The Art of Elias Friedensohn

His Writings

The weather on Patmos is just fine

Published in The New Criterion, Vol, 5, No. 5, Jan. 1987.


Lectori Salutem:
There is that anxious moment of isolation in every trip when i wonder what I am doing there...wherever it is. Museums burdened with the past seem suddenly absurd and pompous, the grand plaza made only for political strutting. The facades of old houses are impenetrable blanks; smoking buses, honking taxis are muted and distanced by the fog. The water in the canal is black and forbidding.

People in the streets walk securely on native ground But I am footsore and weary, no longer responsive to antique seductions. In or out of the museum, the Dutch are in their world. they are inside the Dutch house in the de Witte painting on the museum wall. There, kitchen doors open upon inner yards and again into other rooms. Before me are endless duplications of interiors in which figures move and disappear behind doors, down corridors, behind drapes, into the shadowy depths of mirrors. They are inside, preoccupied; they are indifferent to my spying eye and deaf to the sound of my artistic mourning. In the grayness even the rectilinear precision of the landscape extends itself like an exhausted Mondrian lying flat, drained of color.

To allay anxiety, I make notes. I make notes to escape, to be in another time, to think as they did, to see as they willed me to see. I stand at the door, a voyeur, hoping for a glimpse. I remain outside, as usual.


Only the sound of my steps on the polished floors ars the museum's silent compression of time. A decade passes in twenty paces, a century in three galleries. The tempo slows as I grow weary, speeds as I lose patience, stops still when I am suddenly caught by excitement. Before Geertgen's Man of Sorrow, I fee a bizarre urge to shake hands. In front of Ter Borch I am stirred by the pearl earring nestling against a flawless, perfumed neck. How long did I listen to the mournful sound of the clavecin being played by the woman in de Witte's painting? The guard stands before the Night Watch singing operatic arias off-key while he tries to fix me with his pleading eyes. The Night Watch. The Syndics. The Old Woman Reading. The Jewish Wedding. A Self-Portrait. And I am undone.

In the silent past of the museum I do not hear the heated argument in the ale house. I do not hear war. The museum gives to the past a pristine clarity which it never had. Paintings are ordered chronologically. Artists are grouped together and the geography made plain. I see their work through a glaze of art-historical readings spiced by our era's prejudices and failures of belief.

For the Flemish painters the emphasis was not on a revolutionary distemper, as it so often is with us, but on the contemplation of a seemingly inexhaustible past-a past that produced perfections worthy of being faithfully copied. Their present continued and expanded the gothic dream of an ordered universe recorded in all of its grandeur and complexity: touched by the finger of God. The church monitored and resisted change. The guilds zealously guarded the constancy of craft. And not less so, the patrons. A tight grip was needed to keep snarling chaos-Bosch's imps of hell-at bay.

How different we are! We invite chaos. To slander or destroy our past is more nearly our aim. The past is too crushing, too omnipresent, too exhausting. We yearn for a dark, unknown, primitive time into which we can read what we believe we have lost.

[I]f man cannot hope to be perfect in the future let him at least believe that he was perfect in the past. The transfigured vision of man's past i not less than the dream of man's future. —Arthur Cohen

The manifesto of the radical attack on the past is violent, sweeping. It always includes the burning of the museums as if there were no way to survive except through parricide. there seems to be no other way to proclaim the faith than by wiping our memory.

We analyze, we parse historical detail and trivia until we have broken down all distinctions-until we are left with a featureless plain. We arrive at a negative entropy in which all is permissible and nothing is important. Our critical system assigns all manifestations equal value. It offers us the solace of private imaginings of personal and collective glory. It offers equal time, but only to the members of our own faction.  TO TOP


Between twelve-thirty and two the museum guards take lunch and only the nineteenth and twentieth-century galleries remain open. I wander about disconsolately, impatient to get back to haunting the past. But suddenly I find myself in a room filled with late nineteenth and twentieth-century Belgian haunters of the past-artists determined to emulate their forebears from the Gothic to the Baroque, from the master of Alkmaar to Vermeer. This peculiarly Flemish academy reflects little, if anything, of what we think of as major currents in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art.

Lybaert painted a "Ter Borch" lady standing at a table wearing a long satin dress of pale blue. The room, like her dress, is a seventeenth-century "costume" with only a small object here to tell an acute observer that it might belong to the nineteenth century. He also painted a "Memlinc" Madonna Enthroned which has about it a faintly Pre-Raphaelite aura, like the delicate scent of expensive soap.

