Lytle Shaws New Grounds for Dutch Landscape
This engrossing new book is a poetic revision of no less than two centuries of in-gazing art history. On the occasion of the books publication, the Rail has commissioned exchanges with some interested readers.
New Grounds for Dutch Landscape
(OEI editör, 2021)
Entropy and the Old Monuments
Hegel prized Dutch landscape painting not just for its “secularizing” maneuvers, but for its indexing of work, work which was a piece with the Low Countries’s man-made topography: “What nature affords directly to other nations … [Hollanders] have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry.” Laborious constructions of space characterized the country and its aesthetics, with ever-churning processes of differentiation—sand from sea, Protestant from Catholic, idea from thing—for Hegel a pictorial drama generative of thought. It is the same regions’ “transitory and fugitive material” that forms the recalcitrant terrain of Lytle Shaw’s engrossing New Grounds for Dutch Landscape, a poetic revision of no less than two centuries of in-gazing art history. On the occasion of the book’s publication, the Rail has commissioned exchanges with some of Shaw’s interested readers.
The book’s central contention is remarkably simple: that artists like Ruisdael, Meindert Hobbema, and, above all, Jan van Goyen, did not so much show their native Republic as pictorially re-enact the unsteady geological circumstances of its existence. Dunes, polders, swamps, fens, and beaches were in constant flux. The provinces were forever flooding, the turf eroding, to set the country in shifting shapes of dampness. Van Goyen, for example—who Shaw notes painted wet-on wet—wielded pigments of brown and tan to both describe and metaphorize Dutch sog. Jacob van Ruisdael, meanwhile, dramaturge of the rushing waterfall, refashioned sediment control as anxious scenery, rhyming “land management—drainage, reclamation—with pigment management.” Shaw’s connection here is no pat allegory. The entropic yearnings of the Dutch countryside index a surprising history (the early modern Dutch economy was itself collapsing when painterly experiments were at their height). What the book offers is a multi-epoch story that oozes and puddles creatively around both Northern matter and four hundred years of its beholding.
This all renders the Dutch painters—as more than one of Shaw’s interlocutors points out—poets of a type; but avowedly un-pastoral ones. For these are landscapes possessible but forever fugitive; constructed and potentially dissolved, they are property and property’s opposite; disquieted rather than consolatory: in Shaw’s words, “almost nervous.” For like the bourgeois economy of their making, the countless Dutch pictures actually allure by their hostility to easy inhabitation and with it, intimacy. It was Hölderlin, of all people (Hegel’s seminary roommate from Tübingen) who knew this: “Wie schön aus heiterer/Ferne Glänzt einem das herrliche Bild/Der Landschaft” he wrote during late-life madness: “The landscape shines/cheerfully distant/Like an enchanting picture.” Not quite an indifference greets us in old Dutch art, but a timely reminder that, once painted, nothing was more unsettled than “nature.”
T. J. Clark
I’m sorry this letter has been so long coming. Put the blame on the English winter and Cézanne. The greyness of the former, and the non-greyness of the latter—I’ve spent the past weeks in round after round of color corrections for my Cézanne book. A hopeless task, “correcting” for Cézanne’s color.
But I’ve gone on reading New Grounds through the year, and learning from it—learning to look at particular paintings I’d previously only half-seen. I think I quoted to you once before the dying words of Crome the Elder (a painter it’s easy to condescend to… we had a fine exhibition of his work last year at the Castle Museum in Norwich): “Hobbema! Oh, Hobbema! How I have loved you!” Put those words on your escutcheon.
Predictably enough, the words you quote from Hegel’s Lectures in the van Goyen chapter lodged in my mind.
In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom.
I know you recognize that the translator’s “sure footing” somewhat alters the emphasis of Hegel’s original “sich einnisten,” which means to settle down or nest oneself in something; but the basic idea—the basic image—is tremendous however rendered. Making a place for oneself in the prose of life—being in contact with it, encountering it as prose… feeling it impinge on you like a hollow in the dunes, or squish like mud or sand between your toes. “Making it valid in itself.” Making it merely and massively something. Rescuing it from poetry. That’s an enormous, maybe impossible, project. Your book made me feel the enormity.
I think you remember me saying to you once that reading your chapter on van Goyen had sent me back to Zbigniew Herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle. Here’s the relevant passage:
The knowledge I received in school left me with the conviction that the greatest landscape painter was Jacob Ruisdael. …
I would like to say why my feelings for Ruisdael cooled. Well, it happened when spirit began to enter his canvases and everything became ‘soulful,’ every leaf, every broken branch, every drop of water. Nature was sharing our own anxieties and sufferings, transitoriness and death. For me nature that lacks compassion is the most beautiful: a cold world, a world set apart from us.
Van Goyen [he’s the painter that replaced Ruisdael in Herbert’s firmament] painted a number of ‘Village Lanes.’ The outline is simple, beginning at the base of the painting: a narrow canal, a sandy sprawling road, a shed or something that once upon a time was a house and today is a picturesque ruin, a few scrawny trees, and a goat, the heraldic animal of poverty.
A road through a village, a ferry floating down the river, a hut among dunes, clusters of trees and haystacks, travelers waiting for a ride—these are the typical motifs… Often the topography of van Goyen’s work is unclear: we are somewhere on the side of a dune, on the banks of some river, at the turn of a road on a certain evening… Canvases with no anecdote, loosely composed, flimsy and slim, with a weak pulse and nervous outline… When I first saw van Goyen’s canvases I felt I had waited a long time for just this painter, that he filled a gap in the museum of my imagination.
This chimes in with your argument in New Grounds, I think. And it points also to the problem of composition in Dutch landscape: to the way that “nestling us down in the prose of life” for van Goyen involves not just putting us on the ground but on the ground between places… nowhere in particular… nowhere characteristic. (If a landscape looks to possess a character it is already answering to us, allowing us to give it form. The pathetic fallacy is round the corner.) I guess you’d say that Hobbema was just as much master of that nowhere-ness as van Goyen. Maybe more so—he didn’t need his nature to be barren and marginal and nondescript… its intricate ordinariness was enough.
