The Special Motion of a Hand

T.J. Clark goes to the Met

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call ‘landscape’, the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart.[*] I stumbled to and fro between them day after day, elated and disoriented. They sum up so much – too much – of what painting in Europe was capable of, and they embed that achievement so palpably in a certain history. Behind the glistening meadows and the huntsmen in the snow one catches the smell of autocracy and public burnings, of permanent warfare and bankers with impeccable taste.

I have found over the years that looking at Courbet and Poussin leads a viewer in contrary directions. Sometimes it matters intensely, and seems to be the key to these paintings’ mysteries, that they were made for Lyon silk merchants or left-leaning notables from the Franche-Comté, and that the Fronde or the Commune are just off-stage. (Breton put it this way in Nadja: ‘The magnificent light in Courbet’s pictures is for me the same as that in the Place Vendôme at the moment the column fell.’) But these are also objects that speak to their makers’ deep, naive absorption in the material practice of painting. They live in the confines of oil on canvas, delighting in procedure, hiding there from principalities and powers. Wildly different as the two men were temperamentally, their art shares an expository tone. They are both concerned to spell out the true nature and proper province of their craft. Therefore the impossible question ‘What is painting?’ tends to occur in front of the work they have left us. Or, just as daunting: ‘What can painting do that no other art can?’ The questions are abstract and dangerous, but there is something about Landscape with Diogenes or The Origin of the World that brings them on.

Painting is a craft. It works up its grandest, largest-scale effects from a set of familiar coloured substances. Usually, looking at the way these substances go to make a world within the rectangle, one is aware of the special motion of a hand putting them on: a hand and a forearm, or occasionally the whole arm swinging from the shoulder. Poussin, whose hand in later life trembled from the effects of syphilis, devised a way of painting through the trembling – but also taking advantage of the slightly broader patchwork it dictated – that seems to me ‘handling’ in the most moving form we have. But all painters are handlers, even those, like Ingres, who want to show us the manual activity covering its tracks.

Painting is material. Materialism, for it, is not one view of the nature of the world among others, but the view – the felt reality – it cannot help but inhabit. Courbet used to enjoy upsetting the serious neo-Catholic disciples of Ingres by sticking his stubby hand in their faces and saying: ‘La peinture, c’est ça!’ But there is no need to be an atheist or a positivist for it to be one’s life’s work to place a viewer in the here and now. Poussin was neither, but his world is as earthly and creaturely as Goya’s or Masaccio’s. One thing that seems to follow naturally from painting’s material nature is that it sees its task as always turning on the human body – the body conjured up immediately and substantially. But the human animal is not painting’s whole subject (here is what marks it off from sculpture, to say nothing of dance). For painting is also convinced, in the way of no other art but architecture, of the reality of space. And it thinks that painting is uniquely equipped to give us this space, to contain and articulate it – to show its specific shape and pressure. The world in painting is one of bodies, but bodies in surroundings.

Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Washing His Feet at a Fountain’ (c.1648)
Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Washing His Feet at a Fountain’ (c.1648)

Many accounts of the human might follow from this, and have. Let us start with Poussin’s.† There is a picture in the show in New York that normally hangs in the National Gallery in London, called Landscape with a Man Washing His Feet at a Fountain. (I like the fact that an alternative title, Landscape with a Dirt Road, has got attached to it over the years. The would-be permanence of its wayside architecture – milestones and tombs as well as cisterns – versus the puddles on the country road speaks to the picture’s point.) Men and women in Poussin’s landscapes make their way by the side of rivers, seeking the shade of trees. They choose routes that others have trodden, and are glad of the reassurance offered by the presence of the past: stone basins to douse one’s aching feet, oaks tied round with offerings to the gods (a garland, a little effigy, a quiver with arrows), ivy falling from a sepulchre. A woman sweeps by, balancing a basket on her head. An old man in blue dreams full-length on the grass. The man with his feet in the fountain massages a blister.

Poussin was enormously interested in the persistence of our attempts to contain and discipline the physical world, and the ways those attempts can fail. For him the determinant event of human history seems to have been the decline and fall. A cultivated tourist once told him he was in search of souvenirs of the antique, and Poussin knelt in the grass, scooping up a handful of marble chips, saying: ‘Here you are, sir: take this to your museum and tell them, this is ancient Rome.’ His Saint John on Patmos, one of the great moments in New York, is utterly alone in a landscape that teems with the evidence of people’s will to perpetuate their way of life. Cut stone is everywhere. The very slope of the hill is massively reinforced, so that the road will stay safe in winter. Cities line the shore. Architraves catch the sun. But no other figure, however tiny, is in sight. And none will ever appear.

