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PRINT February 2007

books

T. J. Clark

IN HIS PREFACE to Painting as an Art (1987), the philosopher Richard Wollheim described a somewhat unusual way of looking at paintings which he found both “massively time consuming and deeply rewarding”:

I came to recognize that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was. I spent long hours in the church of San Salvatore in Venice, in the Louvre, in the Guggenheim Museum, coaxing a picture into life. I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture I was looking at.

It was fundamental to Wollheim’s philosophy of art that art presupposes “a common human nature, and that pictorial meaning works through it,” and he was confident his method of sustained looking could be counted on to “grasp the intention of the artist as the picture revealed it.” He contrasted his approach with that to which he believed art historians tacitly subscribe in their scholarly work, where they

make do with a psychology that, if they tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day without lovers, friends, or any insight into how this had come about.

In that same preface, Wollheim associated art historian T. J. Clark with a body of thought to which he himself was not at all drawn, much as he admired Clark’s “learning and originality,” namely “the social or sociological explanation of the arts,” which, Wollheim felt, did not “promise much as far as my interests, or the central problems of the study of art are concerned.”

I have no idea whether Clark himself has come around to something like Wollheim’s views about how art should be addressed, but something must explain his decision to spend what amounts to several months, to be sure not exclusively but certainly substantially, in “deep looking” at two Poussins that happened to be on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles while Clark was in residence there as a research fellow in 2000. One of them, Landscape with a Calm, 1650–51, belonged to the Getty Collection; the other, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, was on loan from the National Gallery in London. The latter was one of Clark’s “touchstones,” a painting he had seen often and regularly, and which, in his view, was “one epitome of painting . . . summing up the utmost that visual imagery could do in a certain vein.” The fact that the two paintings should have been together for the period of his residence was, he felt, the chance of a lifetime, and he began writing in a diaristic way about the two works, finding that he “could not stop.” Unlike Wollheim, Clark does not seem to have philosophical views about where this kind of looking and writing would lead. “I want to write a reaction to my two paintings, not a theory of them,” he writes, adding, “I’d like to show how a theory of painting comes into being—how a painting as opposed to a proposition or a narrative or a geometric figure, instigates and directs an inquiry into ‘what it is saying.’” That is, there is a difference between saying and showing, but with painting you obviously need both: “The painter is poised . . . between a world of discourse he is always running back to . . . and something else.” You can’t cash the painting in for just the thought—but Clark must have hoped that an open search would disclose something worth knowing about these pictures, about Poussin as an artist, and perhaps about life. He definitely was not, as he puts it, “working on Poussin,” but using a form of free-associative art writing as an “experiment,” to see what turned up.

When I started reading The Sight of Death, I, too, thought this was the chance of a lifetime. Poussin had always left me cold, and though Richard Wollheim was one of my closest friends, part of my life, really, he was never able to awaken much enthusiasm in me for his favorite painter. But there is nothing more enriching, I have found, than to stand with someone I admire—an artist like David Reed or Knox Martin, say—and listen to them talk about the work before us. I have, moreover, often found that my view of a body of paintings changes when I have had to bear down, to use an expression Clement Greenberg favored, by writing about it. So here was a chance to overhear one of the art writers I most respected, talking to himself, as it were, about a pair of paintings opportunely available to him. What, I wondered when I began reading this book, would Clark help me discover about these works?

What I had not initially anticipated was that Clark believed that, in committing himself to describing these paintings, he was ipso facto engaged in a form of political action. “Let us take it as axiomatic,” he writes, “that the politics of Poussin’s [paintings] are conservative.” But to see the politics of “the image-world we presently inhabit . . . we need such (reactionary) mirrors.” He goes on to say:

We are living, I reckon, through a terrible moment in the politics of imaging, envisioning, visualizing [so] the more necessary it becomes to recapture what imaging can be: to suggest what is truly involved in getting to know something by making a picture of it . . . is a form of politics in itself, meeting other forms head on.

So in some sense Clark views himself as engaged, as a writer, in a form of political agon with the artist. At the very least that requires us to think of these paintings as political: “It becomes a political act to show the kinds of critical thinking that images can make possible. It is, needless to say, a weak politics, a reactive and defensive one; but at least it recognizes . . . the ethos of deception it is reacting against.” That sets the stakes very high: It becomes a political defeat if his ekphrastic endeavors fail.

