Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Afternoon with T.J. Clark

Those familiar with academic art history will immediately recognize the name T.J. Clark. Those who are not may appreciate a brief explanation. At the age of thirty, Clark made a splash in the discipline by visiting familiar territory - nineteenth century French painting - but in a fresh way. By considering political context over mere aesthetic analysis, Clark became a leader in the "new art history." He achieved tenure at Harvard in 1980 amidst much controversy, and significantly reshaped the field.

What is remarkable is that Clark's most recent book, which he was visiting our department to discuss, leaves politics behind to focus back on the object. Clark is still just as much of a Marxist, but the agenda barely makes its way into the pages. Instead there is what has been termed a "diaristic" reflection on one particular painting of Nicolas Poussin, which is almost the very thing Clark built his career opposing. It's not that he doesn't explain himself.
"My art history has always been reactive... In the beginning that meant that the argument was with certain modes of formalism... The enemy now is... [allowing painting to be] at any tawdry ideology's service."
And so, a long and ruminating meditation on Poussin's 1648 Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake ensues. This "free association" (his words) methodology may be dangerous for the direction of the discipline, but one must at least admit T.J. Clark has earned the right to ruminate at leisure.

As I sat in the class and listened to his reflections and our departments response to them, we stared a gloriously reproduced detail of the Poussin painting (ungloriously reproduced above). And though not much of a Marxist myself, I was unable to bracket the painting's political and social context. But not just of Poussin in 1648, of Princeton 2007.

Here we were, a group of art historians in an American academic community, the day after the Virginia Tech massacre, what was probably the worst disaster in the history of U.S. higher education. I'm not blaming anyone for not mentioning it. It would perhaps have been poor taste, even unprofessional to mention the killings. After all, we were hosting a lecturer who was here for but a day. But then again, the title of the book is "The Sight of Death," and Poussin's painting is about death and its poisonous shock.

Clark flirts with biblical imagery to interpret the painting in the book (Adam, Eve and Abel), and stops with a flirt. And though such themes were not mentioned at all in our session, as I sat listening to the leaders of the field reflect upon Poussin with Clark, biblical imagery flooded to mind. The woman screams in protest as a man is dying. Behind her a fisherman, or fisher of men, with net. Behind them in the far distance two tiny figures (barely visible) emerge from the water, as if when "the sea is gives up her dead" at the end of the age. To the left a dark cave, above a luminous city.

1648 was of course the Peace of Westphalia, Europe's truce after thirty devastating years of Protestant-Catholic infighting. Could it be that for an embittered Europe that could not stomach a direct Last Judgment scene, that Poussin was delicately suggesting the same?

What is most real in the painting is the shrieking woman, just as what is most real in this nation right now (before the political hijacking begins) are the dead at Virginia Tech and the wrenched they've left behind. It seems facile to proclaim heaven and hell in living color just after the tragedy, but it would surely be strange to avoid the topics as well. In Poussin's painting death is most real; but subtly suggested in the background is much more. The dark possibility of damnation yes, but also the glorious sunlit cityscape of the New Jerusalem, to which some souls, previously caught in the net of the gospel, will soon joyfully ascend.

Perhaps such an interpretation is yoking the painting to some "tawdry ideology's service," but I prefer to think of it as free association.