Such a view of time and civilisation is likely to coincide with a specific anthropology. Poussin is one of those painters – they are strangely rare, given the opportunities painting offers – whose sense of the human condition turns on the body’s standing. Which is to say, he cannot get over the human animal’s uprightness – its balancing on two legs. He is the master of load-bearing feet; and therefore, as we have seen, the master of those moments when people try to deal with the ordinary pains of bipedalism, or just give uprightness a rest. ‘He laid us as we lay at birth/On the cool flowery lap of earth,’ as Matthew Arnold had it of Wordsworth. The man in blue in the London picture is the perfect instance of this; but he is one of scores of such figures all through Poussin’s career. Give him a drowsing river god to paint, or a drunken cherub sucking his thumb and nodding off, or a Roman grandly used to doing business on the horizontal – Saint John shows his belonging to the Rome he is destroying above all in this – and Poussin almost automatically shifts into a higher poetic gear. Give him a dead Adonis. Give him Narcissus sprawled by the stream. Give him Phocion’s widow, scrabbling among the funeral ashes in search of her husband’s bones.

The greatest moments of a world-view like this have to do with kinds of contact between bodies and ground plane, where the human determination to ‘rise above things’ is indissociable from over-reach and vulnerability. Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (whose miserable grey varnish is almost penetrated by the Metropolitan’s top-lighting) is explicit on the subject. But interval and distance are just as important as contact in Poussin. This is an artist uncannily aware of the spaces that lie between figures, stranding and silhouetting them. Time and again, in scenes that pullulate with bodies and buildings, he manages to install a governing, all-pervasive emptiness, pressing in on the human from the mineral and vegetable world. We reach out, we regularise, we raise up. He ‘put reason in the grass’, Cézanne was supposed to have said of him, but also – crucial insight – ‘tears in the sky’. Our best efforts are temporary. The marble chips are never far off.

One way of summing up this view of life would be to say that it looks death full in the face, and sees what animation has as its shadow. And this could be the beginning of a comparison with Courbet. Dead bodies are everywhere in Courbet – not for nothing will he go down in history as the painter of A Burial at Ornans – but death nowhere. Death in Courbet is brought on to recall us to life: to act as foil for the vivacity of dogs and foxes, snapping their storybook teeth. A trout with a hook in its mouth is a figure of life’s stubbornness, and of death as something we animals know nothing of. Funerals and wakes are wholly worldly occasions, in which what matters – matters more than ever in life – is possessions, dignities, stuffs, individualities. Sleep in Courbet is the opposite of death’s second self. It is warmth, deep breathing, restless dreamwork, post-coital flush. Ogling Courbet’s two lesbians in Sleep, and then laying an optical hand on the pubic hair and peeping clitoris in The Origin of the World, I thought suddenly of the lines in Baudelaire:

L’amoureux pantelant, incliné sur sa belle, A l’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau.

But only the better to get the measure of Courbet’s distance from any such metaphysics. Courbet was the worst painter of skulls in history. And never, in his fleshly universe, is there a skull beneath the skin.

This is a version of materialism. Of course it is possible to recoil from Courbet’s appetite, and his lack of distance from the things he is interested in. Some prefer Poussin’s standoffishness. I guess I do. A lot of the time in the Courbet exhibition the madness all around struck me as not so much that of painting as of the Second Empire – whose vulgar claustrophobia should be taken in small doses. But the world (or one part of it) is vulgar. Matter can, and regularly does, press in on us and give us no room to breathe. A painter whose view of the world begins from an actual realisation of this closeness and fulsomeness is a materialist to be reckoned with.

The writer who has entered most deeply into this moment of Courbet’s imagining is Michael Fried. The material world in Courbet, Fried persuades us, is not to be thought of as something separate from the body that encounters it. Painting consists in finding a way of intimating the deep continuity between body (meaning the body’s experience of itself, as if from inside) and those various objects that the body is not. The world is near to us. It is within our reach, constantly waiting to be touched, to be handled and entered. The vagina is its perfect figure. The world is for us: it is on display, always coming towards the space we occupy, like a wave breaking or a waterfall issuing from a cave. Bodies are infinitely extendable into the object-world – that is what makes matter comprehensible – and one runs one’s hands through the stuff of existence in much the same way as a woman runs her hands through her hair, watching herself doing it in a mirror. (Courbet painted two fabulous pictures of Whistler’s mistress doing just that.)