I laughed often, reading your book. “Secularization” is a comedy. And yes, I laughed at your picture of my writing being “characterized by narrow escapes from powerful objections Clark has imagined to his own arguments, by elaborate scenes of proleptical combat the book sets up for itself, and convinces its audience by winning.” You got me! I surrender!
All best wishes,
I remember talking with German-speaking friends about the phrase “sich einnisten,” and its association with nesting and settling down. In a certain way the larger argument is about that sense of bodily immersion in mud—the problem of wading into or sitting down at the wet edges of swamps in Hobbema, being swept away by a dike break in Ruisdael, and of developing habitation directly in the mud in van Goyen; there is a strange enormity to it, I agree, especially in his paintings. He dramatizes it most directly in those mudscapes with partially submerged cottages. But I may have missed an opportunity, with Hegel’s phrase, to talk about that full corporeal contact, which obviously goes beyond “sure footing.” I was at that point in the book obsessed by feet and shoes and muddy wet paths and the fact that van Goyen’s father made footwear! Clogs, I’m imagining.
The problem with “nesting” is that it immediately suggests bird-life, and then “settling down” is also how we speak of people growing older or changing their attitudes. We need a much more literal sense both of the physical act of settling (closer to that charged word “settler”) and the particular difficulties of “down” in Holland—with the mud and water the Dutch were trying to build into, to render stable and reliable. “Nestling” is good—partly because I don’t see birds (though I learned when I looked at its etymology it is related to nesting), and partly because it’s a bit more physical.
I didn’t think about the prose of life in relation to a poetry that would threaten it—but yes, of course, the poetry of epic destruction, the elegies and inscriptions that come afterwards. I was imagining the prose of life as aligned more with quotidian poetry, non-dramatic unfolding.
The question of the characteristic landscape is hard because yes, I agree, these are not those iconic places that remind us of our skill in mastering nature, in leaving just enough wildness to make us feel we haven’t (when we have). They’re closer to the opposite end of the spectrum, which makes me think of your reading of that van Gogh of the Paris banlieue in The Painting of Modern Life. But if you leave behind 1,200 paintings of cottages in muddy in-between zones, where the facture is pretty consistent, eventually a second-order characteristicness begins to set in. Still, what I would see as characteristic here isn’t exactly our control; it’s these little islands of partially realized architectural intention (usually coming apart already to some degree) amid an untamable ground plane. I guess this isn’t the landscape answering loud and clear. But it seems to be sort of mumbling something that we might mistake as directed at us.
I really enjoyed this book. It is so fresh in its observations, so unencumbered in its erudition, so balanced in its gathering of observations and their interpretation, so engaging and unafraid in its formulations and juxtapositions. If only more books written about the art of the past read more like this. I love, of course, the funnier moments, especially as they come closest to your basic commitments—the way Poussin comes off as ridiculous, those Caravaggio cover bands, nymphs and satyrs getting pink slips, and then half-wittily, half-seriously, the reflections on Hobbema’s self-naming, for me one of the highpoints of the book.
You anticipated one of my responses—what about all that sky? I think the sky really is part of your story, in the way it is separated from the land, as you say p. 85—one of the great accomplishments of the 1620s. It really behaves like an indifferent enormity that exists separately and drops behind the horizon—such a difference from the previous generation’s landscape painting, as in Savery, where the sky seems organic with the land, ornamentally (cosmically) constructed on top of the earth. The earlier period understood, of course, that the earthly realm was full of chaos and mixture and variability, but all that was cosmologically explained—that sublunar chaos was integrated into the higher orders of the cosmos. Savery and the others figure that recuperation, and strictly I would not call what they depict above the earth as sky. I don’t think they saw sky. They saw the heavens. But in Molijn, VG, and the new landscapists we have sky, a kind of parallel to the low-level dramas of the earth, and indifferent to the earth even if consequential for it. I didn’t really understand it when you said VG’s skies are painted with a lighter, airy kind of mud, but certainly the behavior of skies will affect how the mud behaves. Friedländer says somewhere that in van Goyen’s landscapes it looks like it’s about to rain, and in Salomon’s landscapes it looks like the rain has just cleared.
Throughout the book I kept trying to understand how what you’re saying is related to what the paintings are doing. Somehow I don’t think you would propose that Ruisdael actually said to himself, “I’m going to scare the shit out of people by showing waterfalls that will remind them of dyke-breaks.” Or even (though it’s more plausible) that VG was saying, “I’m going to mire my viewers in foreground mud so that they can reflect on the creation and the continual dissolution of this land.” If the paintings are not self-theorized in this way, then how can one describe what they are doing? And how can one differentiate that activity from the full-dress reading you give of what they’re doing? I have come up against this problem often, and usually I’m pretty ready to say, well, yes, I do think these issues were on their minds. But my problems are different. When I talk about archaism, or metapainting, or religious reform and art, those are claims about conscious artistic self-reflection. But in this case it seems contrary to the spirit of your argument to make such a claim, since that would be to make this painting out to be another form of ideological point-making, which I gather you would prefer to leave in the hands of Poussin and the others.
Certainly in your overt formulations you tend to emphasize reflexivity. When you say on page fifteen that Dutch painters were not representing the landscape but re-enacting its continual creation and dissolution, or that they offer a thematization of matter (23), or explore models of sequence, ongoingness, and duration (45) or talk about their making the landscape genre a laboratory for fundamental experiments on their nation’s newly made fundament (104), or call Hobbema a constructor of situations for thinking it seems fairly clear that you are not saying they were doing this unconsciously. Thematizations and propositions and lab experiments are conscious interventions. As you say on p. 49, this is “anything but a modest new proposition about how landscape painting might come to mean.”