Several paintings by Edmond Hove, including a Portrait of Karel Recour, a Portrait of Galileo with appropriate historical references, and a Zelf-Portret, have the precision of early Flemish works. Jan van Eyck's head of the Canon van der Paele suggestes itself as their ancestor. The Zelf-Portret, with its curiously pale and hypnotic shimmer, now faces us fully, and the light too has moved from the side to the front. The historical data are weird, disorienting. There are some surprisingly good paintings here. They have a mood and intensity that is more than one might anticipate from the living dead. I feel an anxious puzzlement.

In a rich, Vermeer-like interior setting-no, closer to de Witte, perhaps-a painter named Braekeleer placed an old, shrunken peasant in a wide-brimmed straw hat, a dusty coat, and baggy trousers. He is seated stiffly in an armchair, his feet on a step stool. His hands are folded on the crook of a cane which reaches to the floor between his feet. He faces us directly, set against an elaborate gold brocaded wall. We look now into the room frontally so that the incongruity of this figure, in so unlikely a setting, becomes a confrontational shock. It is strange, eccentric painting. Is the peasant in this elegant room a social commentary? A social protest?

Yes. both, I think. I don't know what to do with all this other than to shrug and move on.  TO TOP


There are rooms in the museums of Bruges, Leiden, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Antwerp, filled with glitzy group portraits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are crammed with hard-sell rhetorical flourishes and with gaudy, vulgar colors. They flash with medallions and ceremonial sashes of satin, puffs of lace, the glint of embellished sword sheaths and gilt handles. Beringed fingers glitter at us from their position on turned hips. These paintings are bristling and aggressive. They are noisy artifacts, as lively and dissonant as the marketplace minds of those that made them and those that bought them.

Where do Jan van eyck's jeweled crowns, gold-threaded hems, heavy brocades, silver basins, and polished brass chandeliers sit in relation to glitz and hard sell? Are they not the burgher trappings of wealth, status, and possession? The kind of trappings that Savonarola had the Florentines burn in piles on the streets? Why is one vulgar and the other not? What is true craft and what is glitz craft? Is Jan the hard sell of God? Or is Rubens, because he never did believe in God in the first place? Answer!

How much stands between ourselves and that past! Among other things, "modernity" has meant analysis. It has meant the isolation of a particular formal element uncontaminated by any syntactical debris. We have attempted to give to the isolated factor the value and significance of an entire world. The effort is soberly called "research." Its goal is no less than the liberation of pure expression. Freedom. Perhaps even revelation. The "pure" condition of music is its dream.

Our desperate effort to create a whole out of a part comes from the recognition that we can produce only fragments. If we cannot have the whole, let us at least exalt the purity of the part. Let us seek out essence. It is our religious quest clothed in the language of science and of faith. We have been buttressing our "research" with theories-so much so that the theories have become more interesting than the fragments. Among the Flemish, theory-no matter how complex-never outstripped the work of art itself. I do not want to imagine how I would "see" a Mondrian on the wall next to a Vermeer without the intervention of Mondrian's theory and all that others have written about it. Or a Barnett Newman next to a small Jan van Eyck. Or next to Rubens's vast Baptism of Christ. Conceptual art marks the furthest reach of theory outstripping art itself. Was conceptual art really a formal declaration of bankruptcy? Along with our theories we offer clear historical imperatives and categories of saints and sinners, those who are "with it" and those who are "out of it." Alchemy, astrology, numerology, and politics are as "with it" as computers, lasers, television, blips and beeps, and the precise logic of the color sphere.

In some deep subconscious way we are as apocalyptic as the fundamentalists we deride. We have a messianic streak and would rid painting, by burning if necessary, lf all taint and corruption. We are ready to hasten the new era by the deliberate commission of every stylistic sin so that the corrupt structure will topple of its own accord.

Since Abstract Expressionism we have continued to glorify process made visible. Here is a Calvary by Dirk Bouts—a rarity because it was done on canvas rather than wood. The tempera did not survive well on the soft give of the canvas, and the surfaces have so deteriorated that we see clearly all the layers of the technique down to the very canvas itself. It looks quite beautiful to me. It has a particular appeal to our modern temper because the layers of facture stand revealed, the processes made visible. The cracking and peeling, the attrition of time, give to our romantic eyes the satisfying history of forming and deforming. The visible process is as personal as a confessional. O savor the revery provoked by the ruined fragment.

In the activity of its decayed surface the hermetic seal of Bouts's craft has been destroyed. I see his still fixity transformed into a flickering open tracery, almost like an Impressionist ply of light and air. Or at moments, conversely, it looks like a battle scene by Marca-Relli. It has lost its historical moorings. It belongs nowhere. Shall we put it in the room of the living dead?

Do we like Bouts's Calvary because our modern condition is so atomistic that we empathize with the fragmented work as though it were ourselves? Does it correspond to our sense of loss, our damped hopes for change and renewal? Or is it our forlorn wish that from the flux of that destroyed field renewal will spring?

