Eclipse of the Black Sun (1)?

Waiting for the sun to return, for my leg’s bone-fragments to join properly again and for my muscles to de-contract (2) – it is good to reconnect with old acquaintances, lovingly gathered (in that wonderful Hopper catalogue) because of their shared melancholy bent.
When discussing Hopper’s poignancy of places,for instance, Emily Dickinson is aptly quoted with these lines:

"One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted
– One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place

And the tension in Hopper’s paintings between the sombre inertia of solitary figures and the formalist balance of their surroundings graced by light, calls of course for ample quoting from Julia Kristeva ‘s “Black Sun” ( “an oxymoron she coined as a metaphor for the negative-positive pull of melancholic creativity”).
Indeed, how not to agree with her assertion that “beauty constitutes the [melancholic’s] other realm” :
“fullness and formal order arising from some potent lost focus of longing, visual grace wrested from dejection” .

Margaret Iversen's essay (“ Hopper’s melancholic gaze”) echoes Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Atget (the obsessive photographer of empty street scenes) and on the flâneur :
“someone passing by, withdrawn from engagement in the world the better to observe and understand it”
[...] “finding meaning in the fragments” (3)

Straying away from the Hopper catalogue I then stumble upon a little book in my library, with the unassuming title “What is Baroque?”. And there I find a phrase I‘m most eager to borrow (rashly pulled out of its context) as a personal definition of the flâneur :
“C’est un homme parmi les autres, un peu incongru seulement” - “it’s a man amongst others, just a tad incongruous perhaps”(4)

In these essays about “the baroque ” the author, the dazzlingly erudite Henriette Levillain, does not shun the contradictions & tensions of the period and compellingly explores the reverse side of a triumphant aesthetics.
“the baroque age presents the paradox to be the moment when a force, vital for exuberant expressions, reverses into a profoundly pessimist contemplation of life” (5)

There’s for instance the paradox of the “vanity- paintings” with their virtuoso rendering of the sensuous delights of a material world while inserting the memento mori of decay (or, not so subtle: a skull).
“Thus the ‘vanity’ resumes the contradicting pre-occupations of the Baroque age: the disquiet in front of the fragility & frailty of all earthly life, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, the faculty of wonder, faced with the generosity of the world and the talent [of artists to render it](6) .

But still, being Flemish and brought up with Rubens (7) , I do continue to associate the Baroque, in painting at least, with jubilant apotheoses... So, how about the melancholy and the anguish of the Baroque period then .... ?
In painting there would be Rembrandt I suppose, and Caravaggio, and yes, in a way, those Dutch still lives & vanities.
In literature and poetry there’s Shakespeare of course (Hamlet - “Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought” ), and apparently (I didn’t know them) the French Baroque poets – witness this poignant solitary complaint (Antoine Favre):

“ If the soul is but fire, why am I without flame?
If the soul is but wind, what breath do I have? “(8)

Nods & Notes
(1) Nod towards a blog (now alas) hidden from view: Black Sun
(2) Note of impatience
(3) Nod to self
(4) Note & Link : “Qu’est-ce que le Baroque?” by Henriette Levillain – a brilliant little book containing effortlessly erudite texts which calmly explore and explain the many contradictions of “Baroque” , be it as a general notion , or as a style, or as a particular (art ) historical period encompassing not only the visual arts but also poetry, theatre and music.
(5) Henriette Levillain: “l’âge baroque présente le paradoxe d’être le moment où un élan vital aux expressions exubérantes s’inverse en une contemplation profondément pessimiste de la vie”
(6) Ibidem: “Ainsi la “vanité” fait la synthèse des préoccupations contradictoires de l’époque baroque: l’inquiétude devant la fragilité et la corruption de la vie terrestre, d’une part, mais, d’autre part, la faculté d’émerveillement devant la générosité du monde, et le talent [des artistes pour décrire ce monde]”
(7) One of Levillain’s many interesting insights, contrasting the protestant and the catholic “vision” : “Loin d’être le support materiel d’une idolâtrie, ‘La Descente de Croix’ de Rubens demande en effet au spectateur de compatir à une souffrance qui, tout en s’exposant sous les traits de la meurtrissure du corps abandonné, porte déjà l’éclat de la Résurrection. Elle revendique, par ailleurs, par l’exemple donné de l’action conjuguée des personages regroupés autour de la croix, femmes et hommes, jeunes et vieux, pauvres et riches, la possibilité pour tout homme de coopérer à sa façon au salut du monde. [...] Mais, au delà [de ça, le message] s’opposait au pessimisme des calvinistes quant à la possibilité donnée à l’homme d’ajouter de la beauté au monde”
(8) “Si l’âme n’est que feu, pourquoy suis-je sans flamme? / Si l’âme n’est que vent , quel souffle est-ce que j’ai? “

The elation of sunlight on a rooftop (or: the day I read about sprezzatura)

Only a couple of days ago I rejoiced at the sight of a sunlit, snowy roof - ah, that bright patch of light in the gathering dusk...

