Latter day icons

On Thursday, I went with an old friend (and family) to the National Gallery in London and we agreed to go our own ways for a couple of hours. I realised that many of my visits here are time constrained, raids between meetings, where the tendency is to visit the familiar. It is a long time since I have granted myself a whole two hours. The first thirty minutes was traditional - Pierro della Francesca's 'The Baptism of Christ' and Rembrandt's late self portrait - but then I gave myself permission to wander.

Usually I avoid the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists who, I confess, have never excited me particularly since Gauguin imploded in my sight at the major Tate exhibition held recently. There was a moment in Brittany where cultural understanding, theme and colour coalesced in extraordinary vibrancy and meaning then (for me) it dissolved in Tahiti. There he was a painter of extraordinary gift standing outside his place, painting it colourfully and yet utterly cold. His understanding of Tahitian culture an aborting projection. Impressionism was a necessary, bold and extraordinary movement of gifted painters but the surface of things has never been a place I wanted to rest overlong.

However, within this section of the National Gallery were placed two paintings that I have seen before and which arrest my attention (but, for some reason, had forgotten were there).

The first was Vilhelm Hammershoi's 'Interior' from 1899 (shown above). It is utterly typical of the artist. A silent interior, suffused with northern light, a still figure seen from the back (in fact, as often, his wife), completely poised, quiet, and mysterious.  The room is orderly through which flows a composed life, hinting contemplation. The surfaces are realistically present and yet transcended by light and mood. When I saw Hammershoi for the first time (at the Royal Academy), my viewing was slowed to his rhythm. I emerged from the exhibition (which I went to see three times) quietened. The world is composed of utterly domestic acts transfigured. 

The second (shown below) is more obviously transcendental. Casper David Friedrich's 'Winter Landscape' where a man, abandoning his crutches, sits prayerfully before the Crucifixion. My pain is absorbed and transformed in His. The world, trapped in winter, is yet hopeful both through the church that emerges in the distant mist and in the grass that resiliently pushes through the snow. We may inhabit a bleak world yet it is penetrated with signs of another world waiting to be born out of the surrender of faith.

Thinking about this, on the train home, I had one of those moments of revelation that seem obvious only once they have arrived. That in the art to which I respond there is a necessary stillness, an icon like quality of revealing an eternal world, enfolded in this one, and in which 'action' is brought to a minimal point, even of colour (which I expect is why the Impressionists do not work with me, even in their portrayals of the same place, Cezanne's mountain, for example, all is held in shifting light, in transience, not eternity). 

I am an inveterate seeking after icons, even, especially, when made modern.


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