Today, exposure of the soul's torments is everywhere in demand. Openness and honesty, purity and naturalness are the siren songs of the marketplace. We are obliged to share, expected to confess. Slickness is sickness. Finish is ugly concealment. Secretly we know it is impossible to walk about without skin or disguises and that such language is itself manipulative and hypocritical. We are so far from the fifteenth century.

How shall we join the flux of history? How shall we keep its flow alive, defended agaiinst the malevolent occurrences in the room of the living dead? Shall we update Teniers's Smokers by having them switch to pot and putting them in a Soho bar? Is Marily Monroe our Mary Magdalen?

The museum haunts me with its promise of revealed truth. I am convinced that the answer waits just round the corner in the next room. I can even see the answer glowing just beyond the frame of the doorway. When I turn the corner it has, of course, gone. I expect to see graffiti on the wall: "Look with care! Retrospect shall make you free!" How many times today have I been forced to mutter despairingly, "Oh, they did it! And they did it first. And they did it better!"  TO TOP


Svetlana Alpers's book on Dutch painting, The Art of Describing, has been my intriguing companion on the Dutch half of my travels. Spurred by my readings, I looked with some care today at David Bailly's Still Life. Alpers celebrates Bailly, seeing in his work a persuasive demonstration of the value of the word "describing" in thinking about the attitudes of the northern painters. However exemplary Bailly's work might be for confirming some of Alpers's generalizations about northern painting, I did not find the painting very prepossessing.

Bailly's self-portrait gazes out at us. He gestures with his mahlstick, " displaying" the words and objects on the table as a catalogue of metaphysical arguments…a symbolic discourse. It is complex in its compositional gambits. It has to be "read" with care and there is, quantitatively, much to ponder.

I am more strongly drawn to Snyders's Viswimkel. In this painting the fish vendor gazes directly at us as he replenishes his stock by emptying a basin of fish into his stand. His gesture "displays" for our benefit and delectating the full compendium of the life of the sea. Bristling, squirming, intestinal, with such energy and gusto, with such a sense of the gross, repellent, slimy, clawed, spiked, finned, furred, and toothed gleaming, that it is as much a relished catalogue of sins as it is of the amazing variety of marine life. It is burgeoning, spilling-over bounty of gustatory pleasure to come, and disgust. I can almost smell it, its inner demonic taint. And death too. It also invites reading and naming. Even though Snyders may not be Rubens, how much richer his work is than Bailly's. and, finally, in the directness of its statement, how much simpler! His work has that quality of knowing recognition that goes beyond describing.

Like Bailly, Snyders gazes at us. Like Bailly, he displays his wares-a kind of encyclopedia. But did he also, like Bailly, arrive at whatever measure of success through describing? I think not. To me it appears that Snyders envisioned first the grand amalgam of his sensations, whose parts, in like spirit, he then articulated-whereas Bailly presented "ideas" in illustrative support of the dictates of a thesis. Bailly's work is basically atomistic, for all that its objects are so skillfully ordered in the space by a complex geometry. Yet I wonder: am I merely exposing my bias against an artist who is intellectual and classicizing? Am I exhibiting a "modern" orthodoxy of preference for a painter who has a streak of expressionism in his work that could lead to a still life by Ensor?

Bailly's painting is pompous and moralizing. It lectures at us, masses its proofs, and editorializes in slick and polished prose. his righteous hand meticulously fulfills its duty. It is cold, academic, hard. The containing geometry notwithstanding, it is noisy. Snyders's painting, on the other hand, is not noisy so much as it is busy. And that busyness is unified by a sustained range of color and tone, and by the dominance of a single, sensate idea.

Alpers herself is only too anxious to point out that generalizations always suffer from major exceptions: Rembrandt, Vermeer. But generalizations occasioned by a useful but limited theory also suffer from exceptions like the Snyders. Why does it so often seem that it is only the mediocre, the "also-ran," the "school of" that conform to all the canonic requirements? They make so clear a case, or are so transparent, that they have no residue of mystery. They are therefore "exemplary" like the paintings selected by the curators of our museums for periodic documentation of the going things.

It is my license if not my privilege as a painter to make such judgments. Unlike most historians of art, i find it impossible to repress thhose qualities of response which come, on the one hand, from my own anxieties and the narrow needs of my studio, and, on the other, from that which age has not yet quelled: ambition, ego, force. Lust makes me embattled and ungenerous. Wisdom and tolerance are for me hard won, and are often only masks insecurely worn. In my case, to mimic the historian's calm, dispassionate refusal to make certain judgments and invidious comparisons is simply dishonest.

Of course I know what distinguishes the great from the "also-ran": all the complexities of theme, form, structure, light, color, air, space, have, at the center, a fixed point of light surrounded by silence. The grandiloquent paintings by Rubens in the Antwerp museum shimmer, vibrate, and are, finally, majestically still. There is nothing in the resolution to diminish the shock of recognition that i perceive as light.

