his comment): “ it would seem that the Eastern traditions have been more enamoured with precipitation from early on. of course the rain has been used to good effect by oriental artists, as in this Korean painting from the late 12th or early 13th century. And though a later work, this ink painting by Maruyama Oshin from the late 18th century is a fine example of exploiting the obscuration provided by the falling rain. While in India it seems they relate rain with joy (perhaps the fall of blessings?) as they tend to like dancing in it as in this example from about 1670”

Furthermore, both Pensum and Roxana came to the rescue of my failing memory and supplied the name of the Japanese rain artist par excellence, Hiroshige ( 1797-1858), who did the famous Japanese print of a bridge in the rain.

As a superb connoisseur of floating bridges, Roxana also promptly came up with the tribute Van Gogh paid to this Hiroshige rainy bridge.
And with her exquisite Japanese art sensibility, she furthermore kindly shared yet another lovely Japanese print picturing a rainy evening.

Leen Huet from her side consulted the undisputed art expert from the Low Countries, Karel Van Mander (the 16th C Flemish-Dutch gossipy equivalent of Vasari) and came up with a charming anecdote: a painter from Mechelen/Malines, the illustrious completely forgotten Gregorius Beerings (1525-1573), seems to have specialised in Flood pictures showing nothing but a rainy sky and water with the Ark. Questioned about the absence of people in his pictures, the painter shrewdly explained that all people had either drowned (& their bodies would only resurface after the receding of the waters) or were hidden from view in Noah’s ark. According to Van Mander our good Gregorius had quite some success with his chain produced uniformly grey flood pictures. But, Alas!!!, dear curious blog reader: no pictures of this Flemish rain genius seem to have survived. ...
Leen Huet further shows a Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) Sistine fresco with desperate, drenched people seeking refuge from the flood. Michelangelo's Flood looks suitably grey & grim & miserable, but does lack, to my romantic rain taste at least, the splendid splatter of gleaming rain drops .

From an aesthetic point of view, Leen Huet also raises the question why in particular the Flemish Primitives, disposing of the technical means (oil paint!) to depict the sensual and optical qualities of rain, never did render it. Too dull and gray, in comparison with scintillating mirrors , tears, vases and gleaming copper? Iconographically speaking, Leen Huet further notes how Rain is, apart from the Flood, not very present in the bible and therefore not the kind of subject Christian patrons would ask for.

In the meanwhile, rain has briefly stopped over here, so time to rush out for some dry open air experiences.

Wanted: A Brief Art History of Rain

Granted, there are many pressing questions worth being answered first, but right now I’m just sitting here wondering about Rain in Art. When & where & why has it first been represented? Isn’t there some famous Japanese print with a bridge in the rain (but when was that made?). And how often has it been raining in Western art? Not that much before the 19th century it would seem. There are violently romantic ‘storm at sea’ pictures. And Turner did do foggy & rainy things, and obviously there are impressionist paintings of Paris in the rain and of London in the fog. Simmering expressionist views of drizzly Berlin must have been painted too.
And then of course, the full potential of the urban romance of rain has been unlocked by urban photography – going from classical B&W photos ( Leonard Misonne!) to glossy pictures of all the grubby grimy glamour of shimmering neon lights reflected in wet streets.

But so, the real art-historical question: how about rain in pre-romantic, pre-modern art? Is there for instance any explicit rain to be seen in 17th century Dutch landscape and seascape paintings? Well, skies & seas & rivers can definitely look pretty rough in the most anxious pictures done by Van Ruysdael , but where’s the visibly raging rain? The splashing drops? The rainy misty shrouds? I’m not sure ...
And the Venetians then, with their Laguna-dampness .... Does rain ever finally pour down in Giorgione’s ominous Tempest?
Oh, and in medieval books of hours, with their miniatures showing the labours of the months, surely there must be a picture of poor drenched peasants toiling away in a downpour? But no, even October, November and December seem to keep it quite dry in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Um, but come to think of it, surely there will be plenty of rain in religious art! Mystical floods! The Deluge! Noah’s Ark! Hmmm ... not really, wet precipitations clearly were not a favourite pictorial theme before the Romantic age.
Though there are of course a few Nativities taking place in snow covered stables including icicles hanging down from the shabby roof. And Bruegel’s hunters were courageously (& quite prettily) trotting through deep and very white snow. But still: no rain.
There are quite some missed iconographic opportunities there methinks. How infinitely pouring rain could have added to the pathos of poor Joseph and Maria trudging on that tired donkey during their Flight to Egypt! And imagine a chilling hostile drizzle in the Garden of Olives... (now don’t tell me it hardly ever rains in Egypt or Jerusalem - painters adapted the scenes to northern tastes anyway).

