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The Sight of Death
by T. J. Clark

Man lives and moves in what he sees, but he only sees what he wants to see.
Paul Valéry

Writing about painting presupposes not only the painter who makes the painting but also the writer who looks at the painting. The act of painting precedes the act of looking, which in turn precedes the act of writing.

Some writing takes as its focus the act of painting: the tools and pigments used, the aims and methods of the artist: the materiality of the painting and the intentionality of the painter. Some writing concentrates on the history of the painting: the original commission, the provenance of the work, attempts at restoration, the current ownership of the work and the influence of the painting upon later artists.

Other writing, by contrast, dwells on the act of looking at paintings: what the viewer sees (and, consequently, feels and thinks) when they encounter the work. In the Introduction to her collection of essays on painting, Mysteries of the Rectangle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), Siri Hustvedt writes:

What fascinate me are the journeys that begin with looking and only looking. For this, no special gnosis is required, only an understanding that the perception of an artwork is a visual adventure in an imaginary space. (p. xxi)

Hustvedt later elaborates upon this idea with reference to Giorgione's painting, The Tempest:

But even if, by some miracle, a scholar discovered a letter written by Giorgione in which he explained all the references in this strange canvas, it would not solve the painting. One can't understand an image by placing a narrative beside it. (p. 9)

The "visual adventure" that Hustvedt describes is primarily concerned not with what the painter meant, nor what others have taken the painter to mean, but with what the experience of looking at the painting is like for me. Is it possible to capture this experience in writing? If it can be then my visual adventures can be shared with others and the visual adventures of others can be shared with me.

T J Clark's book The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2006) is an excellent illustration of this idea. Sub-titled, "An Experiment in Art Writing", the book records the author's experience of looking at two Poussin paintings: Landscape with a calm and Landscape with a man killed by a snake. The diary entries start in January 2000, when Clark takes up a six-month residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The two paintings are on display in the neighbouring Getty Museum and Clark visits the Museum almost every day for three months, until Landscape with a man killed by a snake is returned home to the National Gallery in London. In almost 200 pages of entries Clark records his experience of looking: what he sees and what thoughts and feelings are provoked by what he sees. In the final section of the book, written between March 2001 and November 2003, Clark records some of his memories of looking, together with accounts of occasional visits to the paintings in other settings, or of visits to other work by Poussin.

Landscape with a man killed by a snake

The diary format allows the author to trace the variations and development of his experience of looking, as he views the paintings at different times of day, in different light, in different moods and having had the opportunity to check some of his insights and intuitions against the thoughts of others. The book therefore includes both immediate observations and considered reflections; it captures the writer's sense of surprise upon first noticing certain details in the paintings, as well as recording a growing sense of familiarity with the works as repeated viewings lead to deeper and more wide-ranging thoughts about the subject matter. There is excitement in discovering new things and excitement in finding new meanings in familiar things: Clark shows that both of these forms of excitement are integral to the activity of looking at paintings.

Landscape with a calm

The diary also includes the author's reflections upon the viewing and writing process: he writes not just about what he sees, but also about what he has previously seen and previously written. The book reveals the gradual elaboration of the writer's view of the painting and his ability to consider how his view changes through the process of re-viewing and re-writing. Clark is clear about the limitations of writing:

As regards the local, material appearances of paint, and what those appearances signify, writing on art is almost never convincing. It overwrites or underwrites them; it strains too hard to see the metaphor in a way of doing things or is too anxious to respect the way's muteness and matter-of-factness, and declines into a catalogue leavened with hints. (p. 36)

He is also clear that he does not want his approach to become programmatic:

I want this book to be about what occurs in front of paintings more or less involuntarily, not what I think ought to occur. (p. 133)

The book combines excitement with caution; a growing awareness of the range of things that might be said about a painting and a lingering suspicion of how difficult it might be to say any of these things well.

Some of what the viewer sees is public. Clark records, in some detail, what is there on the canvas: the people, the animals, the buildings, the vegetation, the landscape and the sky. He describes the colours used and the contrasts achieved; he puzzles over the structure of buildings and the lack of shadows of some objects; he speculates about the time of day and the activities of the people represented. Poussin's paintings are full of detail and there is much to describe and admire. Clark writes:

Painting is making a world materialize. There are no rules, obviously, about how much or how little detail is needed for the materialization to occur. In any case, the process is often not about how much or how little might be necessary, but about how long the process goes on being pleasurable to the person doing it. I realize that Poussin is also a master of reduction, of leaving things out. This is one of the reasons his painting is uniquely fascinating: it is the combination of abstractness with a kind of local particularization that ought by rights to be its contrary, but isn't - this is what I find myself wanting to see again. (p.219)

Later, on the same theme, he writes:

When I am in front of a picture the thing I most want is to enter the picture's world: it is the possibility of doing so that makes pictures worth looking at for me. (p.222)

To enter the picture's world is, at the same time, to enter the artist's world. This is a public act: it is an act of engagement with the worlds of description and of criticism, of the representation of events and of their interpretation. This is writing about a shared world, albeit a world on canvas.