I am speaking of that kind of "knowing" or "recognition" to which, in its defiance of language, we assign, faute de mieux, a word like mystery. Mystery intrigues us; its clues lead and tease us. If we cannot resolve a mystery, we are irritated. If it blunts the probes of reason and intuition, we weary of it. Sometimes we assign another word: ambiguity. In most areas of experience we plead for answers to mysteries and demand that ambiguity clean up its act. With a work of art, however, we embrace mystery, glorify ambiguity (sometimes even use it to cover up for failure) and the shiver it affords us. Why?

The pathos that all works of art reeks of comes from their historicity. From the way they are overtaken by physical decay and stylistic obsolescence. And from whatever is mysterious, partly (and forever) veiled about them… —Susan Sontag
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have not missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon. —Jorge Luis Borges

For Borges and Sontag the issue is the veiled, the hidden, the lost-the aesthetic experience as a kind of mourning for that which we have lost "forever": revelation. It requires an ardent believer like T.S. Eliot to say: "The end of art is the ecstasy awakened by the presence before an ever-changing mind of what is permanent in the world, or by the arousing of that mind itself into the very delicate and fastidious mood habitual with it when it is seeking those permanent and recurring things."

The condition of "permanent and recurring things" is silence, revelation, and ecstasy. The best and most exalted ambitions of Flemish and Dutch painting is the attainment of revelation, the offering of silent ecstasy. I have experienced both.  TO TOP


I began, as we tend to do, well back from an altarpiece, to take in the whole. I swept by like Halley's comet. Distant. Aloof. I was also impatient, waiting to be grabbed, confronted, hel. There were so many spiky altarpieces glistening darkly along the walls. The scale insisted that I come closer. The complexities told me that gestalt, like love, was not enough. Reluctantly, I began a kind of museum dance. I moved in a little. Stopped. Put my glasses on. Moved back a little. Stopped, and took my glasses off again,. I felt a gnawing sense of obligation. Having come so far! Across an ocean!

I was, after all, interested in the making of these works. I darted in to scan a quick detail Once in, there seemed always to be something else demanding attention. It became work. I had shifted from passive to active, back and forth, stop and start. Finally, I overcame my embarrassment and took out the magnifying glass from my camera case. I felt like a caricature by Daumier, a pompous, pretentious "connoisseur"! The guards eyed me distrustfully.

I pored over the surfaces, watching shifts of tone, reading this small event and that one. I looked at a tiny figure hanging a carpet out of the window of a tiny house, at the people gathered before the church, at the boats moored along the quay at the river's edge. I moved to the wings, left and right. I spent a full thirty minutes with that altarpiece-long enough to have listened to a symphony by Mozart. A temporal art? Reading?

I understand now that these paintings were intended to be seen with a slow, parsing scrutiny. They demand a "reading" and a meditation from near and far. The rapid gratification produced by the sweeping gestalt eliminates the pleasures to be found in finish, detail, and iconography. We are deprived by our impatience. If the work is large we must move our bodies to see it. This kind of looking has its roots, perhaps, in the tradition of manuscript illumination. It is intimate, close, seductive, meditative, and as I turn the pages of a book, I may turn the wings of a small retable. Looking, I shut out the world. I am intended to come close. The small mirror on the wall in the Arnolfini wedding portrait was not put there for historians of art, nor was the reflection of the artist in the armor of St. George in the Canon van der Paele Madonna. Rather, they are for me, the viewer. In that searching scrutiny I am reconstructing the process of the work's creation-the positions of the artist, his visualizing and his making.

I find that in my intimate search of the painting my pace of entry into the space changes and also that the time given to contemplation varies. I stop at moments of particular interest of theme or facture, of levels of symbolism, of central themes and supporting commentaries. Is there a kind of rhythm to this "seeing," then? It is a guided tour of significant events, a tour of experiences and scriptural recognitions both large and small. Is this not a temporal art? I am also called upon to witness and affirm all that I see. I am, in parsing close, in the landscape, "in" the room. I worship with the Canon van der Paele. I admire with him. I taste smell, touch, weigh, ponder, possess. Like him, I am awed.  TO TOP


In the solemn and sacred stillness that pervades the paintings of the Flemish masters, awe is the dominant sensation. It overrides any lesser personal emotion-even pain, which is, after all, transitory. All religious events partake of the iconic, the hierarchical, and the transcendental. They have, therefore, a correspondingly appropriate immobility. Time stops. The moment is eternal.

