On a cold and wet December day a weary flâneur may be forgiven to seek solace in Arcadian Visions (1) – especially if these visions, however lush & luminous, do not shy away from “intimations of mortality” .
In my longing for “leisure & tranquility with dignity “ (“otium cum dignitate” ) it was to “Poussin and Nature” (2), a book about the landscape paintings by the 17th C painter Poussin , that I turned. I have always remained rather discreet about my love of Poussin, perhaps to avoid being tainted by the qualifications of “haughty and cold” that have become standard to describe this supposedly over-intellectual painter. (3)
But “ Poussin and Nature” not only soothed my wrought up nerves by reproductions of nostalgic landscapes, it also offered a comforting interpretation of Poussin as a contemplative, melancholy man, with “an inclination towards retreat and silence” (4) , wanting to flee from the worries and vanities of human affairs.
Landscape or Tragedy?
While Poussin’s famous “Et in Arcadia Ego” painting still oozes a reassuring, antique loftiness despite its “memento mori” (5) , in other landscape paintings he explores “a more austere, somber, and clear-eyed analysis of the forms of nature and of the place of humankind in the universe”. (6)
There’s the (seemingly) enchantingly bucolic painting of Orpheus insouciantly playing his lyre in a delightful natural scenery, charming his audience, while in the background, unnoticed by him, Eurydice is bitten by a snake. (7) (8) (9)
There are also the landscapes with antique historical tales - like the two “Phocion” paintings: grand landscapes, exuding nobility and order, showing untroubled humans going about their business , oblivious of the tragic fate of the proud and loyal Athenian general Phocion who for obscure reasons had been condemned to death by his compatriots. In the “Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion” the idyllic and indifferent harmony of the landscape contrasts with the individual tragedy of proud Phocion’s corpse being carried away on a makeshift stretcher.
In the “Landscape with the ashes of Phocion” sublime nobility rules, be it in the grandeur of the trees and the antique buildings, or in the calm and casual attitudes of the minuscule figures in the background. And yet, in the foreground, there’s the anxiously bent figure of a woman, collecting the ashes of the dead general, amidst the general indifference performing an act of compassion, an act of mere human piety.
History or Goodness ?
Should these paintings be interpreted then as Glorifications of Grand History? As edifying antique tales about Great Deeds of Stoic Heroes ? Or are they rather laments about the futility of heroism, denouncing the inhumanity of History and the public World?
Do they perhaps rather intend to compare the vanity of worldly human affairs with the soothing (though indifferent) harmony of nature? Do they rather want to contrast public indifference with the private compassion of an unimportant, ordinary woman?
“Landscape or History?”, asks René Démoris in his startling (and deeply moving) essay about Poussin’s historical landscape paintings . He argues that “the two Phocion paintings mark the moment of Poussin’s retreat from the historical stage”.
Influenced also by the contemporary nasty political bickering in France, Poussin would have become disenchanted with grand history and with all those supposedly “providential designs & projects of great men”.
“Grand history masks the petty maneuvering of private interests”
And Démoris goes on by evoking the paintings in which Poussin concentrates on the direct, non-historical, relationships between ordinary men and nature, in which he “stages an ordinary humanity” utterly subject to frailty and mortality, facing the manifold horrors which both the human public realm and nature have in store for us.
In such a melancholy world view neither public heroism nor godly intervention can offer solace – the only redemption for “ the inhumanity of that order” might be simple human goodness, mere human sympathy and kindness – however powerless.
Like the humble woman compassionately collecting the ashes of the spurned general. Like the washerwoman (in yet another sombre Poussin painting ) looking intently at a man who flees in great fright from his horrific discovery of a man devoured by a monstrous serpent.
"Can the washerwoman’s gaze make this horror before the unnameable more bearable?”
“our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.”(10)
Retreat from the World & from History?
It is a classical topos of course, this longing for a “withdrawal from the mundane world, or escape to a more ordered and tranquil ideal universe”.