You may guess that a painter of this persuasion is not much concerned with bipedalism, and has no time to waste on the feel of the ground underfoot. Hands and orifices are what concern him. Almost never in Courbet does the bottom edge of a painting establish a ground plane, on which we and the characters in the illusion could imagine ourselves standing. Being in the material world, Courbet says, essentially (phenomenologically) takes other forms. It is a matter of spreading and unfolding into things analogous to us – manipulating them, anticipating their softness or hardness. Taking a stand in such a world is incidental, one possible state among many. Uprightness is anyway too close to sublimation. Being horizontal is attractive, as long as it is not understood as low. Above all, neither standing nor falling is to be moralised – remember the Courbet who once signed a painting ‘sans idéal et sans religion’ – or freighted with death-versus-life. One of the triumphs of the exhibition is Les Demoiselles du bord de la Seine, in which we seem to hover slightly above two tired, blowsy women, out for a row up the river, who have moored their boat and spread themselves and their petticoats on the grass. They are pinned unconvincingly to the ground, like shopsoiled butterflies in someone’s collection. And the lack of a felt relation between them and the earth they rest on matters not at all. They and their underskirts are a territory. We go exploring. We smell the sweat and loosen the corset. Whether we (and they) are lying down or floating oneirically does not concern us.

This is a version of materialism. I admire it, though I may not warm to it. Certainly it would be wrong to dismiss it as a form of solipsism, since if it is possible to say of Courbet (or of Rembrandt, whom Courbet idolised) that in his art the world becomes all one body, perceived as so many extensions of self, then it is equally true that the qualities of the object-world we find most alien to our vitality – its heaviness and slowness and hard-edged resistance to change – are taken into the body, and give it a strange new consistency. There is a lunatic painting of Courbet’s from 1853 called The Bathers, in which a lumbering mound of flesh stumps out of the shallows onto a strip of beach. She waves to a maidservant, who doesn’t know where to look. ‘Ce monceau de matière,’ to quote a contemporary, ‘qui tourne avec cynisme son dos au spectateur.’ Over to the left of the tub of lard’s body is a lump of granite, grey as ash, which one is tempted to take as substitute for the front view of the bather’s nether regions. And yes – it wrinkles and gapes. It half invites penetration. But never has a rock looked less fleshlike. If body and object-world are all one thing, in other words, then the thing-ness in question is often likely to take the skin off your fingers.

Courbet’s world is proximity. For a landscape to be paintable in his case, it has to be turned into a room – preferably chock-full of heavy furniture in Second Empire taste. The moment he tries to be panoramic, or even geographic, his skills desert him. Sometimes the heat and pressure of all this identification with things can be stifling. Jacques Lacan’s silly prurience in the face of The Origin of the World – he owned the canvas for a while, and had his brother-in-law do a kitschy landscape ‘veil’ for it, which he drew back for assorted Surrealist guests – speaks, alas, to one kind of excitement that nearness brings on. Courbet wanted painting to replicate the business of actual possession. His patrons too often wanted to play peek-a-boo. The line between unembarrassed desublimation – ‘painting with one’s prick’, Renoir called it – and arty pornography is hard to draw.

Proximity, yes. Claustrophobia, regularly. These are the determinant modes of Courbet’s world-making; but just because they are pursued so seriously, so unabashedly, it should not surprise us that out of them, from time to time, comes their dialectical opposite. The granite boulder in The Bathers is the clue. For some of us, the Courbet that matters most is the one who finds the world he has made – the stuffs he has filled every inch of the canvas with, the surfaces and textures he has trowelled on with his palette knife, all sticky and gleaming and overt to the touch – is not for him after all. This moment of Courbet’s achievement – call it the moment of otherness and matter-of-factness, of objectivity and self-loss – is not well represented at the Metropolitan. This is not the organisers’ fault. The paintings in question are only a handful; and almost all of them are vast. Self-loss tends to happen to Courbet when he is covering surfaces eight feet by fifteen or more, pushing his easel-painting habits to the limit. Paintings of this kind are fragile, and their smart 19th-century pigments have turned out to be a conservator’s nightmare. They no longer travel. They see out their declining years, poor things, in the Musée d’Orsay. But the show in New York does have one resplendent example in which Courbet can be seen painting himself out of the picture: it is the Metropolitan’s own Les Demoiselles de village, which has never looked finer, and whose gentleness seems to issue from another century, another form of life. It is worth making the trip to New York for this alone: to see how little the Demoiselles has to do with the fires blazing all around it.