But now, while the radiator is whirring and clucking, a gloomy silence reigns outside.
Are it the grimy window and the snow-laden sky or is it, paradoxically, the sheer muffling dizziness of whirling snow-flocks that explains this sombre stasis?

The snow has obviously reinforced my house-arrest. Though I am already shuffling through the apartment at an amazing speed (and with a single crutch!), outside I still struggle to keep a perilous balance, panicking at the mere sight of icy sidewalks.
But this less-valid persona of mine has also uncovered unexpected reservoirs of sociability: I now blithely chat with taxi-drivers ( whose experience encompasses an astonishing range of medical and legal aspects of traffic accidents). And I have speedily shed deeply ingrained inhibitions to solicit the help of unknown passers-by – if only to be able to cross one of those slippery sidewalks.

Being stuck inside, and today even deprived of sunlight, I travel around images of earlier light-hunting strolls.

This is also a good time to revisit past exhibitions, letting the catalogue of the 2004 Hopper retrospective making up for this winter’s missed exhibition in Paris.

These paintings of sullen people sitting or standing in bare rooms – staring, brooding – depressingly inert, if it weren’t for the bravura of light patches on the wall and the floor.
Those blind walls, stern buildings, empty streets - all quite inhospitable, if it weren’t for the generosity of that nonchalantly stroking light.

And it must be a good book, which quotes Hopper as saying “There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of the house. You know, there are many thoughts, many impulses, that go into a picture ...I was more interested in the sunlight on the buildings, and on the figures than in any symbolism.”
Besides, how utterly satisfying, to read a catalogue text that officially endorses quiet, clandestine affinities:
“the similarity between Hopper’s Parisian stairway and Xavier Mellery’s same subject”)

Thus I continued my tour of cherished books and images, invigorated by their grace, their bravura - (their sprezzatura? ).
Quite grateful for these sentences, pictures, sights & memories that act “like subtle gold threads in the fabric of one’s life. Given the right slant of light.”(1)

(1) Sprezzatura : the story

(& Sprezzatura: the Wikipedia entry )

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”

views from my sofa (*)

Forced immobility engenders a peculiar mix of humility and calm. Humility because of the unaccustomed dependency on others. A measure of calm because of the temporary release from the imperatives of activity.

The risk of me turning into a day-TV-watching couch potato is luckily averted by the absence of a TV. It’s just at night that I watch DVD’s on an old monitor - a whole set of 70’s French crime-films which my sister gave me to pass time (blame her teenage crush on the handsome Alain Delon).
I almost crow with pleasure at the sight of those cute French 70’s cars, the haircuts, the trench-coats! But I cringe at the degradingly narrow range of female characters with minimal text: one naked woman in bed (luscious but mute), one adulterous wife being hit with the belt by her husband, one waitress in a bunny-costume, a dozen of half-naked female dancers in a cabaret.

Not only my leg, but my mind too is only slowly gearing up again. So I pick up a book composed of mere fragments – a draft by the late André Chastel for an introduction to his unfinished final project, “l’art français”.
It’s a collection of reflections and interrogations, soothingly melancholy & pensive. And remarkably (for a French art historian that is) humble about the position of French art, in particular French painting.

“One should definitely avoid to reduce the history of French art to painting. [that would be ] only an echo of the resounding dominance of French painting in the 19th century. [...](1)

"Apart from Poussin and Claude, France plays only a secondary role in [17th century] painting in comparison with the extraordinary European concert: Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez” (2)

Perhaps the uniquely French artistic genius is located rather in “monuments” (the great cathedrals, the romanesque churches, the castles) and in the decorative arts? (hm, apologies to Poussin, Claude, Watteau, Chardin,all the impressionists & j'en passe).

But lying there on my sofa, I am moved most by his melancholy musings about history and art:

Wherever there are construction and ornament, there is something else to behold than the oppression and misery of which each age seems to be made up. [...]

From the point of view of the fabricating activity, history is no longer entirely a nightmare and the locus of all conflicts. [...]

Art, for us, redeems the miserable human condition. One should not be fooled by the historical chronicles, always written to praise the great.[...]
But by adding to each period the mass of objects and relics which belong to it, one can restore some measure of dignity to it. “

Notes en Français
(1) Il faut surtout ne pas ramener l’histoire de l’art français à celle de la peinture. [ce serait] seulement l’écho de l’éclatante domination de la peinture française au XIXième
(2) Poussin et Claude à part, la France joue un peu les seconds rôles en peinture quand on regarde l’extraordinaire concert européen: Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez
(3) Là où il y a construction et ornament, il y a autre chose à observer que l’oppression et le malheur dont il est bien vrai que chaque époque semble faite.
Vue sous l’angle de l’activité fabricatrice, l’histoire n’est plus tout à fait le cauchemar et le lieu de tous les conflits [...]. L’art est pour nous la rédemption de la malheureuse condition humaine. Il ne faut pas être dupe de la chronique, toujours faite pour l’éloge des grands. [...] Mais en ajoutant à chaque temps la masse d’objets et de vestiges qui lui appartient, on lui découvre une dignité.

(*) the photos are literally views from my sofa! (well for the 1st one I stood on crutches)