a longing for landscapes

[delayed posting about an able-bodied flânerie 2 months ago ]

“the lost fable speech of painting”

It was on a gloomy November Sunday, almost 20 years ago, that an American writer (1) made me curious about 16th Century Flemish landscape painters.
His description conveyed a sense of drama – the dramas of a lost fable speech of painting (2) , of the forgotten lives of minor masters (3) , of the human calamities hidden in fabulous landscapes.
“the occasional pastoral arrangement with , somewhere in the background, the chance catastrophe – the painted town in the nonchalant process of being lost “. (4)

I set out to discover these landscapes in the local Belgian museums and fell in love with their hues of brown and green and blue, with their scraggy rocky landscapes, but most of all with their shimmering blue-white panoramas of ports & oceans & faraway mountain rims.
“foreground in brown, submerged sea-green middlescape, and background of serene mineral-and-linseed blue (5), wandering out of the available frame and off the edge of the visible spectrum”

Lovely little panels... , containing the widest of world vistas while meticulously recording the smallest of details. Panels inviting the spectator to follow the sinuous paths winding through hills and pastures, populated with brave little figures on their perilous way through the world. Or landscapes featuring some Holy family on their Flight to Egypt, or a penitent Saint Jerome, a Magdalene in ecstasy, a Saint Anthony being tempted (yet again) (6) , or a Saint Christopher crossing the river and succumbing under the weight of the slender Jesus child on his shoulder.

And yet, hidden in the coulisses of the landscape, there are also the calamities to behold – such as a massacre of innocent children in an otherwise peaceful pasture somewhere further on. Or take those hellish panels plunged in deep red, with in the back the extravagantly burning cities of Sodom & Gomorrah , while in the foreground the survivors walk on almost leisurely, accompanied by angels on their righteous path. (7)

“a journey of discovery, full of varied interest”

So it was with quite some excitement that I took the train to Lille, on a November Friday (an ‘all souls day’ with raging clouds in turbulent skies), to go and see the “Flemish Landscape Fables” exhibit bringing together hundreds of these fascinating paintings.
Established critique has it that the exhibit shows too many paintings and lacks a single clear story – well, perhaps ... but I for one enjoyed the meandering wandering in the labyrinth of pictures which the curators had created - quite happy to discover hitherto obscure painters and paintings.
A Kerstiaen de Keuninck for instance (the sheer alliterative & rhyming qualities of that name!) who specialised (with relish, apparently) in catastrophes, especially those involving fire. Or the many startling nocturnal paintings – with a mastery of clair-obscur and of drama that felt almost baroque ( e.g; an amazing nocturnal “Fall of Lucifer” by Herri met de Bles).

True bliss I found in the contemplation of Joachim Patinir’s little panels – with their vast layered landscapes stretching all the way into the far-off distance of blue oceans and white skies. “Patinier surveys the land from the mountain peaks” and thus offers “naive delight in the sheer quantity of the area surveyed” (8) and “a journey of discovery [...] full of varied interest”, as Friedländer puts it.
However, I don’t feel Patinir gets his rightful due from Friedländer. While admitting Patinir was unique in making landscape “resound [...] with [...] pathos” Friedländer dismisses this as “idyllic sentiment”.

In doing so he misses out on (9) the near ‘transcendent’ escapism that Patinir’s paintings offer , with their aura of distance, both spiritual and physical. His paintings are magnificently “centrifugal” (10) - leaving behind this world - inciting the eyes and the mind to take flight , or rather, to set sail with one of the those meticulously painted, ‘expensive delicate’ ships that sail on Patinir’s oceans.

from metallurgy mines to Babel

But pending my definitive blissful sailing away into Patinir’s shimmering blue vistas, I (have to) remain interested in the more earthly doings of this world.
And so I revelled with astonished curiosity in the completely unexpected depictions by Herri met de Bles of ... metallurgy mine activity, with highly realistic details of mine-pits and furnaces . The catalogue mentions it is the faithfully painted translation of a poem by a Nicolas Bourbon, “ Ferraria” , which thoroughly explains the best practice technological processes for metals exploitation and treatment. Just as Virgil incorporated lengthy discourses about agricultural technique in his Georgics... (11)

Speaking about 'Landscape' and 'Progress' and 'Human Hubris' ... then Bruegel and the Tower of Babel cannot be far off!