Weary Roman citizens as well as wealthy but tired renaissance men aspired to escape from their worldly duties to the peace and quiet of their country estate.
But there’s more to it than mere fatigue – it is also about a reassessment of values, about realizing how much of worldly success depends on vanity & pettiness & brute power. About having to observe that those who get ahead in the world draw upon selfish ambitions and smugness rather than on goodness or a concern for the general interest. (11)
Kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness ... no, they don’t seem to be the prime qualities that lead to worldly success.
When it comes to it, kindness and thoughtfulness even might dis-empower in worldly affairs because power always contains a latent, but unmistakable, single-minded willingness to use force . And it is power which people fear and respect, rather than goodness – however unfair & even inhuman this may seem.
Thus, the desire to retreat from the world also comes from a feeling of impotency - feeling unable to change the world as one finds it. Is world weariness then a matter of sour grapes, of resentment? If we had been greater or stronger, would we have been less weary of the world? Is it to be considered an abdication or a defeat when one withdraws from the public realm into one‘s interior life or into the shelter of a circle of kindred souls?
And are kindness or goodness indeed essentially “unworldly” qualities, invisible, outside history ... ?
And what does Hannah Arendt say?
In cases of intense bewilderment, I tend to reread Hannah Arendt. And especially in this case of worldly confusion, since her philosophical “amor mundi” (love of the world, of the common world humans build, which is our sole hope to attain some relative permanence) so seems to clash with the usually more unworldly philosophical intuitions about transcendental timelessness or eternity.
Here’s what she has to say (words inspired by a reality much grimmer than ours now):
“’inner emigration’ [...] the flight from the world to concealment , from public life to anonymity [...] can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. [...] At the same time we cannot fail to see the limited political relevance of such an existence, even if it is sustained in purity. Its limits are inherent in the fact that strength and power are not the same, that power arises only when people act together, but not where people grow stronger as individuals. No strength is ever great enough to replace power” (12)
Smuggling Interiority and Goodness back into the World
But we can’t leave it at that, can we? We can’t have goodness and interiority banished from the World, condemned to transience and invisibility? Wouldn’t that be too unjust?
Though obviously, both interiority and goodness as such “harbour[s] a tendency to hide from being seen or heard” (13), recommending themselves – perhaps – only to god’s remembrance ... And therefore they would remain unrecorded and forgotten by the World?
And yet, and yet .... poetic justice does exist in the World. It is in art that justice can be done to transient interior human experiences & qualities, which are otherwise ignored amidst all the sound and fury of History.
Art, so paradoxical a human activity – drawing both upon the most interior resources and the most public skills, hobnobbing with the rich & powerful but also able to pay attention to the most humble manifestations of humanity . Art is obviously part and parcel of the public world where it can find some measure of protection and where it can claim public remembrance.
And while many artists were consummate public actors endowed with a huge self-esteem, avid to please powerful patrons, their talent (conscientiously or not ) does often capture deeper human truths as well as touchingly humble sensations.
Moreover, art has also (almost miraculously, i’d say) given shelter to the more self-doubting, solitary personalities, to those who can rely only on their fragile sensitivity, on their own skills and their inner strength.
And thus, both quiet interiority and humble goodness have been smuggled back, as it were, via art into the “public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time” (13)
“A still cruelty reigns in many of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings, which we may perhaps call realism. [...] [but] every once in a while, one catches a glimpse of something else in Bruegel. The ‘Census at Bethlehem’ [...] touches with its busy comings and goings of a winter day. [...] Mary is cold and she smiles [..] Just as the young peasant woman does amidst all the light & heat of a July-day, in the painting the ‘Hay Harvest’ – a tiny smile full of trust, not at the centre of the representation, but subtly just beside it” (14)
Disorderly Retreat into the Notes
(1) Arcadia (Utopia)
(2) About “Poussin and Nature” (The exhibition) and (The book)
(3) This wariness of mine (about being associated with a supposedly ‘intellectual’ painter)has to do with the depressing fact that it is indeed possible to be highly erudite & aesthetically sensitive and yet to be heartless. A refined capability to appreciate art can, alas, be accompanied in the same person with revolting, unfeeling selfishness. But somehow I feel that the cliché of “the cold heartless intellectual” nowadays may have been unfairly extended to encompass all thoughtful and reserved natures . As if only the more spontaneous natures would be capable of affectionateness and warmth, as if those same spontaneous natures would never be capable of cruelty.
