The Sight of Death

The title of this book sounds as though it should be a detective story, perhaps something written by P.D. James, in fact it is as far removed from that as you can possibly imagine. "An experiment in art writing" by T.J. Clark, it is a stunningly readable thought-provoking book analysing two of Poussin's paintings Landscape with a calm  (see above) and Landscape with a man killed by a snake (see below). It's an extraordinary book, quite unlike anything I've read before, and I'll doubt I'll ever read anything quite like it again.

My background is as someone who likes art, enjoys looking at paintings (although I have no great love for Poussin), and has no formal knowledge of art. I wouldn't know how to start analysing a painting, in the way that I would know how to analyse a piece of music for instance. And this book is all about analysis, so on the face of it there's no way that I could enjoy this book, but it's just amazing.

Clark was awarded a Getty scholarship for the first six months of 2000. He spent those months in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, at the J. Paul Getty Museum - the home of Calm, and, on loan from the National Gallery, London, Snake. Day after day he viewed the paintings in all kinds of light, and at different times of day, and recorded his impressions.

And it's these impressions along with his later conclusions that make up the book. The book itself is beautifully illustrated, and my initial impression was that it was a fascinating read - rather like having someone knowledgeable with you in a gallery pointing out all the things you wouldn't normally notice. As I read further it started to affect the way I looked at art - I suddenly started to notice things in the paintings myself, which were then subsequently discussed in later chapters - great, for someone who would describe themselves as not knowledgeable about art, to be able to pick up on what would previously have gone by unobserved.

But what's really special about this book, and why it really made an impression on me, was what was at the heart of it. For me it was a book about looking and not seeing, and then the transformation to a state of being able to see. And as such, it's not just a book about painting, although that is obviously important, it's a book about appreciating whatever you see - whether it's works of art, or nature, or even potentially that journey to work every day. Landscape with a snake can be about nothing, as it was described by one schoolboy, or it can be about enough, according to the author, to fill the pages of a 260 page book. Your impressions may change from day-to-day, but that's ok, that's not necessarily wrong, it's just another aspect, perhaps another trick of the light or perspective. Seeing and looking are also not necessarily about seeing "nice" things, there's the beauty of the landscape and the motherliness of the woman in Snake, but there's also the corpse and the snake itself.

With my head full of The sight of death this afternoon, I took the dogs for a walk, and had a "looking and seeing" experience. The fields are brown, they appear barren - nothing will grow here again, then I caught a glimpse of a tiny green shoot poking through. Once I'd seen that and started looking for green shoots I could see them everywhere, like a desert suddenly coming into bloom. It was astonishing, an annual miracle, that somehow I'd always managed to miss, that moment when you see, in Dylan Thomas' words "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower."


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