Clark begins with Landscape with a Calm, but his heart, one feels, isn’t in “allowing oneself to respond to the picture’s stillness,” even though this too “is a form of politics.” And the reader feels this in the way Clark goes about looking at it: He counts the figures in the painting, for example (seventeen), and counts the zones that define its spatial structure (four). He proposes that there is a “deliberate difference between this kind of structure and that of Snake, where the foreground is immediately divided and narrated as space leading treacherously from dark to light, danger to safety, revealed to hidden.” In Snake he counts “seven zones or eight or even nine. I turn back to Calm, and am sure its spatial simplicity is part of its point”—a point, perhaps, that might not be seen if Calm were not in the same room (in “conversation,” as curators like to say) with Snake. He notes certain “aporias”—the puzzling architecture of the laundry shed at the left of Calm, the fact that a bull walking along the far shore of a river is not reflected in the calm surface of the water, though the other cattle are. Poussin boasted that he had “rien negligé,” so there must be a reason for these puzzles. But nothing much is suggested, beyond the comment that “painting is always partly a matter of leaving things out, making sacrifices, knowing when enough is enough.” Is this really something Poussin is saying—viz., “Give me a break”—or is it just something that happened? In boasting that he has neglected nothing, Poussin almost disempowers his critics. It is as if he were claiming a “principle of sufficient reason” for everything in his paintings, hence for the omitted reflection—even if we can’t find the reason. In any case, it is hard to see this as a form of political action. I find myself getting a bit impatient, even a bit bored. What is this all leading to? When is the writing going to turn up something that makes me feel, for example, that I ought to start looking at art this way? Or that perhaps we all should?

So let’s turn to Clark’s discussion of Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. Snake, as Clark refers to it, depicts a corpse in the picture’s foreground, wound around by a snake of immense girth, which caused a friend of his to suggest that the painting is a version of the Laocoön. Clark feels that “we get the painting wrong if we fasten on the snake, or start our account from it. The painting is about dawn—dawn as in ‘dawning of an aspect.’” “Dawning of an aspect” comes from Wittgenstein, in the Philosophical Investigations (1953), when he talks about the duck-rabbit illusion. We see a figure as a duck but realize that one can also see it as a rabbit—when the other aspect “dawns.” Instead of pressing this point home, Clark dithers about whether the concept of “dawn” works this way in French or Italian, when one might, exactly beginning with the snake, describe the “dawning” as something that organizes the whole work. A man has noticed the monstrous death, and is running. In fear? To get help? To spread the word? Just ahead of the running man, a washerwoman, having laid down her bundle of laundry, opens her arms wide. What does that mean? I think she is opening her arms in a gesture of asking what’s going on, though her body language is underdetermined. Behind the woman are some men in a boat, perhaps fishermen, oblivious that something terrible has happened in the tranquil landscape. The news will spread from the running man to the woman to these men, rippling through the erstwhile placid scene. I would call that the dawning of an aspect—like the impact, in Et in Arcadia Ego (late 1630s), of the knowledge that death is there, even in Arcadia. How can someone not feel that we not only have to begin with the snake but with the enormousness, the monstrosity of the snake? It is not an ordinary classical snake, like a viper or an asp, as is the serpent in what Clark considers this painting’s pendant—Landscape with a Man Recoiling from a Snake, which also dates from the late 1630s.

The presence in a kind of Arcadia of a truly monstrous snake has to mean something. Clark writes: “The snake has never struck me as a very convincing reptile. . . . It is somehow too rubbery and glistening—like a nightmare of entrails exposed and twitching peristaltically.” But this, in my view, is the defining visual fact of the painting, not something that Poussin has neglected or that we can neglect. Perhaps not beginning with it is itself some kind of political act—a way of getting Poussin to say something other than what one would suppose him to be saying? Clark of course says many things about the snake in the course of his analysis. He claims that the snake represents evil, which for Poussin means formlessness. He talks at length, in several passages, about the snake representing (ambiguous) sexuality. He has implicitly tied the snake to Satan, as when he imagines (in a kind of thought experiment) that the running man and the woman with arms outstretched are Adam and Eve. He does not exactly neglect the snake—but all this is pure association, and it is a pretty meager harvest for six months of intense looking.

Clark’s rumination has run its course, one feels, when, nearing its end, “personal associations take over. The face of Death for me—I suppose the reader may already have guessed as much—is my mother’s on the hospital mortuary slab, long ago.” The experiment in art writing has more or less climaxed in a pretty fraught and unforgettable personal memory. But one feels—I feel—that the experiment ought not to have just awakened personal associations, but to have deepened our understanding of Poussin, and then of how Poussin conveyed some philosophical idea through images, even if we cannot detach that idea from the painting itself. I was disappointed, disillusioned even. I thought—forgive me—of something Wollheim wrote about the painting Landscape with Two Nymphs and a Snake, 1659—a work not mentioned in Clark’s book: “What the snake does in this picture is to urge upon us the ominousness of nature: a lesson reflected in the incredulous admiration by which the two nymphs are transfixed as they regard the massive contortions that the snake adopts in its efforts to swallow a bird. For a moment the prowess of the snake unsettles the sculptural calm.” The snake in the painting Clark addresses has not—or has not yet—unsettled the calm that prevails everywhere save in the foreground, where it surely is what we are meant to see first, which would account for its size. I think Clark is right in saying the snake is “that which makes one thing lead to another”—hence the running man, the concerned woman, and the further narrative that is in the course of unfolding in the painting.

“My art history has always been reactive,” Clark writes in The Sight of Death. “Its enemies have been the various ways in which visual imaging of the world has been robbed of its true humanity.” His enemies are my enemies. I am all for his project of “making the painting fully part of a world of transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs, ‘politics.’” I just don’t see this book as greatly advancing that agenda. Speaking politically, as he uses the term, I feel he has lost to the paintings.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.

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T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006). 272 pages.