This may be one of the most embarrassingly obvious aesthetic observations every made, but it occurred to me, the other night, as I enjoyed a late viewing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, that to stand in front of a painting of a certain type – of a certain size and scale – is to become intimate with the artist in a very particular way. It is, and I gawped at myself as I thought this, to see with their eyes.
The gallery was quiet, I was there to see the Hockney prints, but took advantage of the near-total absence of people (not least children, not least my own children) to wander rooms I knew well, but at my own pace, and without distraction.
I was looking at a Poussin – it doesn’t really matter which one – and it occurred to me that I was standing in relation to it exactly as he had stood to paint it. It felt like my gaze was caught in some spectral zone, that my eyes were haunted by his, commanded by his, and that I was seeing what he had seen, centuries ago.
Can I explain this thought? Or rather: can I explain the feeling that it was somehow important?
It wouldn’t happen with music. It wouldn’t happen with prose, or poetry, or drama, or film, or dance – or even, really, sculpture.
To create the painting, the artist would have had to stand in relation to the canvas exactly where I was standing. When he lifted the brush the first time, he was standing where I stood. To see what he had created, and decide it was finished, ditto. Continue reading
This month I finished reading two books that had been lying open – by my bedside, on my desk – for months and months: WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (a re-read) and TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death. Obviously, this makes them the opposite of page-turners – page-turn-backers, perhaps, as, with the Sebald especially, I found myself going back and starting chapters over, settling myself back in to whichever slippery, slow-moving digression he was taking me on. With the Clark the stop-start process was not a problem. I knew what I was reading it for: I was reading it for insight, for ideas about how we look at paintings, and what it means to come back and look at paintings over and over again, day after day, rather than assume that we can take them in at one glance.
It’s a marvellous book about art, that exhibits its authority not in the range of its reference (though that’s there), but in the focus of its attention. In it Clark spends a six-month sabbatical sitting in a gallery looking at two paintings by Poussin, giving his thoughts not in a clever post-hoc essay, but in diary form, as they come. It makes me want to read Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf, his book about sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud, which presumably has as much to say about the day-to-day process of art on the other side of the aesthetic divide.
Clark’s book might have something to say about why I’ve chosen, or ended up, reading the Sebald in slow, overlapping, self-replicating waves, rather than a simple linear progression. He is particularly good on the importance of the viewing position in front of the painting, something that is impossible to recreate with any kind of reproduction – and boy the reproductions in The Sight of Death are good, dozens and dozens of details on high-gloss paper, magnified crops to illustrate whatever point Clark is making. I went to see one of ‘his’ Poussins in the National Gallery last week, and it was – in its current condition, or lighting, or situation – a sad and muddy mess: impossible to make out even half of what the book shows us, but then Clark is all about the contingencies of the moment: the hanging, the room in the gallery, whether the lights are on or off, the weather outside. He says:
So pictures create viewing positions – don’t we know that already? Yes, roughly we do; but we have only crude and schematic accounts of how they create them, and even cruder discussions of their effects – that is, of how the positions and distances are or are not modes of seeing, modes of understanding, intertwined with the events and objects they apply to.
Every time he goes back to look at the painting he must reorient himself in front of it, let himself work his way back in. Does something similar happen with books? Perhaps. The key problem with Sebald, for me, is how you should negotiate the information he gives you. Continue reading
My May reading was in part dominated by averagely interesting books, not chosen by me and read at speed, that other people seemed to have rated higher than I. David Park’s novel The Light of Amsterdam, is certainly well-written and full of fine features but, in retrospect, disappointingly homogenised in its view of life, and unlikely to be remembered fondly; and Alex Wheatle’s Brenton Brown, again fine on paper, in its various attributes, but in the head – where books truly exist – lacking the spark to turn honest decent credible characters into living, breathing getting-under-the-skin ones. What most sticks with me, these weeks after reading it, is the bewildering range of speech tags Wheatle uses (“argued”, “sighed”, “insisted” and the like) when, as I’ve blogged before, the consensus, among Creative Writing teachers at least, is that one should simply use “said”. Is it snobbish, or reactionary, of me to want to put a wiggly line next to most of these? Both books read for Fiction Uncovered.
No one asked me to read anything for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I did anyway: Judith Hermann’s Alice, which basks in page after page of beautiful, expertly translated prose, is in the end rather defeated by its structure: five chapters, in each of which the titular Alice visits someone who is dying, and who then dies. Hermann is perceptive and connective about loss, and about the bloom of life that surrounds it, but the sheer doggedness of death’s reappearance (“Hello! It’s me!”) becomes self-defeating. It’s a bit like that thing about Agatha Christie mysteries: lovely as she, you really don’t want to invite Miss Marple to stay at your country house. She is a bad penny. The ability ofAlice (the book, or the character) to sublimate grief into art is, in the end, almost psychotic.
Dream of DingVillage by Yan Lianke I didn’t get into enough to let it get into me. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life in China as imposed blood-harvesting spread Aids among the rural poor, but there was nothing in the novel, I felt, that I couldn’t have got from a well-written piece of reportage.