Poussin: Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

On the Platform

An empty station, Friday afternoon. I am on the platform alone. A man walks purposefully down the long empty space, it is hot, the sun very bright. He stops less than one pace in front of me. He is middle aged and red faced with a shiny suitcase on wheels, resting over the handle is a vividly crimson, highly decorated Chinese silk suit. He does not acknowledge me, although I could probably breathe down his neck if I wanted to, I do not, so I don’t.

Art about Waiting

Paintings are busy spaces, and the people depicted are busier still. They are always doing something, about to do something, having something done to them.

Conversely, travelling on public transport is all about waiting, long periods not going anywhere, not having anything done to you etc. There are few works of art that fit this state.

A Large Ferry

There is a painting in the National Gallery, London that shows stasis: Jan van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665.

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

It is calm, still, waiting for the tide, or a wind; the ferry by the way is the boat in front, lying diagonally. Apart from the gentle tonality, I have always been fascinated by van der Capelle’s treatment of the ground plane.

“This is the guard speaking with a message for the customer who just got on with a large plain (plane?) cross; you left half of it behind on the platform. I’ve got it here with me now. I’m in the fourth carriage from the front waiting for you”

Albertian Space

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

Traditionally in Albertian space, the ground plane, the Renaissance pavement, is an opaque, unyielding surface, where figures can stand, buildings can be constructed with no fear of falling through that solid ground. Even in marine paintings, the sea is usually fairly solid and boats sit/ float on top of it like a ruffled carpet on a hard floor. The power of a painted storm is the obvious departure from the comforting horizontal format.

For Albertian space to be convincing, we must feel we can traverse it, usually on foot. In this van der Capelle image the ‘pavement’, the skin of the world is the thickness and transparency of a soap bubble; we would fall through. But fall through to where? The reflected world is equally real, as though, in fact, it is us that is upside down and the reflection is reality. The boundaries between one world and the next are confused. In a very calm world there is unease. To some extent this is the familiar artist game with mirrors, playing with spaces within pictorial spaces (think of The Arnolfini portrait, or Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres). These mirror reflections are in planes parallel to the picture plane, parallel to us looking at them. The game relates to the role of pictorial space in the first place; the function of illusion. Can we say the same with a horizontal plane?

Outside the British Car Auctions, in front of an enormous queue of waiting cars, two young men are playing football with a very white ping pong ball.

The Reflective Ground Plane

To get closer to what is happening in ‘Large Ferry’ try comparing it with another familiar image of reflections in calm water, Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’,

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', 1648. oil on canvas. 118 x 198 cm. National Gallery, London

look at the lake in the mid ground, the reflections of the buildings do not, surprisingly perhaps, destroy the flatness of the surface, the watery ground plane still happily continues on its journey to the infinite horizon. Or, any of Turner’s reflections in calm waters:

J M W Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up', 1839. oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London

‘The Fighting Temeraire’, or

J M W Turner: 'Norham Castle Sunrise', 1845. oil on canvas, 90 x 121 cm. Tate Britain.

‘Norham Castle Sunrise’, you could traverse these flat, reflective ground planes without once thinking of falling through. Their function is to create space, to reflect the sky, to promote the narrative; but they are always an unyielding surface. Depth in these paintings goes horizontally, into the space not, as it were, down through it, as we can see in ‘Large Ferry’. Down into another world? Where does that other world lead to, do they do things differently there? This is the familiar trope from children’s fiction: the land behind the wardrobe; the rabbit hole; the looking glass. As Auden wrote in ‘As I walked out one evening’

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead’


The Viewing Experience

Maybe this sense of unease is why this room of unassuming Dutch landscape paintings is always empty. Or, it might reflect my thesis that our behaviour this side of the picture plane is, to some extent, governed by the organisation of the space on the far side of the picture plane. This painting is hung in one of the quietest and calmest areas of the National Gallery, I have rarely seen anyone in this room, the few viewers rarely stay for more than a minute or two. Numberless hordes pass nearby, yet, like this painting, all in Room Twenty Two is still: waiting.


Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x National Gallery, London
24th August, m
orning, not long after opening, summer holidays, no schoolchildren.