But then as I re-read certain parts of the book I realized that your model for the painters was not the theorizing writer but the poet. After all, you describe them as engaging in a kind of variation on the georgic, what you call the ur-georgic. And that made the book really make sense to me. Without ever quite saying it, you are presenting these painters as poets, and doing a great job of getting us to see them that way. I am open to this, but my basic feeling is that I want to talk more about it. No writer of georgic or pastoral is unreflexive about the themes he is engaging—essentially man’s relation to nature. For one thing, it is an established genre when Virgil writes in it, so there is a level of intertextual reference that comes with the territory. Also, there is distance built into the whole enterprise. No one reading such a poem imagines that the poet is actually of the world he is describing, not to mention the temporal distances the genres deal in. It is expected that a pastoral or a georgic will be “about” nature and man’s relation to it, not just a depiction of various activities—a strong degree of reflexivity is simply part of the package.
One could then add, skeptically, that none of this was clearly in place when some Dutch artists started doing radically new things with landscape painting in the 1620s. The very idea that painters are poets of a kind was a relatively recent one, and far from coherent in either its theorization or its applications. The landscape tradition most closely associated with Virgilian mode, in Venetian art, was in fact very far from what the Dutch painters were doing. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Dutch painters couldn’t argue that they were the real Virgilians. But I don’t think they were making such arguments. I’m not saying they need to compare themselves to Virgil in order for them to be granted the status of poets. I’m only saying that I would need to understand better how it would have looked to these artists to see themselves as poets in the larger sense that I am talking about, and that I think you’re talking about. The one moment where I felt that you directly addressed this issue was in your discussion of Hobbema’s self-naming, not only because it would indicate an ability to be productively playful with words, but in the more basic sense that he was giving himself a self-made persona, a persona that was meant to color and frame his paintings, which would be a basically poetic act. Someone who is doing that might well be making “an attempt to re-ground meaning in the physical dimensions of the newly made land, and to rhyme painting, especially the verb, with this making” (238).
Thanks again for a great read, and congratulations,
That you’ve been engaged by New Grounds means a great deal to me. The conversations we’ve had about it over the years have been incredibly generative, especially perhaps the trip we took to the Met. When you proposed that, I was a bit doubtful I could make my case in front of those examples, particularly Hobbema, who I didn’t think was well represented there. But when I went there in anticipation (of course I took a planning trip), I started to notice some aspects of those two Hobbemas that I’d not quite processed before, and I also really dove into the great van Goyen that now begins the chapter (which previously I’d only sort of registered, nodded at, before moving on). So those two visits were useful for the whole project. The other conversation that had an important effect, previous to that, was when I first explained the project to you at the Cabinet event on the Bowery; at that time, it was still half seventeenth-century Dutch and half nineteenth-century American—I think mostly because I didn’t believe I could pronounce upon seventeenth-century Dutch art alone, but needed an intermediary topic that I was somehow authorized to discuss—one through which I could then approach the Dutch artists. I continue to have some interest in that American art, but as you immediately intuited, what I really wanted to write about was the three Dutch painters, and so the structure was needlessly complex, distracting. Somehow, having to say it out loud to you helped me recognize that.
Thanks too for your generous comments on the book’s method and style. One thing I could say about the genesis of this is that I became aware that there is a familiar place ready for the writer or poet who comes to some personally beloved chapter in art history as a bit of an outsider and marvels at its beauty, etc. The genre of the poetic speculation. Readers are ready for this; they know where to categorize it. I don’t deny that my interpretations are frankly speculative, or that they’re related to my writing practice and my involvement with poetry. But I was trying to imagine a slightly different way of proceeding where the paintings open up historical questions that aren’t in turn locked down by normal modes of historicism; and where the lack of immediate evidence (of a textual nature) becomes an invitation to experiment with possible relationships across lots of period genres of writing. And once I started going, this process developed its own momentum. Another thing that eased me into a new tone with the paintings was building the occupiable models based on them that Jimbo and I did from like 2008–2012; it seemed like the kind of idiotic positivism that would organize a chapter in Bouvard and Pécuchet, who might imagine that extruding two-dimensional artworks into three-dimensional space would finally turn them into possessable objects of knowledge. Only it sort of worked—all those love hours fashioning mud and thatch and waves and trees out of sculptamold and papier-mâché.
Okay, to your specific questions and comments: I like what you say about the sky in late sixteenth-century century painting, that it’s really “the heavens.” That’s great! And I think true. The point about van Goyen’s sky’s being painted with a lighter, airy kind of mud is maybe a little obscure. But what I’m thinking of is trying to see his work as monist, not dualist—Spinozan rather than Cartesian. And so resisting, I admit a bit perversely, the possibility that the skies are made of a fundamentally different kind of matter. What I mean is not really or literally, of course, that the clouds are made of mud, but rather that mud is the basis of his cosmology. It’s not a dualistic world of earth and air; he comes to these skies by sorting one material (pigment) that he then thins or dilutes or dabs into a bluer environment up above, rather than beginning with a division or opposition that he gradually weaves together into a unity. This is debatable, I admit, since we can often see some evidence of a seemingly organizing contrast even in many of his most monist paintings—as in the one where I make this point. But I would say that, esp. given what we know about how he made the paintings (flat, wet on wet, gradually “draining” the pigment pools) this contrast is about degree rather than kind. And their unified pool quality is what makes his work so fundamentally interesting, strange, and unlike any other painting practice I can think of.
I’m also overstating an objection to Gombrich, simply because his claim that van Goyen invented the sky seems to me to displace attention from the more important scene of invention: the ground, the mud (which, I’m trying to suggest, Gombrich isn’t ready to see because he comes to the paintings with theoretical coordinates that make this invisible, as he himself says about other people remaining blind to those aspects of paintings they can’t theorize). Now, it’s not that skies in seventeenth century Dutch paintings are unimportant, obviously. And I take your point about a contrast with “the heavens” of the 1580s/90s. It’s that when skies become most important, in my reading, it’s when they begin to be more explicitly temporalized, as they are in Ruisdael and Hobbema—and that through their refusal of one overall lighting condition, but instead their thematization of shifting instants as implied by wildly various levels of puffy cumulus cotton swabs and heavy about-to-pour sheets of stratus, all incredibly interwoven. There may be hints of this in the 1620s. But with van Goyen, I don’t see this temporalization full on yet. His world is really still more about matter than about time. I would say that Ruisdael and Hobbema draw a new kind of sequence out of the skies, whereas sequence in van Goyen had, to the degree that it was implicit, been more bound up with the ground and its wagon track erosion, pool drainage, sand mound drift, etc.