Petrus Christus's Pietà in the Brussels Museum haunts me with its surreal, dream like quality. The elegiac rhythms of the softly rounded, descending hills; the stately grandeur contained in the mournful curves and gestures of each figure; the supernatural clarity of the radiant light upon the "realness" of things: these create a unity that is trancelike and magical. The Pietà is lyrical and flowing and, at the same moment, still.

The painted image repeats an event which happens not once in the past but is always happening. With the creation of every new image the event re-occurs. The sacred nature of the event is reinforced by reiteration. Repetition is a fixed canon in the continuity of religious belief. Even today, kitschy slogans on church fliers, automobile bumper stickers, evangelical tracts stuffed in the mailbox, assure us that Christ continuously suffers for us the torments of the cross, that the Messiah is always imminent and on the way, and that evil too is continuous.

The visible stirring of emotion as it is dictated by the text-the figures of the lamentation, the anguish of those witnessing the crucifixion-may be registered by the bending, sagging curves of swooning figures, the wringing of hands, the moaning open mouths, the meticulous tears coursing down the pallid cheeks. All of these descriptive and kinesthetic signs of grief and agony are opposed by the reticent simplicity of hands joined in prayer. The joined hands manifest the sacred hush, the awe, and supplication.

Repetition reinforces belief. It intensifies meaning, insures salvation. All religions posit a belief in the efficacy of repetition. How many candles are lit? How many acts of contrition performed? How many times does the ad appear on television? How many prayers uttered? We are, after all, children. We are the children of God. We are the children of God's emissary. We are the children of Bourguiba. We are the children of Papa Stalin. We are the children of Eva Perón and Indira Gandhi. Perhaps also of General Motors and Exxon, of Ma Bell and Toyota.

The sacred event, which is a form of ritual reoccurrence, sanctifies the ground on which it takes place. We respond as does Jan Arnolfini in his wedding portrait, by removing our shoes. We maintain that solemn, impassive silence that is the measure of our awe. Those beholding a sacred event are mute. The scene is like a mimed rehearsal. it is part of continuous performance. Slow. Stately. For these reasons the Flemish painters were rarely concerned with radical movement in their figures.

The artist, in creating the image, causes the event to "happen" again. The painting's sacred "reality" must be perfect in its surface and its details. It must not be betrayed by the artist's hand revealing his own emotionally idiosyncratic response.

As the magical poser of words constitutes a reality, so too, does the magic of the image. That the painting may be felt to be not merely symbolic, but also real, is the aspect of image-making that once so distressed the church fathers. How many devils were scratched out of existence on how many altarpieces by how many fervent believers in how many chapels? The painting is willed by god through the medium of the painter and is a form of revelation.

No longer inclined to accord this power to paintings, we now find it in film and television. The "scientific" verisimilitude of the medium persuades us along with its techniques for seamlessly combining document and fabrication. in the past as in the present, whether or not everyone believed, whether or not some few may have looked with jaundiced eyes upon such matters, the condition of belief obtained rather more that less. The condition was there to be used by artist, or prelate as need dictated.

It will not do to say, "Well, but we no longer believe, and certainly not in that way. The past has a quaintness, yes, and perhaps some harm. But we cannot be expected to be honestly moved by, or even to be interested in, the faraway, outmoded and primitive quality of belief that resides in these paintings. We can filter the paintings through our training and admire them for their craft, perhaps, or, more likely, for their formal values. Although we might be intrigued by their intricate literature and symbolisms, our needs are different and so too are our demands upon art. Can we become fifteenth century Flemings?"

Yes. We can. I feel how Rogier painted Mary Magdalen. I feel that she was laved with paint, caressed, stroke, burnished into the glowing existence of his belief. I feel the artist's will pouring into her. He knows her, creates her, has her, is her. And I recognize her in myself.

The compelling energy which we call spiritual is as much with us as ever. We continue to be concerned with the problem of evil and the dream of human perfectibility. We search endlessly for the assuagement of suffering and a tenable rationale for an unjust and capricious fate. We attempt through reason and other forms of magic to control or appease demonic and destructive forces. The specter of death without meaning pursues us always. And against that meaningless death stands our yearning for immortality.

I am not speaking here of the dispassionate, orderly search of a philosophical inquiry, but rather of the more primitive, impassioned demands that theology seeks to satisfy. To live, we cannot confront chaos for long. Without a God to whom we might consecrate our art, we turn to science to control the mysteries of the universe. We produce a scientific art: pure light and color theory, kinetics and engineering, high-tech electronic art. Or we consecrate art to the "people" as divinity. We produce for the state a utilitarian and didactic art-as once we did for the church. Or, in the name of freedom, we consecrate art to art, and place our spiritual energy and our faith in art itself. And in our spare time we contemplate the nature of the price to be paid for each of these options.

