Friday, 27 January 2012

Confessions of a Visual Illiterate I

There is a poem I like by Marianne Moore about looking at pictures:

When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,/
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,/
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:/
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible/
than the intensity of the mood;/
or quite the opposite – the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,/
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,/
and deer and birds and seated people;/
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,/
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;/
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;/ 
the silver fence protecting Adam's grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist/.
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one's enjoyment./
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honoured –/ 
that which is great because something else is small./ 
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,/ 
it must be "lit with piercing glances into the life of things";/ 
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it./

I too, I'm sorry to say, 'fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments' when I look at pictures, although, unlike Moore, who remains concentrated on discovering the paintings' essences, the way in which they are, "lit with piercing glances into the life of things", I fear my love of narrative often distracts me from the paintings I'm looking at, diverting my attention toward speculation about their subjects and the stories behind them.

In order to illustrate or give a clearer picture of - and isn't it funny how the language of visual art seeps into writing - what I mean, here is a description of what happened when I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales the other day.

I started by looking at a portrait by a painter I'm fond of called Moroni, (I am fairly sure he came from Bergamo, which always makes me think of Earl Grey tea, [because it is flavoured with bergamot], such is the trivial nature of my thought processes):

Dragging my mind from the possibility of going to the cafe and ordering a hot drink, I was soon leaning in a little closer toward the canvas, not in order to look at the painting as such, but rather because I was trying to imagine what the person who sat for it was like when he was alive. What was his story, I wanted to know, and what would he be like, if I were to meet him:

The caption beside the painting urged me to notice the way the light flickers over the man's facial features, lending them vibrancy, but I was too busy trying to work out how Moroni had managed to control his brush in order to create the illusion of ruff and hairline and beard and skin:

I moved on to the neighbouring painting but was unable to take it in at all. Any thought of what it looked like was driven out of my head by my outrage at its donor and her absurd sense of what appears to be cultural cringe:

"What was she thinking?" I asked myself, feeling quite baffled.

Unfortunately, my mind was still on such matters - in this case what the sitter was thinking, rather than the donor, (but still, alas, I was not considering the painting itself) - when I shifted my gaze to the next work, by Ambrosius Benson, a diptych of Cornelius Duplicius de Scheppere and his wife, who was the object of my focus:

I'm convinced her main thought is, "Bloody Cornelius, I wish we'd got Holbein - it might have cost a bit more, but you get value for money with Holbein."

I imagine her spending the rest of her life looking at this picture and trying to persuade herself that it's okay, while all the time noticing that the fabric of those cuffs doesn't glow the way Holbein's would have:
and that, although her skin's not badly captured, the eyes Holbein would have given her might have been filled with sparkling life:
The more I looked at the picture the more certain I became that every time Mrs de Scheppere looked at Benson's attempt to render the gauze underlay and fur edging of her garment, all she could see was how exquisitely Holbein would have managed them:
The painting, in fact, probably ended up in an art gallery purely because Mrs de Scheppere couldn't stand having the wretched thing in her house a minute longer.

By now I was beginning to realise that, as well as wanting a hot drink, I was getting hungry. As a result, instead of looking at the whole of the next work I came to:
my attention was drawn to one particular detail - the ham. This led me off into quite irrelevant thoughts about what the book Beatrix Potter wrote about two mice who get into a doll's house was called (because I seem to remember a scarcely less well-painted ham in that):
I focussed on the oyster in the same painting after that. I do like oysters but I couldn't help wondering whether this one would give me food poisoning, supposing I were able to actually reach out and grab it from its place among the grapes, (my mother, after all, has always claimed that you should never trust a European oyster, as she got terribly sick after eating some on one long gone occasion, although my father always counter-claimed that that was only because she ate nine dozen at one sitting [such helpful interventions may have contributed not a little to their eventual divorce]):
"Is being fascinated with an oyster on a par with Moore's interest in the 'artichoke in six varieties of blue'?", I asked myself as I stared out the picture's window (no, not the picture window, the window in the picture, although it might in fact be a picture window, for all I know - I've never been clear what the phrase 'picture window' actually means), my eyes drawn, inevitably, by the distant landscape in the background. What is it about background scenes glimpsed through openings in paintings - they almost always fascinate me more than the foreground I'm supposed to be looking at. I think it is their mysterious quality, the hint of other lives going on just out of view:

Karel Dujardin's 'Italianate Landscape with Shepherd and Peasant Woman' was next on my unscholarly agenda. Instead of appreciating the colour and composition, I found myself speculating, as I looked at it, on whether Dujardin, unable to find a female model at short notice, painted a bloke and added a phwoar kind of cleavage to him, in the hope of deflecting viewers' attention from the creature's manly stance and face. The peasant woman reminded me somehow of the Little Britain performer, David Walliams:

Similarly ignoble thoughts afflicted me when I turned to Blanchard's painting of Mars discovering a sleeping vestal virgin, (an event that the caption explains, opaquely, resulted in the birth of Romulus and Remus). Yet again I failed to consider the painter's method of paint application, his sense of colour or general composition, puzzling instead about whether or not what the caption coyly describes as 'the sensuousness of Blanchard's art', might not also be classifiable as high-class soft porn. Certainly, the virgin's face is not what Mars appears to be mostly interested in:

Out in the Australian section of the gallery, I came next upon Eugene von Guerard's 1865 painting of Sydney Heads:

In my philistine way, it was again the 'odd thing' that attracted me, the detail of the scene rather than the quality of the work of art - really, I suppose, a photograph would have suited my purposes equally well, since what intrigued me was looking at this now transformed but still familiar landscape and seeing all the vanished details, captured by von Guerard, of the pristine nature of the North Shore of the time:

The next canvas I came to was a painting of Milford Sound, which tured out also to be by von Guerard, even though I'd always believed it was by Caspar David Friedrich:
As usual, my mind quickly began trying to transform the thing into a narrative. Instead of absorbing the whole work as a visual object, I was soon dividing it up, as if it were one of those medieval religious story paintings, into little sections, finding small pieces within it that each had the potential to produce a story of its own.

I discovered a section depicting a bunch of people about to launch onto the water in a small boat:

and another section showing a similar vessel already floating out upon the water:

Meanwhile birds could be seen, flying above the water, unaware of the human activity beneath:
and over on the right of the canvas a mysterious steamer with unknown passengers was moving slowly across the lake's glassy surface (is Milford Sound a lake?):

while a waterfall thundered in the distance:

beneath a livid sky:

Is it all right to do this, to wander around galleries in such an ill-informed way, enjoying and admiring the displays but understanding practically nothing? I worry that the manner in which I approach these outings - outings that I love, I should point out - is the incorrect manner. I'm concerned that really I ought to be doing serious preparation. I fear I should be more intent on discerning 'piercing glances' and 'spiritual forces', rather than treating the whole visual experience with as much respect as I might the unfolding vista glimpsed through a car window on a long journey.

I worry, in short, that I'm a visual illiterate. But then I comfort myself with the fact that the New South Wales Art Gallery's curators appear to be linguistically illiterate, which, in my world, is just as bad.


  1. It was a long day at work, and perhaps the length or just the work have dulled my social perceptions. What "cultural cringe" do you perceive in Lady Binning's gift? Is it because she gave the locals what the Londoner's wouldn't take? If so, it is not at all clear to me that it was Lady B. who offered the picture to the National Gallery--I read the item as suggesting instead that it was Mr. Salting who did, and then having failed to get rid of it left it in his will to his niece.

    1. You're right - rereading it, I see it might be Mr Salting who had the cringe. It seems to me to be a great loss to give your collection to a place that already has so much, rather than to donate it to the gallery of your home town, which needs to establish a decent collection. There's some saying along the lines of 'to them that have, give', and it seems to me a silly thing to do. Would be interesting to know how many of Salting's things are on display in London and how many are stashed away in vaults with all the huge numbers of things they cannot often show.

  2. "The next canvas I came to was a painting of Milford Sound, which tured out also to be by von Guerard, even though I'd always believed it was by Caspar David Friedrich"

    I didn't know Friedrich had ever been to New Zealand

  3. He transported himself there with the power of glaring All present were astonished.

  4. It was in his youth, before he'd settled finally on painting and was still part of the travelling circus he'd run away to join at 15. I think it was the death of his dancing pig in Dunedin that led him to turn to the canvas full time.

  5. The glaring only manifested itself when someone reminded him about that long lost pig.

  6. And he never danced again.

    Those were dark times.

    1. 'Oink, oink, and trip the light fantastic,' he heard the choir angelic trilling faintly in his dreams

  7. I know what I like. Especially that they made push-up bras available to peasant women BB (Before Berlei).

    1. But the vestal virgin missed out - and look what happened then. Those old paintings are just filled with smut. Or is it my mind?

  8. 'Elizabeth Donche's' painting was actually executed by Ambrosius Benson. The sitters names were Cornelius Duplicius de Scheppere and his wife Elizabeth Donche. You might have appreciated it a little more if you had taken your head out of your ass.

    1. Sorry, I didn't catch your name? Or are you only prepared to be rude when people don't know who you are? How pathetic. The word is usually spelt arse, by the way.