I see your main question as about the relation between my claims and the possibility of self-conscious theorizations by the painters, ones that may have cast them as poets of painting. Would they have spoken about their paintings close to how I’ve described them? The most obvious but least satisfying answer is that it’s nearly impossible to know for sure. We don’t have enough evidence to be certain that Hobbema’s self-naming was the core of a meta-georgic mode of painting that he presented to his interlocutors verbally as he developed it—explicitly and consciously—from Ruisdael and van Goyen. But I feel pretty convinced that it was close to that. I think the evidence presented by the paintings themselves points to a high level of self-consciousness about the relationship between making, at the level of facture, and making at the level of the land they were ostensibly representing. They seem to have seen relations between these two kinds of making. I feel pretty sure about that. I’m happy to think of them as imminent theorists at this level. So if I wasn’t entirely clear that I think they know, then that’s my fault. I guess I equivocate just slightly about the terms of their knowing because I don’t want to pretend to turn the paintings seamlessly into language; I want to honor the material specificity of their practice. But I think you may be with me here too; so that what’s motivating your question might be something slightly different.
You postulate some kind of gap or distance between what you imagine as van Goyen or Ruisdael’s actual self-presentations, and the slightly more programmatic form of the project statements I make for them. I agree that there may be a bit of a gap. But I may differ from you here in not seeing that as a problem that should ultimately be overcome: yes, I’m intensely interested in how they would have talked. A few hours in a golden-age Max’s Kansas City, with these painters deep in their roemers and far into the topics of facture and landscape, would be priceless to me…though I’d need one of those UN instant translators, which might cut back on the immediacy just slightly. But my own experience with talking to artists and writers also tells me that their self-characterizations, their self-theorizations, are not necessarily the absolute horizon of their work’s meaning. I’m sure you can think of artists and writers whose self-descriptions are less interesting than their work (obviously there’s the reverse too). I’m not suggesting that makers are in any way constitutively inarticulate: Smithson is probably my favorite art critic, not just my favorite artist critic. Just that an artist’s own discourse may or may not lead one to what’s most interesting about the work. And that when it doesn’t, other critical frames and techniques are acceptable, and necessary. If these come completely out of left field, they often seem to me implausible and unconvincing. The best descriptions, I think, have a relation to what the makers say, but aren’t just restatements of that.
But I’d go further: we finally need to depart somewhat even from the best self-descriptions of projects, from the ones offered by those artists and poets who illuminate not only their own work, but also larger facets of their fields: Smithson, our friend Lisa Robertson, some of the Language writers, conceptual artists, minimalists—among others. There’s usually an early phase in the reception of articulate artist/writers where the critic demonstrates the truth of the figure’s own propositions, illustrating the self-description by examples of the practice. This is probably necessary to a degree—a testing out of the claims; it’s probably also inescapable. But after a while it becomes claustrophobic, and we need access points outside the familiar terms to make the work visible again. I suspect I’m not telling you anything that’s not obvious to you, and that your question about van Goyen and Ruisdael’s self-characterizations isn’t offered under the assumption that self-characterizations are the final truth of art, but rather that (if I can speculate based on your question) the best historical explanations, while they do finally depart from self-characterizations, also fully acknowledge the actual status of those characterizations in relation to their arguments, and that perhaps I haven’t entirely or sufficiently done so. If that’s the case, let me try again from another angle.
Ruisdael probably couldn’t admit, even to himself, that there was an element of terror to his project. But it keeps peeking through at the edges (like sand creeping in from the path near the wheatfield). Being swept away by a dike break or gradually wearing through vegetation to sand, undoing the whole Dutch national work of ground building and cultivation—these fast and slow degenerations may well have found some indirect verbal hints in his actual speech. Hard to know. But not hard to know, I think, that his project is infrastructural. He’s interested in threats to the country’s basic system of organization, both dramatic (floods) and low-key (abrasion of the ground plane). We see this in practically every painting. There’s a high level of consistency in this aspect of his work, even across his various sub-genres. I hope he was interesting when he discussed his work at parties or in bars; but I’m not sure he was. But his work’s “discussion” of this was invariably interesting.
And van Goyen probably had a bit of an anti-Habsburg pride-in-our-lowly-free-land stance in which mud itself was not really discussed as the central element. Certainly when he was talking to potential clients. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if this more conventional orientation gave way, at points, to more speculative conversations about the cosmological dimensions of pigment, and even possibly its relation to land reclamation. Which painters in the history of the world have known paint any better than these? I recognize that your beloved Italians were very good with the substance, and extremely self-conscious about their use of it: but don’t you think the Dutch painters (and here of course we have to include Rembrandt) thought more about the physical dimensions of paint, its status as a substance, than anyone else? This must have given rise to verbal inventions, analogies, elevated (or rather descending) shop talk. We just don’t know much about what they actually said—other than the paintings, which are wildly articulate, but not necessarily in the way that poets from the period were.
Your suggestion about their relation to the discipline of poetry is extremely interesting, but I stumble on it a bit in part because for me, there is no opposition between poet and theorizing writer: the poets I engage most are theorizing writers. And then there’s a more historical question of what it might have meant to be a Virgilian poet in the seventeenth century. Yes, the poets and the painters were thinking about ideas of landscape formation whose genealogy can be traced back to Virgil, as someone who gives them a canonical formulation. But Virgilianism in literary discourse from the period didn’t bear much relation to what these painters were doing. Think of the most famous precedents from the recent past: Spenser—that world is so different from the one evoked by the painters. Even Sidney (whose correspondence from the Low Countries I trolled for possible matter) turned out to be so very far removed from my concerns that there was just nothing to quote. Marvell is a great poet of landscape, but works in a very different way—still much closer to Claude and Poussin than to van Goyen. As close as I can come would be Dryden, perhaps. But even there it’s a bit of a stretch.
