Landscapes on the Window Sill

 

Still lives and landscape paintings do have a lot in common.  For one, books about them amiably share space on my window sill, equally exposed to the spring light filtering through the curtains.

More to the point, they both do invite contemplation - not needing a story to unfold, nor showing a human character to be assessed. They just let the self quietly watch, observe and love its surroundings.

To my great joy I recently found another book on Jacob van Ruisdael ("Windmills and Water Mills" by Seymour Slive) to complement  the old The Hague catalogue (pictured) that  I once picked up in a second hand bookshop.    


I have vivid & happy memories of the spacious Van Ruisdael paintings I could see over the years in continental European museums. So in this new book I discovered with all the more wonderment  pictures of paintings in UK and US collections I had never seen before.

Look, how Van Ruisdael paints this man in a red jacket on a background of silvery greens,  anticipating Corot’s happy red & shimmering grey chromaticism. (see: Two Undershot Water Mills with an Open Sluice  )

 And there, what an amazing riverscape –  like a busy , industrious vedute painted by an Italian. (see: Panoramic view of the river Amstel looking toward Amsterdam )






murky harmonies (a feeling for snow)

I had even dreamt about it …. about thick layers of snow keeping us inside, about the whole world turned white.  So I woke, filled with expectation, not even minding the early hour which ruined my Sunday rest.  I pulled back the curtains, and … bof …. some white patches here and there – on rooftops, in gardens -  some melting snow flocks twirling in the light of the street lamps. 

But nothing like the avalanches of snow forecast the previous day.  The young woman in the bakery shared my disappointment:  “all that fuss and then that “, she said, while putting my croissants in a bag, and then pointing dismissively at the wet drizzle outside.


But in these muffled, restrained times, we collectively try to make the most of what little pleasures the weather does bestow on us. In the Bois de la Cambre, adults and children alike had decided that even a millimeter of snow allowed to slide down slippery slopes on a sled. Slithering & tumbling, their excited cries echoed amongst the trees. 

And I too came to appreciate this particular wintry & wet mixture – not the dazzling white of a snowy landscape, but the murky harmony of earthy browns & grey mixed with broken white.  The kind of scrambled dusky landscape the 19th century painter Guillaume Vogels was so keen to render.       





An Alchemy of Fragments

 

“As we know, the fragment, the never-ending promise of Romanticism, is still the influential ideal of the modern age.”


While aimlessly browsing in the bookshop (a recognised ‘essential activity’), my eye fell on a small hardcover book, quietly appealing with its hushed tones of black & silvery greys.   It had an old black&white photo on its cover - maybe of a 19th century museum room, high-ceilinged and empty but for a man wearing a black coat & a hat, standing stiffly next to the entrance doorpost.  A greyish circle was superposed on the top corner of this photo, looking like the pitted surface of the moon (?), almost fully covering another brilliant silver circle underneath.  Enscribed in silvery letters within the circle,  the title stated dryly "Inventaris van enkele verliezen"  ( "Inventory of losses" ). 

The  author’s name (Judith Schalansky) was unknown to me - but somehow seemed to fit the aura of bygone erudition which exuded from the little book.

And what a treasure the little book proves to be! It’s a pleasure to handle, with its firm cover and its pages of a heavy, smooth paper. The chapters are marked by pitch-black pages, each showing a darkly shimmering ghostly picture evoking the chapter’s subject. While manipulating the book to catch the light under different angles, peering into the black, one can with some effort make out the picture of some ruin, or the fragments of some text, or the remains of an ancient map.

“Out of the revealing debris, the architect, who will not build a single house in his entire life, designs the floor plan of a dreamed past and at the same time the vision of an entirely new creation, which fascinates more people in its copper engravings than any structure chained to the ground and the soil ever would.”



The book feeds on the human fascination with past civilizations and long lost cultural artefacts, it cherishes how a few rare remaining fragments can nourish the imagination of generations to come.   Schalansky’s own imagination and dazzling command of language can resurrect a lost tiger species, minutely describing a fight during a Colosseum spectacle in ancient Rome (1) , she can lead us into the minds of 18th century engravers and painters of antique ruins (2), or vividly evoke the lost books & visions of a perished world religion (3).



