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.
- 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
- Heartfelt thanks go to the Northern French for their loving curating of Flemish art in Cassel’s Musée de Flandre
- 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 » .