Ultimately, I think what these painters did with the problem of landscape making is more interesting than what the poets were doing at the time. It’s partly a question of tone: to get at the best Dutch landscape painters you have to imagine a Virgil of The Georgics not (A) writing for an audience of Roman aristocrats and (B) in doing so concerned to convince them, trained as they were to disdain what we’ll later call the mechanical arts, that they won’t lower themselves by paying attention to the physical dimensions of their estates. As much as I identify with The Georgics (especially in Dryden’s translation), there’s a slightly apologetic dimension to the poem. He wants to reassure his audience that, though this may seem like a dangerous descent into rustic minutiae, the pungent farm smell can later be washed out of their togas. I don’t see that anxiety in Dutch landscape painting. And so, to the extent that they’re “Virgilian” (and I agree that they are), they also represent a strange popularization of the georgics. They zoom in on its latent materialism, and excise its polite discourse about the surprising merits of mastering farming lingo. It seems to move its implicit scene of address from the peristyle courtyards of various senators’ Roman villas to the swamps outside those Dutch cottages we see in van Goyen and Hobbema, and in coming all this distance it also starts being less about the cultivating of existing land, than about the bringing of land into existence. The poets I’ve read from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries never seem quite prepared for this kind of rude cosmology, even those that put on gloves and translate a bit of Lucretius.
Okay, enough for now. If you have further thoughts, I’d love to read them, otherwise we can continue this discussion in person in New York. I’m back on the 28th. Looking forward to seeing you, and thanks again for your letter.
A response to the rest of your New Grounds
There is no question in my mind that this book should be published—it will give a kick to what is normally the self-enclosed self-producing field of Dutch studies. And in addition, and perhaps more important, it will open up looking/thinking about Dutch landscapes to people outside.
Perhaps reading one chapter alone did the trick—but to my eye and mind the most persuasive and critically nuanced chapter is the one on van Goyen. (Speaking of which you do not, I think, mention Hercules Seghers—who in pictorial skill and finesse outdoes van Goyen in the groundedness that you are interested in. And he of course leads one to Rembrandt whose thick worked paint is a model of that in Holland at that time).
Page 27: I am not convinced that Ruisdael is engaged in re-enacting the construction and destruction of the landscape as you show that van Goyen is. [And I had never thought that art history was resistant to Dutch landscape painting in the name of Poussin et al—Yes indeed, those who study the north (Stechow, Slive) might not study the south, but surely Dutch landscape has been admiringly attended to by many art historians and collectors. It is true that the history of that taste (what about the eighteenth century?) is not something I have thought about. But right now Dutch landscape does not—I think—need huge defending as a practice.]
As for Ruisdael, I looked at the range of his works as I have them in Slive’s huge volumes. He was an extraordinary painter—an inventive painter I would say. (Hobbema seems to me, as always, so picky and fussy by comparison). Look at the painting in Braunschweig—road left, great tree sort of middle, cornfield right and town—simply adding together such diverse pictorial/natural elements to produce a heroic picture out of them. It is totally a construction. Or the marvelous marsh in St. Petersburg—the grand trees around still water (worrisome to the Dutch)—one dead white one in front and the white swan taking off (and I think a hunter in the distance). Death and possible, ghostly white life—I would take Ruisdael’s still waters any day over Hobbema’s. Or the high mountain with clouds around it in Capetown and the one like that in St. Petersburg. Or that extraordinary view from on high out over Amsterdam. Like the Haarlemtjes and the windmill you speak of, the prospects are major and unlikely (as paintings of Holland). It is the impossible size of the windmill to the figures it would seem to me, not the contemplativeness of the figures, that is striking. (But contrast Ruisdael when he is young—he did amazing close-ups of a tree, of sand and so on—sort of landscape as still-life—Bridge with a Sluice (ca. 1648-49) at the Getty, the marvelous Landscape with a Cottage and Trees (1646) in Hamburg.) Wow … But I am going on too long about the Ruisdael I love.
After all that, I find the waterfalls to be disappointing—I still believe they are Everdingen (who did as I recall travel to see such things) at second hand. I would think that rather than dealing with the dike that fails, they are exoticisms—bringing to Holland and Dutch household walls what the country itself does not have within it—in other words like the castle at Bentham, of the marsh, or the Capetown mountain, the waterfalls are images of elsewhere—though I find them much less compelling than the other sorts of elsewhere I have just named.
I myself am not convinced by the Caravaggio/Fried intervention. For one thing, though an old friend, I am not a devotee of Fried’s writing in recent years. I think the entire project is a kind of invention out of/for himself—the devotion to Diderot—a smart man who really could not look at a painting (try to read him on Chardin—but also then try to read Fried). There are marvelous French writings on painting—Roger de Piles for example—Dandre-Bardon for another—both subtle about the experience of looking at paintings as Diderot is not.
For me, Fried’s critical writing about absorption and such is an idea by now driven into the ground. Each book of his starts from the beginning of his writing and goes through it all once more. Maybe people in English literature can still read him, but I certainly cannot, old friend though I was. He writes set pieces. My analysis of him and Ros Krauss is that the problem for each was how to escape the optical concerns of Greenberg—Ros fled the eye for the unconscious and Fried fled the eye for the body—the body relates to pictures but does not look at them.
To my reading Fried is not necessary to your take/looking at Dutch landscape painting and indeed pulls away from it. But, but that is your take—and in a way your pictorial/intellectual world, so I understand that it has a place in your book.
On another writer, I have much less confidence in Schama than you do—I think he writes free and easy—quotable, but not laudable. In your place I would keep him out of my text as much as possible. Chatty, but light-weight I think.
The entire question of how the Dutch foray out into the greater (now we call it global) world, related to, or can be related to the enclosed world of their paintings is tricky to negotiate—I find Hochstrasser admirable but a bit crude—the danger is always to be too modern/post-modern as it were—to frame the then-colonial, now-global world as we frame things today.
The Dutch seem to have had an incredible pictorial ability to absorb so much brought in by trade—to encase the foreign within the familiar—see that recent catalog/exhibition of Asia in Amsterdam—where every object is identified, but the sense of them in household/in pictures is never confronted. Often pointing out the foreign in the pictorial midst as viewers/writers do today seems to me to distort the extraordinary accommodation the Dutch picture/painter achieved.