Only the writing will be proved right and will survive, will weigh as much as the material which records it : a lump of black basalt, a table of burnt clay, the squeezed fibers of the papyrus plants, of the stiff leaf of a palm

The book embodies the human condition of transience, meditating on the sheer impossibility to remember everything forever  – not even when hewn in stone, nor when kept in bits&bytes, and not even in an archive on the moon (4).   But at the same time, her book is a tribute to libraries and museums and archives, noting how “on periods of extraordinary negligence follow phases of excessive care”.   Her book is also living proof of how the human imagination can travel through the ages and around the globe, only feeding on some lingering old texts & images,  without ever leaving one’s home town. 

Sharing the intrepidity of the explorers & philosophers of bygone ages, Schalansky does not eschew  eschatological visions, including the ultimate end of our universe (5). But for now, here on earth, Schalansky’s own writing, her playful gravitas (6) glimmering with wisdom & beauty, makes one hope that at least the language will remain, as an enduring repository of all human experience. (7)  

 

Fragmentary Notes

  1.     Kaspische Tijger – Het Oude Rome / Caspian Tiger – Ancient Rome
  2.     Villa Sacchetti – Valle Inferno (on Piranese, Hubert Robert)
  3.     De Zeven Boeken van Mani – Babylonië / The Seven Books of Mani - Babylonia
  4.     Kinaus selenografieën – Lacus Luxuriae / Kinaus selenographies - Lacus Luxuriae
  5.    « het verre uur waarin de centrale ster zal opbranden en samen met de zon al de bij haar ingedeelde hemellichamen zullen verdampen » « the distant hour in which the central star will burn up and together with the sun all the celestial bodies around  it will evaporate
  6.    Schalansky’s melancholy evocations of losses remind one of course of WG Sebald – but her tone is more cheerful, because the losses are from a more distant past and therefore less laden with regret & guilt.     
  7.    repositories of words brought to life in a conspiracy between writers & readers – together silently reviving entire lost worlds   
  8.    all quotes are from the Dutch version “Inventaris van enkele verliezen”, shamelessly using Google  for the English translation.

In Praise of a Patient & Weighty Book

 


The reigning tech aesthetic is all about gleaming smoothness (1) and instantaneous sensations, with algorithms creating a digital universe tailored to our impulsive needs. (2)

The book laying before me, was, on its own, a formidable counter-weight (3) to the fleeting lightness of our virtual lives. It weighed at least 3 kilos, its cloth cover was rough to the touch and its pages made of heavy paper were stitched by thread.  Merely leafing through the book was a slow tactile experience of a reassuring gravity.

This weighty book had been very patient, before at last getting my full attention.  Published in 1964, I has acquired it in 2013 in a second hand bookshop, where it has seduced me by its title, “Le message de l’Absolu” (4) and by its bulkiness, giving weight to whatever message it might convey.        

The book had been close to being discarded as ballast last summer, during one of those fateful fits to get rid of too many accumulated things in order to create a tabula rasa,  if not in one’s life, then at least in one’s home. Those are perilous moments,  when one might disavow everything one ever valued  -  throwing it out a as being irrelevant, no longer in tune with the times. (5)  

But the book had survived the clean-up rage, and on this stormy autumn day, it proved to be just the grave companion that I needed in these uncertain times.

Written in 1964 by Germain Bazin, a French art historian born in 1901, the book combines a classical erudition with a very modern sense of anxiety and doubt.  

Having studied with the eminent French art historians Henri Focillon and Emile Mâle (6), and having gone on to make a distinguished career as curator at the Louvre, Germain Bazin was of course well placed to tell once again the fascinating story of western art from its earliest beginnings, as a succession of different formal expressions of human meanings & longings, each capturing the essence of an era, and all part of a single history of art (7)  … until the 20th Century.    

Having lived through two wars and witnessing a rapidly changing world, Germain Bazin combines an understanding of the inevitability of modern art’s radical break with tradition with the nostalgia of someone who realizes that all he has valued most during his life is disappearing fast.  He captures the implosion of western art mirroring the upheavals of the 20th century. He evokes the perplexities of art, and of all humanist exercises in imagination & understanding, in an era in which science has lifted as it were the lid on the world’s phenomena – confounding our intuitions. And finally, he wonders about the contemporaneity of our lost belief in transcendence (be it of the divine or humanist kind) with the end of high art’s pursuit of harmony and beauty.