However, some of what the viewer feels and thinks is private. Clark records moments when these paintings provoke memories and associations that are uniquely personal to him. In March 2001, a year after his stay in Los Angeles, while looking at a reproduction of Landscape with a man killed by a snake on his desk, he embarks upon a moment of free association: suddenly he sees the arms and hands of the woman, reaching out to the running man, as his mother's arms and hands:

And then - again, all this presented itself instantly (and I believe there had never been the least trace of it in the months spend looking a year ago) - it turns out that the woman's expression is also my mother's, recalled from one specific occasion ... which can stand for many. (p.202)

Here the painting acts as a source for introspection. To enter the picture's world is, in this instance, a purely personal act. Clark suggests that looking at a reproduction rather than the painting itself made his free association possible: the reproduction, he says, "made everything more manipulable". Nevertheless, there is also no doubt that it is the quality of Poussin's painting - its plausibility, its verisimilitude - that engaged Clark's attention for so long, thereby allowing such associations to occur.

Some of Poussin's paintings tell a specific story: for example Landscape with Saint Jerome, The Finding of Moses, or Landscape with the Ashes of Phocian. This is not to say that these paintings might not stimulate personal reflections or memories distinct from the subject matter of the works themselves. Rather, that the paintings invite such introspection by contemplation of the depiction of a specific story or person. The content of the painting is overtly public.

In other cases - for example, Landscape with travellers resting or Landscape with a man scooping water from a stream - the unspecified nature of the scene, its generality, make it somewhat easier for the viewer to enter the world of the picture and for elements of the picture to enter the viewer's world. Recalling Clark's phrase about "the combination of abstractness with a kind of local particularization", these unspecified paintings are more abstract and less particular, allowing more scope for the viewer's imaginative response. In these cases, the content of the paintings is more supportive of the viewer's private experience.

Landscape with a man killed by a snake, the painting that comes to pre-occupy Clark during the course of his writing, is just such a unspecified landscape. The title does not tell us the name of the man who has been killed, nor the location of his death; only that he has been killed by a snake. Painters have sometimes used snakes as symbols: they have been used to represent evil and wisdom, the promise of fertility and the power of healing. Snakes also take centre stage in a number of well-known myths, including the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the story of Cadmus the founder of Thebes, the story of the death of Laocoõn the Trojan priest, and the story of Cleopatra's suicide.

Poussin's painting has been the subject of numerous attempts at interpretation, several of which are described in a recent catalogue, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008). There appears no firm evidence that would allows us to give greater precedence to any one of these interpretations over the others; perhaps the most definite assertion we can make is that the snake depicted is a large python. Nor is this the only of Poussin's paintings with an unspecified title, in which a snake figures prominently. Other examples include Winter: The Flood and Landscape with a man pursued by a snake.

Ambiguity about the location and subject matter of a painting do not make the painting less interesting for the viewer. In this case, although we do not know who the dead man is, we do not need to know. His dead body might remind us of Laoco÷n, or the companions of Cadmus, or the Biblical story of the fall; and these memories might stimulate wider thoughts about Troy, Thebes and Eden. Or the body might provoke other thoughts: about the fear of death, about the dangers inherent in the natural world, about our need for comfort, or about the fragility of life and work and happiness. What makes the painting interesting to look at - repeatedly - is the combination of the beauty of the Arcadian landscape with the terrible sight of death, both of which are captured strikingly - remarkably - in Poussin's painting.

In 1634, fourteen years before Poussin painted Landscape of a man killed by a snake, John Donne's poetry was published posthumously. In his poem Twicknam Garden Donne situates the experience of unhappiness within a special place, more readily associated with the beauty of nature:

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with teares,
Hither I come to seeke the spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,
Receive such balmes, as else cure every thing;
But O, selfe traytor, I do bring
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert Manna to gall,
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.

Whether the snake is real, preying upon its victims by a woodland stream, as represented in Poussin's painting, or whether the snake is a product of our imagination, a fear or doubt that preys upon our mind, as represented in Donne's poem, in either cases the act of looking helps us to reflect upon the experience of fear, of unhappiness, and of death. Great paintings attract serious attention: they allow the viewer space and time, not just for the viewer to enter the picture's world, but for elements of the painting to enter the viewer's world. In these circumstances the act of looking can be both public and personal.

T J Clark's The Sight of Death ably makes the case for the value of good writing about great painting. The author has looked carefully and at length at Poussin's work and writes elegantly and insightfully about it. The best evidence for its success will be that readers head to the National Gallery in London and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to look once again at these two paintings by Poussin, this time more carefully.

© Mark Hannam 2010