What remains as a continuity is the mystique and morality that so many of us attach to art-whether our language is scientific, spiritual, or philosophical. Our spiritual energy is remarkably adaptable. With the failure of each God, we regroup. We claim that our present passion is in no way like the old, discredited system of belief. The present passion is always superior because it is rational, or scientific, or more compassionate. It is comforting to think that science will prove our rightness-or leftness, as the case may be.

We know in our bones that there are no final answers to these problems. We know that there are only provisional systems disguised a answers. We know that the seeming efficacy of any system depends upon a sufficiency of passionate agreement so that we may accept the sad terms of existence. The energy itself remains the same because the essential problems remain the same-as much for us as for the fifteenth-century Flemings. Only our arrogant conceit or our hopelessness keeps us from admitting that we understand the Flemings very well indeed.  TO TOP


I remember, as a student in the early Fifties, poring over a reproduction of Dirk Bouts's Martyrdom of St Erasmus of Antioch. I remember its lack of visible affect, and how deeply that disturbed me. The protracted torture of the saint, his entrails would onto a turning spit, is horrible. But everyone in this painting, including the victim, remains impassive, stone-faced. I believed that the quintessence of sado-masochism had been reached in this painting.

In the fifties we tended to look upon willing martyrs with almost as much dismay as we felt when looking upon torturers and executioners. it was the time of Bruno Bettelheim and Hannah Arendt, of Sartre and Genet. Graham Greene did not stand too high on anyone's list of notables, as I recall. It was not easy then, and it is not much easier now, to think of such an embrace of suffering as something other than illness. It is a tenet of our current morality that we condemn self-destruction We will not consider masochism exalting. Nor will we accord to it the status of noble martyrdom. (Shall we try to convince an ecstatic Shiite of this viewpoint?) We look askance upon the excesses of medieval guilt, relegating it to an ignorant past which is beyond our comprehension. As though we do not have our own ample parallels! As though we cannot understand Savonarola or Botticelli's late Lamentation in the Brussels Museum. And Bosch.

Dirk Bouts's painting prefigures the torments and passivity of so many of those who were, in our own time, led to the ovens... those who have been attacked and rebuked by the survivalists. We are told to go down fighting. But to go down fighting is perhaps only another form of martyrdom, even though it is preferable. We can avoid these choices most effectively by slaughtering others. The true survivor does not go down either with or without a fight, but finds a way to escape-finds a place in which to copulate and to continue existing. The survivor does this by having no commitments. No involvements. No allegiances.  TO TOP


Behind the rounded hill in Rogier van der Weyden's Pietà, a roseate sky rises to a clear, strong blue. There is a moving and lyrical tenderness in the near chiaroscuro and sfumatura that bathes the Mary Magdalen. She has a surprising presence, an intense existence. Laurent Froment, in Rogier's portrait of him, also has an absolute physical presence. From close up, the hand and the sleeve have an extraordinary tactility. There he is! There is, in both of these paintings, an unshakeable belief in the physicality of being. It is a credo, an abiding article of faith.

The Flemish masters dreamt of absolute existence as a manifestation of the creative will of God, the fact and proof of his creation. Theirs was a secure belief in the sacredness of all substances, ethers, things, creatures, elements, and their place and function within an ordered universe. All nature is indeed the language of God.

Painting is therefore a celebration and glorification of that universe and of that view of the world. The painter, in denying his "hand" by making it invisible, is reproducing God's creation. Faithfully. He attempts to parallel the process itself so as to arrive as nearly as possible at the perfection of God's work. What the painting depicts was made by God and not by man.

Looking at the Pietà, I behold a world the least part of which is a miracle. Awe before the marvelous informs these works. The massive, sculptural figures of the Master of Flemalle have a mystical urgency and a kind of propulsive energy from within; they also have a powerful tactile presence. In the work of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden that presence is reinforced by a condition of light and atmosphere, a climate which breathes the very enigma of existence.

The mystique of light pervades all the best Flemish and Dutch painting. It is perhaps so obvious that I am embarrassed to mention it yet once again. Yet I can see no way of discussing this art without defining and redefining the role of light in relation to whatever argument is being proposed. How does this bear upon Alpers's idea of "describing," which is, after all, a modest proposal?

Light is described. Is that the same as rendered? But light is also actively describing in these paintings. Light itself is an energy like the shaping fingers of God, making and revealing. It bathes, forms, probes. The light is poetry. Describing is, after all, an exercise in prose.  TO TOP


A heavy snow is falling, Bruegheling everything. I've been waiting for such a now to see the elegantly drooping and knotted traceries of my hosts' plum trees and the weeping cascade of that other nameless tree against white fields merging with white sky. But it does look like serious weather outside, with thick, wobbling, half-dollar flakes on the invisible horizon, and the sky an impenetrable wall. The houses at the far edge of the field have entirely disappeared and my host, who have just returned from a shopping trip, report the temperature dropping. Even the main roads are iced over. Bad. No museum today.