 

« de la figure humaine éclatée comme par l’effet d’un explosive, le peintre rassemble les morceaux ne suivant d’autre loi que l’incongru. 

Ces puzzles ricanant sont peut-être les expressions les plus typiques de cette discontinuité chaotique […]

 que des fragments de formes en liberté que rien ne convie à l’unité d’où naît l’harmonie » (8)

          

 Que des fragments

  1.     « Sauvons le beau: l'esthétique à l'ère numérique ; l’esthétique du lisse» de Byung-Chul Han / « Saving beauty » – « aesthetics of the smooth »
  2.   algorithms do not second-guess our needs as humans might do – they systematically crunch our behavioural data, compare these with huge pools of other peoples’ data and then predict what we’re most likely to click on, what will most likely grab our attention. These algorithms weren’t designed out of a disinterested motivation to get to know us, nor in order to deepen the understanding of human behaviour – but with a purely commercial motive, selling advertising with the most views and the highest click-through rates.    See the blow-by-blow , page-by-page dissection by  Shoshana Zuboff in  «Surveillance Capitalism»
  3.    Germain Bazin – « Le message de l’Absolu »
  4.   The message of the absolute …. lacking a religious belief in the divine, the slumbering human longing for transcendence, has long pinned its hope on human art or ethics to transcend our struggling condition.      
  5.  Western civilisation at large has often had these destructive moments, if only to afterwards expiate the destruction & oblivion by painstaking historical research and the building of museums.  
  6.  in the early chapters one still can catch that whiff of lyrical art history, seeing the artist as a sublimation of human longing : “du fond de sa nature exilée dans l’imparfait, il entend sourdre l’appel vers la perfection”[…] “pour évoquer en eux un élan vers les sublimes clartés”.  But there’s  also of course the stern admonishing of a rigorous ageing art historian defending the seriousness of his trade against purely subjective art appreciation: “ […] se fiant à son goût elle exerce son choix par la sensation pure. […] sentir ne suffit pas pour aimer, encore moins pour connaître et lorsque l’âge amenuise cette faculté de sentir, il ne reste plus dans l’âme que la cendre des souvenirs »
  7.   in a way art history has invented itself , producing an after the fact synopsis, a string of meaningful variations on a fundamental human ‘kunstwollen’ , instead of a mere accumulation of random trials & errors .  
  8. of the human figure, which is shattered as if by the effect of an explosive, the painter brings together the pieces following no other law than the incongruous. These sneering puzzles are perhaps the most typical expressions of this chaotic discontinuity [...] as fragments of loose shapes,  which nothing invites to the unity from which harmony is born

Cherish the light





It's official, in order to make it through the long & dark Corona autumn, we are advised to cherish the light. 


 

 

Heatwave in the City

 The city had been smoldering for days. All that concrete, all that asphalt, all those stones - absorbing and compounding the heat. All those damned cars adding hot fumes to the hot air.


Those city dwellers who hadn't escaped to the seaside, stayed inside, motionless behind drawn curtains. Only a few masked people dared to venture outside.  One felt infinite gratefulness for any tree offering some shade, for any bush of roses, however lonely,  able to conjure up visions of the Provence in an overheated brain.


But then, at last, the wind picked up and rain started pouring down.  One could almost hear a city wide  sigh of relief,  everybody throwing wide open their windows - in all streets and neighborhoods, from  cramped basement flats to lavish lofts.     

      

The Sea! The Sea! (or : Escape from an overheating city)


There's more boulevard than sea, in this most urban of seaside towns. But the lines are dizzying - vanishing, whether sinuous or straight, whether earth bound or swirling in the sky. And the light, ah the light - benignly golden in the evening, from a sun  hovering between sky and sea, after a day of mercilessly beating down on us.  
 


Rain at last - vaporizing on the hot tiles - saturating the air with water. Cooling tempers and soothing frayed nerves. What a strange summer it is, with a heatwave compounding the sense of being trapped.    