And indeed, in all its curatorial wisdom the Lille museum organized , alongside the ancient “Flemish landscape fables” a “contemporary exhibition on the theme of the most famous of architectural allegories in art history : the Tower of Babel.”
Going by the innumerable paraphrases throughout the ages, this 16th century painting by Bruegel is a very powerful image indeed .... of a very powerful myth. A myth with two faces: on the one hand the classical tale of overconfident human civilisation & technical progress punished by jealous gods and on the other hand the fall from grace from a single original language into a Babylonian confusion of tongues. (12)

landscape fables indeed

Most art works in the Babel-exhibition do present a rather grim view of our globalised, (post-) industrial and digitalized ways.
Dystopias abound, some of them more horrifying than the most hellish of Boschian hells. Other works disconcert by their shrewd turning upside down of the poetics of classical landscape painting.

And as landscape painting traditions go, few are more poetic than the Asian landscape scrolls . So it is with an anticipation of melancholy beauty that the visitor approaches the apparently misty phantom landscapes of the young Chinese artist, Yang Yongliang. Only to discover that on closer inspection the mountains are a jumble of concrete high-rises, the spruces are in fact pylons and the clouds are obviously nothing but billowing smoke.

Ah, ... landscape fables indeed. .. Lost fables, while perhaps “all the attention once lavished on the past [is] now requisitioned by the unrealized future?” (13)

But I have “no better response to looming contemporarity”(14) than to return to my Patinier-panel and to gaze once more into the bluish shimmering distance...

Fabulous Notes
(1) Richard Powers – The Gold Bug Variations
(2) “The fablespeech of pictures was doomed by the creeping success of new prose” [...] “Paint enjoys its last few years in the lost kingdom of parable before its exile. Years when the eye for the last time, alarmed by the discovery of what actually lies outside the window, still has half a retina full of the afterimage of pre-existent places.” Richard Powers
(3) Herri Met de Bles (v.1500-v.1560) , supposedly a cousin and disciple of Joachim Patinir (Dinant v. 1480 – Antwerp v. 1524) , one of the first ‘dedicated’ landscape painters, of whom not that much is known either (except that Dürer admired him a lot)
(4) Cfr Richard Powers + from the “Flemish Landscape fables “ catalogue: a very Nordic worldview “[...] in which the insouciance of daily activity can run alongside drama” +again Richard Powers (paraphrasing Auden ) “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Even the minor ones. Even met de Bles, or Blesse. With the blaze. Or wound.”
(5) Sylvie Germain : “[Patinir]a peint avec du silence, avec la transparence de l’air, avec la luminosité de l’espace, et avec l’âme du Bleu même”. “Le ciel, toujours immense, est la source de l’éblouissante lactation qui baigne les lointains de ses tableaux”
(6) Being tempted by odd arrangements of hideous monstrosities and luscious women (are creepy monsters and seductive women supposed to be equally scary for a tempted male?)
(7) Righteous path...righteous path, I was abhorred by the story of “Job and his daughters”. Having escaped from the fire, Job’s wife turned into a column of salt, beholding from a distance Sodom&Gomorra’s hellish demise. Job himself and his daughters walked merrily on, accompanied by an angel. At night, Job gets drunk and incestuously proposes to his daughters. The old testament story quite repulsively presents this as “blameless Job being seduced by his scheming daughters” .
(8) This was for Europeans also the time of the great geographical explorations and discoveries – cf Colombus
(9) Friedländer: “The moment we take Gerard David and Jerome Bosch in consideration Patenier’s achievement appears limited. We cannot credit the first landscape painter with a single new discovery but we can discern in him a prophetic intuition of the value of this new field of art, which he cultivated which such devotion. Not only did Patenier make landscape predominant, he made it resound and – within the limits of descriptive landscape – imbued it with idyllic sentiment and pathos that touches our emotions. “
(10) From the “Fables du paysage flamand” catalogue, an essay by Patrick Le Chanu: the Italian “centripetal” approach versus the Flemish “centrifugal” approach – “”la peinture italienne présente souvent, aux antipodes de la vision nordique, un univers centripète dans lequel le monde qui nous entoure et la nature sont comme mis au service d’une concentration de l’attention du spectateur sur les personages. “[...]”Au Nord, c’est Joachim Patinir [dans l’oeuvre duquel] le paysage envahit encore un peu plus les tableaux, repoussant les personages de l’histoire sacrée au plan median et les plongeant en son sein. [...] cette innovation [...] exprime le triomphe d’une vision éclatée et centrifuge de la place de l’être [...]”l
(11) It does not seem that today’s painters and poets would so joyfully engage in expounding technological or agricultural processes... They’d rather question technical progress and its discontents.
(12) And the interpretation of this myth is not politically neutral, not even (or especially) these days! Some stress the “Babylonian confusion” as a divine punishment and hence imply that too much diversity is a curse. And others maintain that it is precisely “la pénsée unique” (The Single Discourse) which brings on all misery (while the multifarious flourishing of cultures is a blessing) . In any case, this confusion of tongues looks in fact rather agreeable in one of the art works on show in Lille : a tower of Babel built up from books, lots of books from many places & in many languages.
(13) Fables , escapism ... – perhaps even a Herri met de Bles was already irrelevant in his own time in the Netherlands. With his Northern pastures and rocks and seas .... when Columbus had already set foot in America.... when great discoveries were being made. And all those penitent saints with their apocryphal legends when in Wittenberg Luther had already launched his austere reformation... This is how Richard Powers captures the contradictions for a landscape painter in the Netherlands of that time : “All the attention once lavished on the past was now requisitioned by the unrealized future” “Me and my Antwerp master: no better response to looming contemporarity than to set up on a distant hill and catch the conflagration in oils”