It is curious that the grand and meticulous embrace of God's creation by the Flemish painters did not extend to variable weather conditions and extremes of climate until the sixteenth century. A night scene or two, yes. And the series of seasons by the Limbourg brothers. The neon red brimstone of a hell panel as against the soft delicate blue of a benign paradise in the opposit panel. Yes.

We may see a haze at the horizon but otherwise the weather is perfect, with light, fleecy clouds here and there. The sun and the sun's rays are an almost stylized nimbus of the kind populated not by birds but by angels. The weather for the Flemish masters is not neutral, but a positive attribute of the ideal. Winter's grimness, hardships, and vagaries, which the Flemish knew only too well, are excluded.

Is it the weather of Jerusalem? It is certainly not Flemish weather! Wet, grey, dour, and mournful. But it is the weather dreamed of and glimpsed only fitfully during the brief respite of the year. Yet the places are Flemish-the landscapes and foliage, the cities and houses, the people in the streets. Antwerp and Gent live symbolically in the reaches of the landscape as the new Jerusalem.

When Saint John sits upon his hill on Patmos, writing, where is he really? A Patmos located in the Flanders of the eye, or a Flanders located in the Patmos of the mind? We know that Jan van Eyck's altarpiece in Gent and his Canon van der Paele Madonna are visionary proposals filled with symbolic references to other places, other times. The Virgin is enthroned in a Flemish Gothic Church, a palatial interior, and a walled-in Flemish rose garden—in Heaven really.

The Virgin has reappeared again in Jan's and the Canon's day and reappeared again in the days of Jodcus Vyd, in the days of Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. She recurs eternally and eternity is silent and slow to move. Movement within its stream is dreamlike, as is the still earth far below our jetliner. From up above we see all things at once. Truly. And did they not imagine God looking down from above and seeing all things at once?

And so where is Saint John? Where is the hill on Patmos? Where, indeed, if not in two or three places at once: a physical, real place that we know; a spiritual, symbolic place; and a third which is a textual, iconographical imagining. Tomorrow, when I look again at Saint John in Bouts's painting, will he not also be somewhere in the Newe York jungle of my mind?  TO TOP


In his Pietà, Rogier van der Weyden intensifies the sorrow of the Mary Magdalen by deepening the mysterious atmosphere that surrounds her head-he creates, in effect, a sfumatura of feeling. I respond to the introspective tenderness of his touch, the softness of edges, the haze of tone, the blush of color-a softly pervasive redness, a warmth It is as though Rogier was seduced by the Magdalen. A beautiful, fallen woman, reformed and redeemed, demands an especially sensuous and lavish treatment. She seems always to have inspired artists in a special way.

In Simone Martini's Crucifixion, the Mary Magdalen, with her golden hair rippling and cascading all the way down to her calves, kneels at the very point of the large vee of the composition. Passionately, she grasps with both arms the shaft of the cross; her face presses against its wood. She seems for the moment to be isolated along with Christ from all else within the painting. The child in the lower right points to her and she upstages even the swooning Madonna.

Emotion seeks physical release, and Rogier is quick to seize such an oppportunity for expressive gestures. How poignant is that anguished drama of the Magdalen's pose in Rogier's Prado Deposition and in his retable of The Seven Sacraments in Antwerp. I see the structure of her body clearly beneath the garments, the tightly fitting bodice, the taut, sensuous muscularity of her nec, the veined tension of her wringing hands. These are all vividly recorded observations. She is more Italianate thatn any figure I have yet seen. Almost like a Signorelli. She springs from the ground like a dancer.

I am struck by Rogier's compelling response to the very idea of the Mary Magdalen. The wringing of hands, the abandoned sobbing, the axial twisting of the body, the rhetoric of gestural drama, the intensification of tone-all of these are, in Mary's person, a new provocation for the figure in movement and the projection of intense feeling.

I have suggested that awe and the requisite sacred stillness are the limits within which the Flemish artist dealt with the problem of the figure in motion. Our criteria for that problem and others were set for us by the Italians. Whatever the degree of overlap between Flemish and Italian traditions, there are, as we know, many basic differences between the Gothic north and Mediterranean Italy. The key word here is "Gothic," and we are indebted to Alpers for the rejections of Italianate criteria in measureing the success or failure of Flemish and Dutch painting.

Gothic means, among other things, the figure draped rather than bared. It means, thanks to Kenneth Clar, that the undraped figure will tend to be "nake" rather than "nude." The gothic will lead us to the compassionate Rembrandtian sorrowing over the pathos of the sweet but imperfect flesh. It means the influence of the late gothic Sluter rather than the Italian sculptor/humanist Donatello.