Surely Constable—so late eighteenth into the nineteenth—was devoted to and learned from Dutch landscape painting? But I am not very good nor have I been engaged with the taste for Dutch painting in later centuries. I can see the special interest for you (given what you have studied before) in the American take/experience—and I think indeed that that is a real interest of your book—(maybe including Michael Fried is in a way part of that—he is so very American, is he not?). I remember when there was an exhibit in San Francisco of Dutch Paintings in American Collections and the fury with which that was greeted by the Dutch press—as if their birthright had been stolen, sold off. So, a fascinating topic, that.
What would happen if you made more of the fact that your intervention is through things American—Motley at the beginning and the end. I mean by that to make clear where you are coming from—a reader of American writings.
To answer your particular queries—
There is of course a genre of kermis painting which has the higher folk (indeed royalty) visiting the kermis—(after all think Shakespeare). I wrote about that years ago when I was thinking about Bruegel et al in my “Bruegel’s Festive Peasants “Simiolus 6 1972/3” and “Realism as a Comic Mode”
Bakhtin is not much help for Netherlandish painting I found way back—
But the point about Rubens Kermis in the Louvre is that he slides from low to high within the invention of his own figures (Schama dead wrong on it)
I think the first chapter is ok—the Motley there being picked up again in the conclusion. I like the “fictive” Berlin museum and also the Swiss rocks.
Come to think of it—think about this—when you are fictionally free-wheeling as in the Berlin museum at the end, things are just fine. You are writing free and as it were asserting your own grounds. That is what I like about your van Goyen.
I am less convinced when you get into the domain of art history proper and argue around in it. That is partly I suppose where the Fried does not work for me.
In your marvelous book you reveal your susceptibility to the consoling, domestic pleasures of Dutch landscape painting. An art that even after four centuries can feel reassuringly continuous with some present-day life-worlds. You speak convincingly about the “ongoing temporality” represented by these pictures, the sense they convey of slow, continuous processes creeping along outside the “monumental,” event-punctuated time of institutions and states and of the “heroes” who try to intervene in history. You make a plea for this special sense of time peculiar to your admired Dutch paintings.
I worry: do you not expose yourself to a charge of complacency, political quietism, or fatalism? Have the pictures possibly lured you into acquiescence in a myth of a static “deep time” from which there is no meaningful escape, or even desirable escape?
I feel sure you can respond to my unjust apprehensions,
On my way up to New Hampshire I listened to a recording of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, not as famous (or mind-blowing) as Middlemarch, but still great, and with a good discourse on Dutch seventeenth-century painting too. I concentrated fairly well, but when I lost focus, it was mostly to try to answer your question about the potential quietude of ongoingness. A good question. I had played the game of prolepsis quite a bit in writing the book, and so of course imagined all kinds of objections, but not that one quite that way. But I came to think—when a few times I pressed pause so I could concentrate more—that this was partly because I’m working off of a slightly different model of how events might relate to conditions, punctuality to ongoingness.
So here goes: First, the state that I’m proposing as ongoing allows for difference within it—light implicitly changes in the Hobbema paintings, mud percolates through van Goyen, and the ground plane is slowly wearing away in Ruisdael—so it’s not strict continuity but more like what we used to call repetition before Gertrude Stein and Deleuze got hold of it, and turned it into a sequence of related singularities. Change is possible and happening within such a state; it’s thematized in all the painters. They’re not dedicated to preserving some kind of achieved perfection, or even just some state. The fact that matter is transforming (often against human intentions) is important to this. But it’s not simply or only ironic in relation to human intentions, because humans also made the landscape (and the paintings).
Second: It’s even arguable, as you know, that such barely perceptible change is the more accurate engine of what we recognize retroactively as historical discontinuity—a useful counterweight to the rhetoric of the heroic actor and singular causal event that we get in history painting, and old-fashioned history writing. So if we can applaud the process by which the punctual (guilt-radiating) event in religious history painting became the seizing of power in, say, some French nineteenth-century painting, historiographically we’ve also had a critique of that idea of punctuality, since at least Marx: despite all the enthusiasm about the French people suddenly claiming power, the real beneficiaries (in the French Revolution) were not who we thought they were, and the process by which the country transformed was actually less dramatic (and far more compromised) than can be depicted in any picture of a single causal event, even a painting we might invent like, The Shopkeepers Leading the People. Good ongoingness could be the critique of the rhetoric of punctuality, of singular causality, of isolated heroic actors. So that “change” doesn’t have a necessary or immediate relation to punctuality.
But then perhaps one objects: ok, the more you emphasize, even just to make a point about historiographic method, that our most famous revolutions have been compromised by the bourgeoisie (or by totalitarians), and that the changes associated with these events need to be distributed across large chains rather than focalized in singular actors, the more you distance potential actors from power-seizing action. And that’s potentially true, I’d grant. But from another perspective these Dutch paintings do something, offer something that is generally cut short or abbreviated in revolutionary discourse/aesthetics: they picture sustainable pleasure, pleasure that’s pretty widely accessible (I know, this is why the English dismiss them as bourgeois, but I don’t think that quite gets at what’s interesting in the Dutch painters’ project).
Think about that famous May ’68 slogan, Sous les pavés, la plage! We’re always supposed to focus on the paving stones, and prying them up in an act of defiance rather than on what that everyday beach in the city would really look like, be like. When I first heard the phrase, it was in the context of the Situationists. But try to imagine Debord at the beach? For him (and I must admit to agreeing with this, partly perhaps from being easily sun-burnable) the beach is more like a received idea about freedom, what they want, since it depends upon that fundamental labor/leisure split, whereas for the Situationists the collective acts that would really be an instance of attractive freedom would be more like a Parisian dérive. I’m actually a bit sick of the Situationists. My point in bringing this up is to say that even in a famous slogan like this, the emphasis tends to fall more on the event-like seizing of power—despite the fact that the slogan itself is about what will follow from that seizure. The event promises a condition. But we have an aesthetics of the event, not of the condition it promises.
That’s a quick, improvisatory response.
