Twenty Ninth Approach to Het Steen: 1636. There, Where? Right There.
Friday Evening, National Gallery, London
The gallery is the emptiest I have known it, perhaps because it is a fine evening. Trafalgar Square is packed, but there are only so many jugglers, human statues and buskers murdering Bob Marley’s finest that a chap can take.
In Front of Het Steen
This autumnal view across sixteenth century Flanders is, obviously, a pre-Claude landscape; I have just come from the Turner/ Claude show downstairs. I highly recommend it although Claude suffers from the comparison, rather than the other way around.
His sense of scale is in some places absurd, for example the elongated figures and horse sized sheep in ‘Landscape with Arrival of Aeneas’. Rubens use of scale in Het Steen is equally odd, look at the vast ducks and flowers.
Unlike a Claude or post Claude composition, Het Steen is not framed in a symmetrical, repoussoir manner, there is only one set of foreground trees, which are balanced by elongated horizontal rather than echoing forms. Those horizontals are buttressed by the rising sun on the far right. This is a sturdy, aesthetic, non-rational solution that owes very little to classical symmetry, there is no central sun and a relatively high horizon. It is also clearly contemporary although it wouldn’t take much to return this view to Roman/ Greek myth. Rubens was quite happy to set his judgements of Paris against apparently Flemish trees for example, and viewers of Het Steen would have been expected to make references to Virgil’s Georgics.
Northern versus Southern Pictorial Space
As Svetlana Alpers pointed out in ‘The Art of Describing’, a unified pictorial space is not always the point of a Northern European painting. Celebrating the Ideal, the harmonious, the classically perfect characterises Southern art from the Renaissance and beyond, so we should expect Claude to have produced a consistently receding pictorial space. Alpers describes how Northern art produces pictorial space by accretion, we see areas grouped by where the eye lands (hence the vast ducks). Whereas the mathematical rules for constructing a unitary space that Claude follows in his paintings of land and trees, somehow falls flat (as sometimes does Turner by the way) with his unconvincing scales of figures and buildings. A Claude landscape is thematic, it takes us back (in both composition and subject) to the classical approach, in that sense it is a moral landscape. The moral landscape was also (post Aristotle) a medieval concept much represented in the North (post Fall etc).
Thinking about all this I have, at last, I have worked it out: why is the tree trunk here? A question I have been puzzling over for ages. Why is the tree trunk there then? Answer: because it was there. This is not, well not wholly, a constructed moral landscape. Het Steen is a painting of land just being land, it has no purpose except being there.
This Land is My Land
Or rather, and this is the point, that is what Rubens wants the viewer to think. It is of course, ultimately a painting about the man who owns the land. That man wants to celebrate his land, not by its fecundity (a la ‘Good and Bad Government’) not by its god given purpose (to support mankind after the Fall) nor by representing the underlying harmonic principles of Nature (Classicism), not even, despite Autumn in the title, to celebrate the diurnal rhythms and the eternal process. No, what Rubens wants to celebrate is the fact that there is an awful lot of it.
He doesn’t, unlike Mr Robert Andrews, have to work that land in the most modern and efficient way possible. He just has to enjoy it in all of its unkempt glory in the autumn of his days, in glorious golden light (no stress as my pupils are wont to say, often inaccurately). Why? Because he is worth it.
That is why it is pointless to look for hidden symbolism in the fallen trunk in Het Steen, even though it is an image that goes right through Flemish art. Yes alright it is to some extent a composed image and yes, the tree trunk creates the foreground and marks the centre of the painting, i.e. has a key compositional role. But, look at the hunter, that tree trunk is for him, it is for pleasure, the whole landscape is for pleasure, he shoots the ducks for sport and because they taste nice, rather than for economic necessity. The tree trunk is here, because it was there. I am here, but I should be there because I have a train to catch, time to go.