The proportions of Het Steen are interesting, much wider than tall, (131.2 x 229.2 cm, ie 1:1.75)  a proportion that developed, from the initial central three panels through to the seventeen that he finished with. It is noticeably wider than, for instance the smaller landscape works on the wall behind. A proportion that reinforces the notion that we are not looking through a window, it does not correspond to the windows shown in Het Steen. The painting is not quite two equal squares, they would have to overlap slightly. Certainly the proportions summons up the notion of stereoscopic vision, two eyes not quite combining and the mid point marked at the bottom of the picture plane by the upturned tree.

For someone who made such spectacular paintings of grand horses fighting, the two cart horses really are splendidly rural.

Are there two figures on the tower? Or is just the castellation? The blobs are in roughly the right place for architectural features, but then again they are slightly different colours. The left is bluish, the right is yellow; the blue figure could have an outstretched hand: “This is all mine”. Reading too much into vague sploshes of bravura paint?

If these are figures, than that could place Rubens, the narrator, within the pictorial space at a series of viewpoints. He is on the tower; by the gate; on the cart; as the hunter; as the artist/ creator and of course as the artist/ owner of the estate showing it off to the privileged viewer. And, each time I see this painting I am convinced that this is a view made to be shown rather than an artists’ ‘personal response’ in the late 19th Century manner. The way that our perceptual perambulation is arranged makes that very clear.

Clark talks about Poussin’s tiny figures in ‘The Sight of Death’,

“What are these miniature figures in Poussin about? Why do they come and go in perceptions? Why, once see, do they matter so much?….I think they are best understood as different proposals about recognition and interpretation, about “picking out” what is human in a human and non-human world, about the way humans belong to their surroundings…Let’s talk about stories. They are analogous to the small figures in Poussin: that is, there often turns out to be more and more of them, implied, embedded, the longer one looks.”

(T J Clark: The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0300137583. Pages 45-50)

The figures then, give the painting agency, do they work the same way in Het Steen?

 A young Eastern European (Russian perhaps?) points out the two flying ducks to his girlfriend, then the hunter, then he makes the appropriate internationally recognised gestures for shooting something. She laughs appropriately, but looks slightly embarrassed.

I go to look carefully at the tower, I think that (probably) these are merely battlements/ castellation. Presumably such architectural features were for show. But, whether or not these figures are ‘real’, the point about their role remains.  The fisherman on the bridge, or the hint of figures to the left. I return to the bench to find a Japanese woman sitting on my notebook, she is not apologetic.

Thinking about Clark, I go to see Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', oil on canvas, 1648

It has been in Room 19 for a while now, but the lighting is bland and dull. Gradually lamps turn on, the room gets brighter and slowly the painting comes to life. It clearly needs strong light, whereas the same lighting scheme kills the Rubens; Het Steen was made for dim candle light: the North. ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’ for the bright clear South. Returning to the original position a painting was designed for, can affect how we understand it. Such a search can become an ‘early music’ style fetish, nonetheless it is extraordinary how different art, for example the Poussin here, can look under sympathetic lighting. The lighting clicks off and Landscape’ returns to a dull, dark gloom.