Splendour & Insecurity (1)



Through an open window a saxophone pleads wistfully – a sultry sound so well suited to the quiet streets of a city slowly emerging from its lockdown. This day in May feels like a lazy sweltering day in high summer. Restaurants & cafés are still closed – there are few cars. Some people are strolling about aimlessly, or sitting on benches, talking quietly (mostly keeping their distance and often wearing masks), or patiently queuing for a shop, forming lines of people standing still, at 1.5 metres apart. 

This Spring has been strangely splendid – pouring out sun light and bird song as never before, in a quieted down, limpid city.  This Spring has been strangely insecure, with a permanent sense of dread.  
The ever optimist and resolute colleague at work casually mentions at the end of a conference call on Friday “on attend les résultats du test pour ma mère – mas je ne pense pas que ce soit covid , ça fait déjà 3 semaines qu’elle traîne cette bronchite “.  And on Monday you hear her mother died in hospital.

The woman at the bakery shop is as friendly as ever, but she looks tired and her tone is subdued.  “it’s difficult, it’s very difficult – many of our clients are simply gone -  the students, the office workers buying sandwiches – they’re all gone now, at home.  On espère qu’ils vont revenir. On espère pouvoir tenir encore quelques mois”.

While the city slowed down, the parks were lavishly full - of the lushest greens and of so many people joyously skating, cycling, jogging.  And now, people are already eagerly returning to their lives after the easing of restrictions, enjoying whatever is again permitted. (as to myself, in a single week I happily managed to put in a visit, duly masked, to the bookshop, the classical music shop and the old masters museum).
But in the longer run,  frankly, I’ve no idea how fragile or how resilient “we” (our world, our generation, our society) will prove to be.

I don’t know whether history can be a guide here.  In art & music historical terms I‘ve always been astonished by the prevalence of hardship & pestilence in the most glorious art periods – perplexed by this enduring human capacity to paint, write, sculpt and compose works of lasting beauty amidst  plagues & wars & upheaval.  

Was it because the elite (patrons and artists) in those times were relatively shielded from hardship? Or was it rather because of their sheer helplessness in the face of disaster – they could not but  long for another world, they could not but believe  in transcendence, which made the pursuit of beauty and harmony (ad maiorem gloriam dei) worthwhile even (or especially) in the darkest circumstances. 

Our age is so different.  Perhaps we seek less solace in escapist flights of the mind, in creations of great beauty because we feel empowered to analyse and act rationally, because we trust in science and technology and entrepreneurship to improve our material lot.  Maybe, perhaps.






 Fragments from past months’ reading :  


1. The juxtaposition of “Splendour & Insecurity” (as hallmark of a sophisticated yet anguished civilisation) was found in Runciman’s book on Byzantine Style and Civilisation

2. From a book on Titian (Filippo Pedrocco)
« An awareness of impending death weighs heavily on the paintings Titian was working on in the summer of  1576, when Venice was devastated by a terrible plague which was to kill his favorite son Orazio [and himself]» 

3. From a book on Byzantium (Steven Runciman):
«There were ghastly visitations of the plague : the Black death in 1346 killed probably a third of the population of Constantinople.» 
«Against this background of foreign invasion and civil war, of plague and poverty there flourished in Constantinople a civilisation more brilliant than any that Byzantium had known before.» 

4. From a book on the Franco-Flemish Polyphonists (Paul Van Nevel)
« De pest richtte tussen 1438 en 1439 een ravage aan in de Kamerijkse gebieden, waar soms tot tachtig procent van de bevolking bezweek aan de epidemie. De beroemde polyfonist Jacob Obrecht stierf in 1505 onverwacht aan de pest, net als zijn collega Alexander Agricola. In Amiens, de hoofdstad van Picardië, moesten de kerkhoven uitgebreid worden, omdat ‘les gens se moeurent si soudainement comme du soir au matin et souvent plus tost ” » 


« The plague wreaked havoc in the Cambrian areas between 1438 and 1439, where sometimes up to eighty percent of the population succumbed to the epidemic. The famous polyphonist Jacob Obrecht died unexpectedly of the plague in 1505, just like his colleague Alexander Agricola. In Amiens, the capital of Picardy, the cemeteries had to be extended because “‘les gens se moeurent si soudainement comme du soir au matin et souvent plus tost ”»