(4) Jacques Bousquet as quoted by Claire Pace in her essay for “Poussin and Nature”: “’Peace and Tranquillity of Mind’ : The Theme of Retreat and Poussin’s Landscapes”
(5) “Et in Arcadia Ego” (‘Also in Arcadia am I’) is a wonderfully meditative painting by Poussin: in a tranquil antique landscape, bathed in a golden light, three shepherds and a shepherdess of splendid bearing seem to have just discovered a tomb. One of them tries to decipher what’s written on it and, while doing so, casts an ominous shadow on the tomb. The four figures share an attitude of bemused concentration – they may be concerned, but are not (yet) horrified. The mood remains pensive and nobly resigned at this discovery of death, even in Arcadia.
(6) from Claire Pace’s essay in “Poussin and Nature”
(7) “The elegiac Virgilian vision underlies many of Poussin’s landscapes: inherent in the idyllic scene is hidden danger , such as the serpent that appears in so many of the paintings” (from Claire Pace’s essay in “Poussin and Nature” )
(8) “The contrast between the triumph of Orpheus charming beasts and men and offering himself, creating a spectacle, and the crucial event to which he remains blind: Eurydice bitten by a tiny snake, which she turns to look at – an event that is witnessed by a fisherman –and from it flows the dark sequel to the story, in which Orpheus will again fall victim to his own fatal lack of attention.” René Démoris’ essay for “Poussin and Nature”: From The Storm to The Flood
(9) It is this painting (Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice) that inspired Michel Déon to his wonderfully sympathetic interpretation of Poussin as a sensitive artist with a keen sense of human tragedy : “It is the birth of tragedy at which we must look on, powerless and with a heavy heart. As always, Destiny has chosen as its victim the most innocent and poetic of creatures. We mourn for Eurydice over the centuries. This is certainly very far from the image that all too often has been cultivated of a cold and haughty painter” (as quoted in “Poussin and nature”)
(10) W.H. Auden – Archeology: Finder’s credits go to Leen Huet in whose book “Mijn België” I found the quote
(11) As an inveterate pessimist and avid reader of popular neuro-science articles I couldn’t fail to read with a shudder how smugness & self-congratulation prove to be, brain-physiologically speaking, very effective to increase a person’s intellectual performance (cf also all the crap about positive thinking) . Whereas self-criticism and modest self-assessment just use up energy and diminish a person’ s performance . I also deeply regret to have to observe that selfish ambition and competitiveness seem the most effective drivers for people to be creative, to do great deeds, to invent & produce things and thus to contribute to a world that benefits all. But is self-interest really the sole possible driver? Might it not be a matter of appearance, because precisely the more arrogant & selfish natures are wont to widely display and advertise all they accomplish? And might not a bit more thoughtfulness & self-doubt, a bit more generosity have avoided many a crisis and much suffering?
(12) Hannah Arendt – Men in Dark Times
(13) Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition
(14) amateur translation of a passage in Leen Huet’s “Mijn België” : “Er heerst een stille wreedheid in veel schilderijen van Pieter Bruegel, die we misschien realisme mogen noemen. […] Heel af en toe vang je bij Bruegel een ander signaal op. 'De volkstelling in Bethlehem' […] ontroert door al de drukte van een winterdag […] Maria heeft het koud en ze glimlacht […] Net zoals de jonge boerin dat doet in al het licht en de warmte van een julidag, op het schilderij 'De hooioogst' – een kleine glimlach vol vertrouwen, niet in het centrum van de voorstelling maar subtiel even daarnaast. “
(15) Merry Xmas!