When movement is required of it, the Gothic figure has two sources of energy, one from without, and the other from within. The flying angels of a crucifixion are "swept" into action as though by a sudden gust of wind. A spiritual spasm animates their robes; tightly knotted angular folds spring suddenly into long flowing curve. We remember this from the Romanesque, and sense the continuity even though these have now become massive weighty folds and full, rounded forms. The bodies beneath the drapes are impelled into movement by the same divine energy, but the gestures of arms and hands, the turn and fall of heads with their weeping faces, come from the mourning within. We are yet far from the bereft, howling angels of Gruenewald. These angels are still contained within the limits of the sacred stasis. Only the violent descent of the fallen in a last judgment threatens to violate that stasis.

There is, however, another arena in Flemish painting in which the figure has an unexpected freedom of movement. I am thinking of the many grisaille rederings of "sculptures" set into the carved archivolts: " sculptures" on the columns or piers that frame the entry into the painting as though it were a chapel. There are also sculptured capitals of columned porticos, and "sculptured" figures crowning the ends of the armrests of thrones. These are all small figures and, more often than not, are based on Old Testament themes.

Over the heads of Adam and Eve in Jan's altarpiece in Gent are two lintels that support the stories of Cain and Able. Above Eve's head, the murder, a prefiguration of the crucifixion, takes place, and Cain and Abel display a force and energy of movement never visible in any of Jan's major figures.

In petrus Christus's Nativity in Bruges's Groeninge Museum, the painted "sculptures" of Cain and Abel are again remarkable for their intensse and dramatic fluidity of movement. They are fitted into niches above the framing arched portal entry into the stable. The stone of the archway becomes, inside, the wood of the stable. The present moves into the past. It is a gothic time machine.

The "sculptures" portrayed by the artist were "carved" by men. They are minor figures and they are small. As renderings of Old Testament themes they were to be read a prefigurations. they do not, therefore, have the iconic gravity of the "real" God-created personages who belong to the New Testament. As secondary embellishments of the central theme, the sculptures provide a running commentary, an exegetical text in which the artist embraces the challenge of the figure in motion.  TO TOP


"It must be a van Eyck!" I thought, at first glance; but no, it is by the Bruges master. I am astonished that such an ardent and accomplished work should be so like a van Eyck. I am surprised too that I do not think the less of it for that. The Bruges Master's identity simply seems to merge with Jan's in the flow of tradition. In the hierarchy of spiritual values, the Madonna, crowned, already elevated and glorified, looms large in the house and kingdom of God. Her scale is symbolic and visionary. She and her child become the church. Like the church, she is the container of the spirit of God. There is a vast, echoing space in this very small painting-twelve inches high, perhaps-and I am led by that luminous space to dwell upon the particular seductions of so small a scale and such refinement of craft in this and so many other Flemish paintings.

I am moved by the exquisiteness, almost painful, of Rogier van der Weyden's tiny Annunciation, of Jan van Eyck's drawing of Saint Barbara and his Madonna of the Fountain no less small, and of course, the Bruges Master's Madonna and Child in a Church. I think too of all those moments in Flemish paintings-in the deep recesses of the landscape, woods, fields, cities, markets filled with people-when I am invited within to savor the details of daily life and the intricacies of the least of God's creatures. Each of these paintings, so small in scale, contains a majesty: a grandeur of space, a monumental massing of forms, a lyrical and glowing color, or a surpassing luminosity. They are done with such a loving fineness of touch and so consummate a degree of craft!

I study the small panels by Simone Martini, the Crucifixion and the Deposition, with their massed figures locked into the gold ground Newly cleaned and gleaming, they draw me physically in toward them. With my face but five inches from the panel, the light reflects so powerfully from the gold leaf and the color that my eyes feel irradiated. A feeling of marvelous recognition sweeps over me. So that's how it was! That is how it was meant to be seen and felt...a visionary and blinding moment! God will have spoken through it!

What do these paintings have when compared to the heroic scale of Michelangelo's ceiling? To the majestic Rubenses? The great Rembrandts? What is the effect of such incredible technique in such small works? Each painting is of such an intimacy, is so focused and concentrated, contains so intense a mystery, that it becomes prodigious within itself. Because of its size it acquires an uncanny density and weight of meaning. I long to hold the painting, to contain a whole world in my hand Possession. To look at it, into it, is to close off all other aware nesses, all other relationships, to look at it as one looks at the beloved in an intense moment of feeling. The tiny scale is magical. It is an though a sorcerer has made the world in miniature and by that reduction has eliminated all coarseness.

In these minute dreams of perfection, size denies substance. They are surely spiritual objects, telescoping inwards, conflating, microcosmically surreal. They open out into a grandness in which I am encompassed. In these paintings I hold the world in my hand, marveling that they are larger than myself. ●  TO TOP