Anonymous said...

Dank voor dit boeiende bericht, Flâneur - het herinnerde me er net op tijd aan dat ik de data voor deze expo moest controleren. Zaterdag naar Rijsel! (Het hospice comtesse en het geboortehuis van Charles de Gaulle - wiens grootmoeder schrijfster was - staan ook nog op mijn verlanglijstje, maar dat is voor later.)

Swann Ffflaneur said...

zeker de moeite waard om naar Rijsel te gaan! een bijzonder boeiende regio eigenlijk, Noord Frankrijk

Anonymous said...

O, die extase van Magdalena in dat stenige landschap!
Schitterende tentoonstelling. Wel grote drukte, op die voorlaatste dag, dom van me om zo lang te wachten.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

ja prachtig, hè!
2 maanden geleden was het ook al over de koppen lopen - misschien dat onze oude Vlaamse landschapsschilders gewoon heel erg populair zijn? (voorwaar een opmonterende gedachte)

Anonymous said...

Dat is een opmonterende gedachte, inderdaad.
Tot mijn spijt was de catalogus uitverkocht, ik ga nu op zoek in Antwerpen.
Het bekende verschijnsel was er ook weer: nooit zijn er postkaarten te koop van de schilderijen die het meeste indruk op je hebben gemaakt.
Ik vond het een mooi museum, overigens. Die negentiende-eeuwse gebouwen geven me altijd een veilig gevoel.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

hopelijk vind je hem in A'pen - anders kan je mijn exmeplaar in bruikleen krijgen!

ja, een heel herbergzaam gebouw .... zoals jij ergens schrijft, het soort museum waar men zijn domicilie zou willen kiezen.

(het was liefde op het eerste zicht toen ik daar voor de eerste keer kwam, jaren geleden. Er was toen net ook een klas kleuters op bezoek, aanvankelijk vrolijk snaterend & taterend, al wat stiller toen ze die majestueuze trap op gingen en een collectief "ooooh" toen ze oog in oog stonden met Rubens' kruisafneming. De rest van hun bezoek hebben ze geen kik meer gegeven)

Anonymous said...

Dat "oooh" had ik willen horen! Ik zie het voor me. En Rubens, ja die impressioneert moeiteloos de meeste leeftijden.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

inderdaad ...!