Issue Number: 92
Can a painting really say something new every day? Edmund Fawcett enjoys an experimental new book that examines what happens the longer you look
Of great seventeenth-century painters, Nicolas Poussin is one who most encourages what you could call art-historical looking: the kind where, when staring at one picture, you think continually of others. If paintings were dinner dates, Poussins would say, ‘Quit looking around. Pay attention to me!’
Poussin, particularly, is a victim of the wandering eye because he is so difficult to take in at a glance. His later works are characteristically grave, thoughtful and complex. Even lyrical early ones tend to come with their own enigmas and scholarly presumptions.
Was Poussin, who was born in Normandy but worked in Rome, typically French or Italian? A sceptical Stoic or crypto-Jesuit believer? A peintre-philosophe or misunderstood sensualist? What lies behind his poise and calm? Were his strange, novel themes his own, or did he paint what erudite patrons asked him for?
To get anywhere with questions like this, it is no good focusing on one work. You have to take Poussin en bloc and do some Poussinological reading, even at risk of collateral damage to yourself in seemingly endless academic wars.
Art-historical looking is, of course, necessary and valuable. Your detour through written sources and other paintings will usually lead you back to what is before your eyes. First, though, it cannot but pull you away.
T.J. Clark, a British art historian teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, decided on a different approach. Poussin is seldom easy looking, it is true. But turning to books or other works of his are not the only ways to meet the difficulty.
For Poussin is an artist who repays long, steady looking. If other viewers and your legs allow, you can stand for an hour or more in front of one of his grand compositions and find that it continues to reveal and revitalise itself as you look. Clark knew this, but pressed the idea further. If a glance will not reveal a Poussin, why settle for an hour or two? Why not try several months?
Early in 2000, a six-month research fellowship at the Getty Institute in Santa Monica, California, gave Clark the chance to answer his own question. The adjoining Getty Museum was showing Poussin’s Landscape with a Calm (1650–1), which it had recently bought, and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648), on loan from the National Gallery in London. From January to April, he went to look at one or the other, day after day. Poussin was a favourite of his. He recorded the experience in a diary, now published in an original and outstanding book.
You might think he would not have enough to say. Or that if he had, it would be about himself or his reading. But he has more than enough, and none of it is indulgently subjective or interpretively pat. If you had been beside Clark and talking to him instead of reading his words in a book, you could have seen what he saw and puzzled at what puzzled him.
Without jargon, Clark records what he notices, what questions remain hanging, what stirs his sympathy and imagination. Amid the detail and complexities of Snake, he keeps returning to the running figure, startled by the dead man (the painting used to be called also The Effects of Fear). He muses about what the mirror-like lake in Calm meant for Poussin.
Clark keeps his art-historical knowledge in the background, relying on his eyes and his imagination. A Getty conservator joins him one day to talk about the paintings’ technical state. (Snake, particularly, has suffered.) After Snake goes back to London, Clark reads widely about Poussin but does not much change his mind about what he saw.
It does not give the end away to say he reaches few conclusions. His is an open-ended back-and-forth, almost an imaginary conversation with the painter. Tidy formulas would betray the spirit of his experiment. He writes as someone who finds it urgent to bring out and show off reticent objects of love, rather than as a connoisseur or teacher.
Not that this remarkable book is without lessons. Clark made his name in the 1970s for Neo-Marxist studies of nineteenth-century French art which stressed its political uses. His current views are anarcho-leftist. He raises his voice at one point against the ‘image-flow’ – the unwanted blizzard of short-lived promotional and political imagery in which we live.
The suggestion, presumably, is that patient attention to beloved works in museums is a form of resistance to the ‘society of the spectacle’ — our debased and manipulated visual culture. You do not have to follow Clark’s alignment of politics and aesthetics that far — or indeed pore over your favourites as long as he did — to find The Sight of Death a powerful vindication of close looking on its own terms.
The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing by T.J. Clark (Yale University Press, £20)