So the Dutch landscapes offer sustainable pleasure … I am not sure I am convinced that you can rescue them by saying that they deliver what revolutions only promise. They are able to deliver because, on-going, they look away from goings-on that might provoke event-like seizings of power. Maybe the landscapes were a specialized Dutch technique for slowing down history. The seventeenth century seems slow compared to our own, but many people then might have feared that things were spiraling out of control: endless continental wars, the cyclical resurgences of the Black Plague, the abstract lurches of the stock market. Such worries were already registered in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the previous century. The landscapes are very consoling.
January 31, 2022
I’m writing to you from the train to Paris, where I’ve set up office on a fold-out plastic tray. I’m traveling with the dog, and too much baggage—books are the culprits, as usual; yours, Eric Hazan’s L’Invention de Paris, the Goncourt brothers’ 1867 novel Manette Salomon, and the remains of a small French-English dictionary also from 1867, which, having lost its front cover and opening pages, now begins with cul, translated as ‘arse’. Down in Nalliers, I started the pruning season with the south facing roses, and some translations from the Goncourts. (The old dictionary is essential for that, since so much of their vocabulary, particularly the language of industrial architecture, is specific to that moment, no longer tractable to the contemporary Robert.) Weatherwise we’re having a mild patch and new growth is evident everywhere. I’ve also been reading New Grounds for Dutch Landscape, this morning at the breakfast table, with the curious sensation that I could use your grimy account of Dutch Baroque landscape painting as a kind of Baedeker for some walks I plan to take this week in Paris.
I think I’ve mentioned to you my interest in the Bièvre river, a Parisian industrial river that flowed from a small spring near Fontainebleau to the Jardin des Plantes, where it emptied into the Seine. I use the past tense because by 1912 the river was completely buried, rerouted into the Parisian sewers. I first learned about the Bièvre from Rousseau, who did some botanizing on its banks and wrote about that in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker. When I started following Rousseau’s walks making sound recordings back in 2001, I tracked the underground Bièvre, stooping to record its still-noisy flow through drainage grates. Anyways by the nineteenth century this river, for centuries the site of tanneries, mills, wool-dying and laundry operations, had become a flow of putrefaction and industrial effluent, which was why it was finally undergrounded. Lately I’ve been wanting to learn more about all of this, so I read a bizarre little book by Huysmans about the Bièvre—he compares it to a too-loose country maiden gone wrong in the big city—and then I found this quite incredible novel by the Goncourts. I had read their “Journals,” so lugubrious and over the top, almost incredulously when I was working on The Baudelaire Fractal, where I used their observations about Baudelaire’s impeccable manicure, shorn skull and feminine hands, and threadbare tailoring. But here in their novel the Goncourts’s unsparing observational plenitude is directed towards the Bièvre, and the role it played in the life of artists. I found their text online in French, so I started translating as a way to understand their dense prose, and also so I could share some passages with you.
I switched back and forth between their book and yours. The Goncourts’s accounts of the janky decrepit mix of agriculture and industry they saw on the Bièvre, alongside your descriptions of the paintings of Ruisdael, their murky flows and undisciplined gushing, made for a weirdly co-echoing intertwining. It made me think of Esther Leslie’s work on non-sublime material metaphoricity—slush, liquid crystals, slime, foam, all kinds of superfluous quasi-liquidity. She looks for the sort of materiality that gushes across categories, or eddies in indefinite limbo. These inchoate non-forms become descriptors for the seeping, gushing engulfing modes of neo-liberal capital and the kinds of subjectivity organized by capital. She cites Hegel—“The earth is the crystal which discharges its superfluous water.”
Rather than directly describing the river within the narrative, the Goncourts use the fictional painter Crescent’s oil sketches as a referent. Within their descriptions, the river water itself, colorful and cruddy with filth, seems to serve them as the pigmented ink that bodies forth a clotted, frothing grammar, much as you say mud became paint for Ruisdael:
… the water—dark brown, ruddy, foamy, shit tea—hemmed in between masonry banks, the wharf area crowded with patched-up wooden vats, sullied washwater greenish and slick, beside which black and white heaps of fleece were being sorted by women in lilac camisoles wearing straw hats. The water, heavy and filthy, clouded and without reflection, flowed between high industrial ruins, the tanneries red-ochre hued, coated in nostril-piercing quick-lime, the blindless windows like blind punctures, the cornices capped by drying racks that carved up the air, beneath the roofs and gables, the silhouettes of bird-netting; bleached wrinkled hides were suspended high up on rods, and below, the water was about to disappear in dregs crisscrossed with old blacked wooden slats, in a tangle of piecework constructions, greying structures, black and upright factory chimneys, huge mill-housings slashing, in the sky, the dome of the Val-de-Grace military hospital.
You can see that Ruisdael’s rivers, which you stress “gush undisciplined,” are different in affective significance than the Goncourts’s account of the ultimately disciplined water of the Bièvre, which is fully harnessed and implicitly fouled. Yet the two rhetorics of flow, Ruisdael’s and Crescent’s, via the Goncourts, nevertheless share an infatuation with the romance of decrepit and outmoded industrial architecture, and both ooze in unchecked co-mixture. You describe Ruisdael’s painting of a mud-mill, a sort of “ruin of the immediate present,” as “provisional, wooden, dirty. It’s rickety and awkward. Here, all ground is economic ground” and that is surely and vividly what I read in the Goncourts too, this revelation of the economic as inherently in ruins, always becoming-mud, that is, the undifferentiated mess of capital and impoverishment, sucking the stroller into its oozing depths:
From there, Crescent’s studies had taken him back up the Bièvre. They’d been through the mud where the little boys walk barefoot and the little girls walk in their mother’s loose slippers, through all the Mouffetard neighborhood, through those streets where, through the open doors to courtyards, one could catch sight of mountains of pulverized oak bark, and the upstairs of faded houses with tile roofs, and his studies had hit on that species of unfortunate world, the Parisian world, that comes after the streets baptized Campagne-Premiere. Crescent’s sketches rendered an index of the misery, the poverty, the melancholic scragginess of those terrains, bare and yellowed in places, closed in by high walls, watered by the narrow Biévre, dryly shaded by poplar and little tufts of willow. His studies brought to the eye those blackly bituminous tracks that go alongside the boggy pens where swine are pastured, the horizon lines and hunched-over hills where the brutal white of new buildings glitters, those laneways beside wheatfields bleaching in the sun, where the streetlamps on their green poles end, those patches of chalky land where the red of a cherry on a cherry tree shocks like the unexpected red tip of a sea-scallop does; those empty lots, green with nettles, where the blue of a worksmock, on the back of a slumped-over sleeping man, suggests the suspect afternoon nap of a drunk or a murderer.
