Wednesday, May 15, 2024

39 Books: 2006

My choice for 2003 began with indecision, as I couldn't imagine writing about Robert Antelme's The Human Race. Instead I wondered if I could say something about Timothy Hyman's Sienese Painting. While I have little or no feeling for art, I am drawn to reading about it. The book's focus is on the school of painters based in the city-republic between 1278 and 1477 who created what one critic called "an art born amidst city streets". And yet the book reports that in these two hundred years at least half of all commissioned paintings were images of the Madonna and "the development of Sienese painting could be told through her image alone". So while there was a cult of the city, which we can imagine happening in our own time, the sacred image remains alien. As art does not have any meaningful presence in civic life now despite earnest attempts at public art, the Sienese example is more evidence that the fate of art follows that of theology.

This may be why I have little or no feeling, as art with or without devotion is equally distant. That said, very occasionally such distance has come to life. The reason for the earliest instance is easily explained: in 1994 Don Van Vliet's exhibition Stand Up To Be Discontinued was shown at Brighton Art Gallery, just half a mile from where I lived, so it's memorable because the paintings were by Captain Beefheart. His titles were wonderful: Cross Poked Shadow of a Crow

Less easily explained is Andrzej Jackowski's Reveries of Dispossession shown in the same gallery later that year. I was moved without knowing why, or even knowing I was moved in the first place, by the size of each painting in comparison to the relatively sparse figurative content. There was something in particular about the wall of green in Hide and Seek.

Hide and Seek is 5ft x 5ft

Many years later I recognised similarities with when I turned around in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery and nearly bumped into the plinth containing the Wilton Diptych, a devotional laptop with its walls of gold.

There are two others, both the size of dinner trays: Der Friedhofstor in the Bremen Kunsthalle and Winter Landscape in the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, both by Caspar David Friedrich and both seen by chance and without expectation. Both also present apparent barriers to a church building, a gate and a mist; walls of a kind. 

Postcard of Der Friedhofstor

In 2006, I borrowed the large-format edition of Joseph Leo Koerner's Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and in 2009 bought the compact second edition. Despite rational protest, looking at book reproductions provokes the same reaction as looking at paintings in galleries. The first image in the book is Trees and Bushes in the Snow from 1828: 

An unremarkable scene, as Koerner acknowledges:

Neither is it itself a superior specimen of a thicket, nor does it shape a space before itself which could be a setting for other, more remarkable, presences. The alders stand lifeless, their dull brown branches composed in random, broken configurations. The snow that highlights and surrounds the thicket is itself sullied variously by withered crab grass, clods of grey soil and dry leaves trapped since autumn among the alder stems. You do not stand before a ‘landscape’, since the thicket blocks any wider prospect of its setting; nor do the snow and alders, pushed up against the picture plane, quite constitute the monumentality of a ‘scene’, for they provide no habitat for an event.

The thicket is "pure foreground, like a net woven over an abyss", and yet the "tiny patch of pale blue sky at the upper right ... offers a vision of transcendence, hence the formal caesura between the detailed and mundane foreground (the finite) and the boundless, horizonless distance (the infinite)". 


About Winter Landscape, he writes:

Friedrich raises a spired building, a church, baseless and in pure silhouette, above the lost horizon. Rhyming visually with the grove that encloses the crucifix, and rising to precisely the height of the tallest fir, the structure of the church clarifies the symmetry and order of the natural world, both in this canvas and in all of Friedrich’s works where the holy is indicated as potentiality.

If the holy was for Friedrich lost in the horizon, today, never mind the holy, the horizon is lost. I sensed its loss in the final example. 

In the same exhibition at the Towner, I saw a painting by George Shaw, but one that was not from his series Scenes from the Passion, which I'd seen only online. They are small, acrylic depictions of the council estate in which he grew up, and have the same effect on me as Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. I am from the same generation and background as Shaw, and not Friedrich's, obviously, so perhaps that element can be played down if not discarded. But anyone who grew up in those times and from that background will recognise the brutalist school enclosures and hollow thud of footballs bouncing off garage doors.

The sash of sunlight in Ash Wednesday: 7am, 2004-5 is in the tradition of Trees and Bushes in the Snow and Winter Landscape, lacking only Friedrich's Rückenfigur, which in our case is perhaps the painting itself.

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