A fully immersive art experience in every sense. It starts with online booking, then a woman in wellies and clipboard ticking off names, in front of a large rusted metal door in a carpark at the back of a warehouses just of Kingsland High Road, East London. You have to walk past a McDonalds and all the excitement of Hackney street life to get there. ‘There’ is Edgelands, the car park is one of several hemmed in blank urban spaces, derelict and graffitied (including oddly a memorial to a Chechen freedom fighter). In the distance the sound of Ridley Road market (“come on love don’t be shy, everything for a paand”) around the wastes are stacks of cardboard for rough sleepers. But we must go; our group of slightly baffled art enthusiasts are being hurried through the door by a tall figure in black with a strange voice.
Down steep stairs into darkness, dampness and oddness. We are recruits for a job with Bunker PLC apparently. We fill out application forms in almost complete darkness, chivvied by strange figures with headtorches, who fit waterproof slippers over our shoes, later we will get into full waterproof ponchos. Scientific glass vessels full of beautiful, crystallised plant life provide light. We watch the company film, full of appropriate corporate cliché, in another room, hurried down many dark, wet mouldy corridors from low ceilinged space to space. We find out more about the company, set up after cataclysmic climatic events in 2012 (we are in the future now). Life evolves underground: human pollination; urban vertical farming; genetic modification by plunging the hands deep into bloody chest cavities; a hands on art work then.  The combination of film/ sci fi/ dystopia/ comic references echoes throughout the hour underground and in every one of the rooms; crystallised books by Ballard in one room, references to Tarkovsky on a white board in another. The conviction by the actor/ artists is total, as is the whole set up.
The usual fear of role play promotes the wish to see this art work on many levels. As a walk through film, a theatrical polemic about climate change, an artwork that derives from performance and installation traditions of the 1960’s. I suppose you could say that critique has been implicit within performance art since Oldenburg’s anti materialist Happenings and is certainly present here. You could also point out that a future in which nothing works is a common feature of much contemporary art work. Noticeably none of these futures involves digital technology, imagine Blade Runner without all the toys, or the replicants for that matter.
But you could also say that what links many of these works is a common understanding of the role of time within the artwork and in the way that the viewer encounters it. There is more to this than the simple process of setting the work in the future, as seen in both ‘Bunker PLC’ and ‘whiteonwhite’ (see previous post).  Could we say that, in using an overarching narrative: the role of this imaginary corporation in a future society that has undergone cataclysmic change; the search for meaning by a geophysicist in a post Soviet city, both works fluently create sequenced packages of time that are apparently linear, but are in fact circular? Time that appears ‘representational’, in that it is subject to the usual chronological rules that exist this side of the picture plane: diurnal (A diurnal cycle is any pattern that recurs every 24 hours as a result of one full rotation of the Earth).But time that is in fact subject to systems set up by the artist/s.
In the Bunker, although our narrative packages are physically divided by rooms in which the different activities occur, including the relaxation room/ bar at the end where loud music is played at us. Drinks, by the way, have been served throughout in different forms, there is a level of humour/ wit/ fun in this work that is admirable and adds to the sense of understanding this on many levels. Although the way we move through the scenarios appears linear, they could work in any direction. I did try to move away from one room, only to be approached by a very fierce actor/ artist squeaking “Task? Task? Have you completed your Task?” at me; impressively staying in character throughout. In ‘Bunker PLC’, in common with ‘whiteonwhite’, we make the overarching narrative complete in our reaction to the sequences of activity we participate in, and the connections we make between them and what we know of the outside world.
How does that fit into what I have been struggling with in my encounters with an earlier art work (Het Steen, see earlier posts)? We left the notion that art needs to be a physical object behind in the 1970’s. Nonetheless, the way we encounter, for example the glued together boards covered with green and brown paint that is called ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, bears more similarities with these two recent works than you might think. Granted they are not art objects, In an art object, traditionally a flat piece of static painting, time can be encapsulated in the ways in which the artist has laid material on the surface: slowly drawn line; thick violent gestural paint; visibly layered surfaces etc. Time can also be manipulated conceptually ‘through the picture plane’ as it were, on the other side of the Albertian window. So, for example in Het Steen we see the horse pulling the cart with its two occupants to our left, the sun will rise, the hunter will shoot the ducks on the far side of the fallen tree. In other words the representations are presented for us to read as mental images that we can happily accept as a narrative sequence subject to the usual rules of diurnal time.
As I think I have established in earlier post, it is how you traverse the mental image of the landscape that tells the viewer about the qualities of that landscape. ‘Bunker Plc’ the artwork is both a physical landscape – a Second World War bunker- and a conceptual landscape- ‘Bunker Plc’. We traverse the conceptual landscape according to the rules we are given by the imagined protagonists. So what have we established? That these works (‘Bunker PLC’, ‘whiteonwhite’) are also ‘landscape’ in that they involve traversing a landscape (physically and conceptually). They involve presenting time, on the far side of the ‘picture plane’, as a diurnal chronological process sequenced through traditional narrative structures. But, beneath the immediately visible layers of pictorial space, in the formal features of the composition so to speak, are far more complex, contemporary, non linear time based processes. Playing with stories is as old as humankind, it’s fascinating to see how artists are now working with them in such a multilayered referential and, crucially, easily accessible manner.
It occurs to me as a postscript that: Het Steen, like most painting is the work of a single ego, and as many post Pollock (Griselda not Jackson) will point out, white and inevitably male. Whereas both Bunker Plc and whiteonwhite are collaborative works, film is inevitably so and such a substantial installation must have demanded continuous negotiation. Both contemporary works seem to be largely put together by women, Eve Sussman as well as the rufus corporation for ‘whiteonwhite’ and Jo Shaw & Olivia Bellas, as well as the other women artists and actors involved in Bunker Plc.