And the Caravaggists, with their contrasted chiaroscuros – why did they not exploit the many pictorial delights of gleaming , splattering, refracting Rain?
Perhaps because rain back then in the old days really was nothing but a nuisance, a harbinger of miserable wetness and of fatal colds & coughs?
Perhaps one does need a sufficient measure of rainproof materials and vehicles, as well as warm housing, to appreciate the romantic and visual potential of rain?
Not to mention the lavish availability of waterproof sources of artificial light – yeah, car lamps, traffic lights and neon lights ... they do get the very best out of rain.

Notes being washed away

Prisoner's Dilemma in Brussels? (July 21st , 2011)

Being an inveterate doubting humanist, I‘ve never shied away from Great Nagging Questions such as “the inescapable duel between biological necessity and the transcendence of the human spirit”. (1) Thus there is the puzzle of altruism (or just plain kindness): is it a uniquely human moral quality which transcends (2) the ‘inevitably’ selfish biological instincts (3)? But then how could it survive nature’s merciless selection of the fittest? Or is altruism merely yet another evolutionary strategy serving an ulterior selfish motive, a strategy that has evolved because in some cases apparent selfless behaviour does enhance evolutionary success? (be it on the level of selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish groups) (4)

In any case, digesting the findings of evolutionary biologists, keen economists reasoned without much delay that 1> self-seeking is inherent to our evolved human nature and that 2> humans are rational in the pursuit of their self-interest. Thus they posited this elemental truth: “Human beings are self-seeking, rational agents out to maximize their gains in a fierce, competitive world”(5).
And wanting to draw conclusions as to how societies should organize themselves, they added 3>, “nature [being] mankind’s moral compass” this ‘natural’ individual gain maximization will get the most out of each and every resource (human or otherwise), thus benefiting to the community as a whole.

Mathematically based ‘game-theory’ could even help those rational self-seeking ‘players’ to find the optimal strategy to maximize their individual gains. (5)
But alas, one of those maximising games irrefutably showed that individual rational and self-seeking reasoning did not always produce the best possible collective good. In the so-called “Prisoner's Dilemma” “each player pursuing his own self-interest leads both players to be worse off than had they not pursued purely their own self-interests”(6)

So shouldn’t we then all, as reasonable beings aware of the limits of pure selfishness, rather seek enlightened cooperation instead of going for the selfish option in our ‘games’?
Umm, well, It’s true that if we are both being reasonable that we will both be better off, but ... ay, here’s the rub, what if I am being reasonable & I give in, and the other does not, then I’m the dunce of the affair! Ah and just suppose that I won’t budge, while the other might give in, then I have a chance to win it all! And so neither of us gives in, neither of us cooperates and we‘re both worse off than if we had cooperated.

Dear readers, obviously only few of you are concerned with the fate of the Belgian people, but really, the recent Belgian political manoeuvres are a perfect (though sickening) example of game-theory. The Belgian politicians (sorry, the Dutch and the French speaking politicians of Belgium) have been trapped in this Prisoner’s Dilemma for over a year now, hostages of narrow “Them and Us” group thinking, too paralyzed to be able to form even a government.

