Assailed by twin-viruses (virtual & physical) my few days off did seem compromised. On my PC McAfee was waging a losing battle against the redoubtable Cycbot.B Backdoor Trojan. And my own defense system had been outwitted by an enemy attacking on multiple fronts: lungs (wheezing), eyes (bleary), stomach (upset), muscles (twitching), synapses (drowsy), …
Left to my own devices, I easily could have spent the day (& night) pitying myself, morosely imagining worst case crash scenarios for both PC and Body. But luckily, there was the Stern Governess (1) to take things in hand: making me put on my boots & coat, kicking me out of the door, onto my bicycle and into the cold & gloriously sunny day. Ah, the sheer luminous splendor of a frosty day, … a splendor made bearable by the ever so slight haziness hovering in the air.
A good day to seek refuge amongst old Venetian and Flemish masters (2) - who were never wrong about the subtleties of light. Nor about the subtleties of human sensibility ...
Take that Bellini Madonna for instance, how the insouciant playfulness of the child is tempered by the wistful look on the Madonna’s face (3), how with a few colors a hazy limpidity is suggested (4) .
Ah, Bellini … The emotional range of his paintings spans heart wrenching pathos as well as an intense, yet still, shade of pensive wistfulness, ‘which none of his Madonna’s altogether lack’.
And his exquisite sense of light & atmosphere! Reaching well beyond sheer technical virtuosity (5) it fills us with poetic elation, suggesting (ever so quietly) a contemplative transcendence (6). “Am Lichtsinn errätst du die Seele” (7), one might indeed consent, while meditating in front of a Bellini-painting.
Apart from luminous meditations, the exhibit also showed paintings tugging more stridently at our hearts, but I’ll leave my melancholy musings about pathos & morbidity in Christian art for a later post.
For now, let me just evoke the soothing powers of the calm blue & grey & beige hues of a Canaletto-painting. (8) Appeasing, but stimulating too – these luminous vista’s of Venetian canals: how they instantaneously widen our cramped mental horizon by their sheer spaciousness, how they lighten up our dull broodings by their sheer liveliness - with a touch of vivacious red here & there, & with everywhere little boats & gondolas & ordinary people going about their daily business in a busy town.
Cycling back home I took a short cut through the Brussels Warande park. It was 11 AM, so the park lay there quite still & empty: long gone were the hordes of commuters tramping through it in the morning, and it was still too early for the lunch hour invasion by office workers seeking repose. Right now, there were just the empty lanes & benches, the silent statues, the bare trees and the shimmering hazy light. How blessed the park felt at this fleeting hour – temporarily released from all duties & stress, basking in a luminous quiet (9).
More than Quotes in the Notes
(1) For combative melancholiacs, it is well advised to have a “Stern Governess” amongst the many persona’s that constitute their inconsistent self.
(2) Exhibit “Venetian & Flemish Masters” at the Brussels Bozar gallery
(3) What Friedländer wrote about Metsys, is so apt for Bellini’s Madonna’s too: “the imprint of sadness, which none of his madonna’s all together lack”
(4) As the exhibit notes competently & lovingly resume: “la palette réduite des couleurs, la composition épurée, la pluie de lumière dorée qui baigne la scène d’une claret tamisée concourent au tragique retenu de l’oeuvre”
(5) There have been many great colorists in the Venetian tradition, and in The Flemish one – Titian, Rubens … But somewhere along the road, their virtuosity has become so monumental & formidable…, their sheer technical prowess and confidence so overwhelming that they have crowded out some of the reflectiveness, some of the anxiety which endow a Bellini painting with en enduring poetical gravitas. However much I admire Titian, how much in awe I stand of Rubens … I agree with Yves Bonnefoy who sees , in some of their works, a certain vanity & arrogance : “ l’assez vain deploiement d’une illusion de triomphe” . (Though the triumphal tone has quite disappeared from Tiziono’s late, anxious works)
(6) Hmmm, Meditations, Transcendence … experiences not quite befitting a rational humanist? Nah, because, as Zadie Smith wrote about prayer (“prayer unmoored, without it usual object, God, but still focused, self forgetful”) : “for the secular among us, art has become our best last hope of undergoing this experience” ,
(7) Paul Celan – ‘by it sense of light you recognize the soul’
(8) Ah, at last an occasion to copy these dear, soberly consoling phrases written by Marguerite Yourcenar – “Aux pires heures de découragement et d’atonie, j’allais revoir, dans le beau Musée de Hartford (Connecticut) , une toile romaine de Canaletto, le Panthéon brun et doré se profilant sur le ciel bleu d’une fin d’après-midi d’été. Je la quittais chaque fous rassérénée et réchauffée” (from Carnets de notes de “Mémoires d’Hadrien”)
(9) Venice may seem a distant dream in a Brussels park, yet the hazy counter light of these northern skies is quite akin to the vaporous luminosity of the lagoon city. Which perhaps explains why once upon a time Flemish and Venetian painters shared this delicate sense of light.