Lytle, obviously I hope to entertain you with these chunky little translations of the Goncourts, because I think that you’ll revel in their language, but beyond entertainment there’s an underlying proposition we could test: to what extent does the romantic urbanism of the Goncourts, its dalliance with criminal and polluted and ruinous flows and seepages, actually coincide with the Baroque cosmos of the Dutch landscapists? I mean the generative tension in Parisian romanticism between, on the one hand, a hidden Baroque which has failed in its quest of unmitigated power, but which has left a recursive aesthetic agency of folds and multi-focal recombination, and, on the other hand, an invigorating nostalgia for the anarchy of quotidian surface, is the tension that keeps Baudelaire aloft, and the Goncourts, and it’s what raised barricades. It’s also what Haussmann attempted to raze and aerate and build over, to make a city in the singular image and service of money. The Bièvre was the last trickle of the old doubled city. Now to hear it you flatten yourself to the pavements and put your ear to the grating.
So when you’re in Paris this spring let’s walk the Bièvre and look for Dutch mud.
My thoughts about how an artwork devoted to the Bièvre might relate to seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting have now had the benefit both of a bit of time, and of our rain-soaked exploration of the river’s vanished traces in Paris. Though I enjoyed the stories about the Bièvre’s becoming inaccessible—and those of the Gobelins museum statue of the river as a fallen maiden about to be flushed into the Parisian sewers—I think the best lead was the documentary that guard told us about, with the local historian who gets let into people’s basements to look behind their stoves and see the few remaining spots where the Bièvre actually flows. It’s odd (but increasingly typical) that our attempt to investigate this vanished landscape first-hand led us away from shared space to a virtual experience on our own screens. You have to have some kind of official imprimatur (a contract to make a documentary) before the space opens up.
As great as all the local historian’s site-visits were, what was hard for me to grasp in the documentary (and this may have been attributable to my bad French) was why this was the absence that historical research should address… what it was he wanted now from the Bièvre, other than history. I think it’s a bit clearer what the Goncourt brothers wanted (and thank you for those fantastic translations): a figure of marginal aesthetics, both in space and in value; a painter whose “dalliance with criminal and polluted and ruinous flows and seepages” could in some sense represent another Paris, a largely invisible working class one; or one that remained invisible to many Parisians. And maybe more importantly, one whose aesthetic categories, whose interest in stains and excretions and pollution, could contest official values. Dutch landscape and genre painting almost certainly helped the Goncourts imagine this. And yet, I have an inkling from your translations (though I’ve yet to read the whole novel) that there’s a kind of dramatization underlying Crescent and his work that was part of how the nineteenth century appropriated the far less dramatic seventeenth century of genre and landscape. There’s something to me hilarious and great about paintings like Turner’s (imagination) of van Goyen out in rough waters (I think in the port of Antwerp) looking for a subject; or similar nineteenth century hypothetical reconstructions of how the Dutch marine painters worked—there’s one of those in the Greenwich Museum.
My point isn’t that these later painters simply got the seventeenth century wrong. In a way, just the opposite: it’s largely because of nineteenth century enthusiasm for the seventeenth century that we have access to as much of it as we do. I just appreciate the quixotic attempt to dramatize non-narrative painting, and its makers, to re-imagine their site visits. Which gets me back to the historian of the Bièvre, who you describe as having “eager beaver gravitas” (fantastic phrase). What your thinking about forms of historicism undertaken by nineteenth century Parisians (Baudelaire’s seventeenth century table; the Goncourt’s Crescent) makes me wonder is the extent to which the desires that drove these adjacent forms of historicism can be related to the more specific process by which seventeenth-century Dutch painting was effectively invented by the nineteenth.
The account of this I try to give in New Grounds is focused of course on this latter phenomenon. But it does touch a bit on nineteenth-century Parisians: I think for them, seventeenth-century Holland wasn’t just a formal precedent or a distant historical reference. The Dutch were important first because history painting had never quite recovered its status after the challenge from landscape and genre (in the seventeenth century). Official discourse lagged far behind. This is what’s a bit frustrating to me about the new Rancière book (The Time of the Landscape): it’s entirely about this discourse of landscape painting that emerges in the eighteenth century—and so doesn’t have anything to say about the incredibly powerful practice of the seventeenth century. So, because discourse lagged behind, I think many nineteenth-century painters who worked in landscape weren’t simply saying: I want to explore a historical mode of making images. Or even, landscape seems really promising and current, and the Dutch were super good at it. The French painters were instead saying: actually landscape, and to a lesser extent genre, have remained the great modes of making art since the seventeenth century, despite what art discourse has said. As artists, we’re being contemporary (rather than simply historicist) in recognizing this, in stepping out ahead of art discourse, which is just barely beginning to catch up now.
And then there was a second attraction—which you and I have talked about over the years: that after 1851, and the re-emergence of an autocratic government in France, Dutch popular genres, by which I just mean genres that were not associated with royalty, were taken to offer a republican aesthetics. They were a way of saying fuck off to official painting—to history painting with its refinement, and its idea of the event.
What I wonder about still, back to your letter, is the extent to which this interest in Dutch seventeenth-century painting, among many nineteenth-century painters, historians, philosophers from France, England, Germany might be considered part of a larger interest in the “baroque.” Is the particular phenomenon that I’ve been studying (the nineteenth century reinvention of the Dutch seventeenth century) part of the larger historiography of the neo-baroque? Might the neo-baroque have European as well as new world manifestations? This is something I want to read and think more about. And I think your Baudelaire is one of the portals to the question.