Yesterday, at the eve of the Belgian National Holiday, the poor tired King of Belgium addressed its troubled nation, speaking about responsibility and tolerance, about how disastrous the current stalemate was for each Belgian citizen (sorry, for each Dutch speaking and each French speaking citizen of Belgium). An almost desperate, but above all genuine and dignified plea for cooperation ... (7)

Upon which, quite reluctantly, one of the stalling Flemish political parties (say party A) did announce to be willing to rejoin the negotiations with the French speaking parties. And, WHAMM – BHAMM , this mere sign of “willingness to cooperate” was immediately punished by another Flemish party (say party B), eager to steal voters from party A . Indeed, Party B could now claim to be the only Truly Unflinching Defender of The Flemish Interests. And so Party B did not measure its words – accusing Party A to betray the Flemish Interests, “to show its bare naked butt” (“volledig met de billen bloot” ), “to go flat on its belly” (“plat op de buik”).

Again, I am an eternally doubting person who knows she does not know and who, having not analyzed in full detail all proposals from all Dutch speaking and all French speaking parties, is not eager to take big political stands.
But I do have taste ....and I do have a sense of beauty and of dignity. And the sheer crudeness with which this Flemish party B crushed a tentative opening towards negotiation ... Nope, that’s not where I want to be. And yep, now I know for sure – this party B is indeed nothing but a bullying populist party opportunistically catering to the basest selfish instincts.

And in the meanwhile, also on this 21st of July, and also in Brussels, European leaders are convening, with nothing less than the fate of the Eurozone being at stake. One can only hope they will be able to “transcend”(9) the Prisoner’s dilemma, that they will be able to at least try and pursue the collective good ...

Nine National Belgian Notes
(1) Oren Harman – “The Price of Altruism” - “George Price and the search for the origins of kindness”. Click here for a review. It's a truly fascinating book “[covering] the entire 150-year history of scientists’ researching, debating and bickering about a theoretical problem that lies at the core of behavioral biology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology: Why is it that organisms sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others?”
(2) Ah, transcendence! Have never been quite able to grasp what it is, except that it denotes a realm of all that‘s beyond our greedy materialist grasp? As a (inveterate, doubting, etc) humanist I of course take “transcendence” in its humanist-philosophical sense, not in any God-given sense. And what would I personally put then in that transcendental realm - everything that is not merely utilitarian, everything that gets us beyond our role in the food chain, ie : meaning, beauty, goodness, justice, ...
(3) “inevitably selfish” – yeah, well, it’s simple really: in a struggle for life under conditions of scarce resources, selfishness does enhance individual fitness to survive, and thus evolution will mercilessly get rid of any selfless tendencies that reduce individual fitness.
(4) This kind of apparent altruism then depends on relatedness of genes (helping one’s kin), or on expected reciprocity of support and mercy amongst individuals, or on the success of cohesive groups against other groups. But so it is still always one entity surviving at the expense of another. There are even very elegant mathematical formulas that describe how and when “selfless” behaviour is an efficient strategy for genes and individuals to enhance their eventual selection success.
(5) “The price of Altruism” pp 135-137
(6) See Wikipedia for full exposition on Prisoner's Dilemma
(7) Look, I have neither outspoken royalist nor anti-royalist convictions. But I can see how a purely ceremonial, symbolic monarch can help to foster some common sense of belonging – without therefore veering into royal adoration or blind patriotism. And again, as to the Belgian nation – yes, I do cherish it, because it so utterly lacks the more nefarious tones of nationalism, and yes, I do value this cultural diversity inherent in the Belgian nation. And as to the threat for the Dutch language of having to share a nation with an “imperialist” language such as French – well, frankly, I think that Global English poses more of a threat – (witness this very blog written in second hand Global English by a Dutch speaker)
(8) as Hannah Arendt rhetorically asked: “ Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties?”
(9) Ah, there’s “transcend” again! Time for a confession – while I am fascinated by the biological origins of human morality – at heart I still am this old-fashioned Kantian humanist who would rather believe that humans do not merely entertain notions of altruism and goodness because of their use for individual or collective survival. I would much rather continue to believe human morality stems from some sort of empathy or non-utilitarian “affection for our fellow creatures in chance’s kingdom” (Richard Powers), from some non-utilitarian sense of beauty and human dignity.