Thirty Third Approach to Het Steen: It’s not you it’s me (how to say goodbye to a painting; part one)
Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 10th August
Rising dawn, the sun chasing away darkness, brightness sweeping across the land taking the carter with it.
In any long-term relationship what do you see when you look at your co-relatee? When that relationship is with a painting you see (mostly) the history of your discoveries. For example when you tried to find figures on the tower. Or, thought about the role of the fallen tree trunk. Or, wondered about the walk to Malines (the tower on the horizon) and how long that walk would take (three or four hours if memory serves). Sitting down to see the work again becomes a reunion not an analysis.
There are new things to find, in life as in paintings I’m sure. I’ve just noticed that the horizon is higher at one point, between the trees, without real reason; again demonstrating that this is a painting made for personal pleasure. How are the tallest group of trees today?
Leonardo, in his notebooks says that:
“All the branches of trees at every stage of their height, united together, are equal to the thickness of their trunk”.
Rubens does not quite follow that prescription, perhaps because they are mostly silver birches, Northern trees not following Southern idealised formulas. Although Ruskin some three hundred and fifty years later writing in ‘Modern Painters’ said much the same thing:
‘First, then neither the stems nor the boughs of any of the above trees taper [oak, elm, ash, hazel, willow, birch, beech, poplar, chestnut, pine, mulberry, olive, ilex, carubbe and such others], except where they fork. Whenever a stem sends of a branch, or a branch a lesser bough, or a lesser bow a bud, the stem or the branch is, on the instant, less in diameter by the exact quantity of the branch or the bough they have sent off, and they remain of the same diameter; or if there be any change, rather increase than diminish until they send off another branch or bough. This law is imperative and without exception; …so that if all the twigs and sprays at the top and sides of the tree, which are and have been could be united without loss of space, they would form a round log of the diameter of the trunk from which they spring”
It’s no wonder Ruskin wrote so much, it took him some seven or eight hundred words to say what Leonardo put in twenty.
The gallery is empty this afternoon, a combination of the Olympics and the twenty five minute bag search queue to get in; the theatre of surveillance. Everyone in London seems to be wearing a lanyard around their neck with a huge laminated pass, the most important have several. Are the hunter and the carter and companion wearing their access all area passes to this celebratory pictorial space, the dog too? There are no visible gates and fences, is it an inclusive open area, retirement to a grand manor and vast grounds open to all?
How do you know when a relationship, with a painting anyway, has come to an end or needs a bit of space? I have been writing about this painting for years, ten or more, and looking at it for thirty maybe. But, sadly it might be time for a trial separation. How do you say to an art work: “It’s not you, It’s me”?