Courbet’s ‘Les Demoiselles de village’ (1851-52)
Courbet’s ‘Les Demoiselles de village’ (1851-52)

What the painting shows is simple. Three young ladies in semi-fashionable outfits – we know now they are portraits of Courbet’s sisters – have stopped for a moment on their morning walk. They are standing on a small platform of what looks to be spongy grass, or maybe moss, with a cirque of low limestone cliffs rising behind them. Their dog bristles at a pair of cows across the meadow, on the far side of a stream, but the cattle do not scare. The sister in pink is carrying a picnic basket, and out of it she has taken a piece of flatbread, which she offers in charity to a peasant girl, the cows’ superintendent, who has a long afternoon ahead of her. Everything in the picture – grass, cliffs, cashmere, muslin, noonday blue – is pulled, almost moulded, out of a thick impasto.

Of course this inventory does not touch what is astonishing about the picture, and what distinguishes it from its neighbours. The first thing is space. Viewers have always been struck by the strangeness of relation, above all of scale, between the women and the landscape they are walking through – are we looking at a landscape with figures, or at a figure painting that just happens to have wandered outdoors? – but ultimately it is not the dead ground and lack of proper diminution that matter, but the fact that everything here is held at a distance. Proximity is nowhere. Even the shrubs and flowers in the foreground seem sufficiently far away. The formalists used to say of Cézanne that one key to the uncanny space in his painting is the way everything he chooses to depict, near or far, is registered as if it existed in the same middle distance. Maybe the picture from which Cézanne learned how to do this was the Demoiselles. Foreground and sky, collie and heifer, cliffs and stream-bed: they are all held back from us, slightly – part of our world, ordinary and finite, but just out of reach.

This is the first thing that makes the Demoiselles so grand. The second is light. Courbet’s natural element is a flickering forest gloom, in which splashes of sunshine come to nothing. Put him out in the open, with Mediterranean blue to deal with, and his atmospherics are about as convincing as a backdrop in a photo booth. There is even a painting in the show, called Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, again from the weird early 1850s, where photographic unreality seems to be what Courbet intends. The Demoiselles, by contrast, is filled with soft sunlight. Weather and topography are benevolent – the last word one associates with Courbet’s rutting-and-strutting view of life, but it seems the only adequate one here. The modest cliffs are an armchair. ‘Une immense bonté tombait du firmament.’ The world is a room, but no longer clogged with chests of drawers and velvet. Nature is a gentle slope, down which we can roll for ever watching matter entertain us: a game little dog, warm limestone, a bush without thorns, bread, straw hats, a shepherdess. ‘I love the Brooks which down their channels fret/Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they.’

All this placidity, by the way, has something to do with Courbet’s politics. Here too there is a dialectic. Courbet’s great moments of matter-of-factness tend to happen when the social material he is working with touches him – above all, touches his class position – most intimately and confusingly. The Demoiselles is a case in point. Scholars have shown us that one important strand of the large-scale paintings of country life Courbet did in the wake of the 1848 revolution was a covert engagement with his own family’s drift from rich peasant (kulak) status to uneasy bourgeoisie. There was class struggle in the villages in 1851, and the place of Courbet and his sisters in that struggle – objectively, as Stalinists used to say – was in doubt. The journalists who first had the job of describing the Demoiselles a year later – just months after Louis-Napoleon’s coup – seemed to pick up on the issues at stake. Who were these women, anyway? What were they doing in the Jura? Where did they buy their dresses and parasols? Did they belong to the cowherd’s world? Are we meant to smile at them doing their good deed for the day? But the ultimate point, I think, is that the deeper the political undertow in Courbet, the more untroubled – the more completely empirical – his picture of matter. The more conflicted the attitude, the less acquisitive the totalisation.

I can, in a word, imagine Poussin and Cézanne standing in front of the Demoiselles, united in admiration for its ‘reason in the grass’. In 1905, two young artists went to visit Cézanne in his studio at Aix. ‘On the wall he had pinned up a photo of Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds,’ they reported, ‘the beauty of whose subject pleased him. He loved Poussin, in whom reason made up for lack of facility.’ Across the room on an easel was a large painting of eight naked women (some of whose anatomies gave Courbet’s lumbering bather a run for her money). ‘I hardly dare admit it,’ he said, ‘I’ve been working on this since 1894. I wanted to paint en pleine pâte, the way Courbet did.’

Poussin and Courbet, the proper conjunction. Two great things that painting can be.

[*] Poussin can be seen in the Special Exhibition Galleries until 11 May; Courbet in the Tisch Galleries until 18 May.