Monday, April 10, 2017
people stream past it
Walking through the Getty Center last weekend I caught sight of a painting that I recognised without knowing how I recognised it or why, and as I was recognising it I had two impressions at the same time, one, that that it was important and intelligent, and, two, that it was mediocre or ordinary.
I knew why I thought (without seeing it clearly yet) that it was mediocre or ordinary, because it was neither huge nor small, there was nothing in the picture that tried to impress you; the colours were low-key blues and browns and there was a lake in the middle; it looked like an ordinary landscape, not Dutch, but with a similar placidity. And it seemed especially flat because I had been looking at Rubens' green and red Entombment, c. 1612, which was at the opposite end of the same room.
Then, although I was not seeing any more details, I realised that it was one of the two paintings I had been reading about only a few weeks before in T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death: an Experiment in Art Writing.
The idea that this was the same painting I had been reading about did not interest me very much. I could remember some of the things Clark had said about it but they did not change, I thought, my way of looking at the work now; and primarily I remembered how irritated I was at the end of the last chapter when he waited in the last rooms of the National Gallery recording cutting thoughts about visitors who were ignoring the other painting he describes in the book, Poussin's Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648. "[F]or several hours during the day thirty-plus people stream past it, one or two of whom give it a passing glance."
Too often at the end of gallery visits I have used up almost all of my time on other work and the terminal rooms have to be sprinted through against my desires. At the end of that visit to the Getty I wanted to stay longer with Lorenzo Lotto's The Madonna and Child With Two Donors, c. 1525-30, and also Jacopo Bassano's Portrait of a Bearded Man, c. 1550, which has an enigmatic grey shape ballooning in from the left side of the canvas. To the artist this must have been the shadow of the man's head but there is no pictorial evidence that the greenish background is actually a surface that would enable a shadow to exist and instead it looks as if someone has laid in the canvas flat on the ground and dropped a cup of grease on it. The man is looking away. Another painting in a different Getty building shows you a group of clean middle-class people gathered in a public place to enjoy the sight of a multi-coloured featureless biped performing an unidentifiable action on the paving in front of them. The label identifies it as a puppet but it might as well be a monster and I picture it as one.