“The Orpheus of the still life. He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work. Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it. For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies. But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation? From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]
It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise. The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes. In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of. The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker. It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects: reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.
Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top. And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting. In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes: “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word. One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]
Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that: “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii] And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that. I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.
My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition. Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.
Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems. Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles: early or late, Greek or Roman, etc. Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet: “Paul Valery warned: ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’ I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]
“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written. I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts. I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]
“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept. But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects. It did not need to be defined or beautified. This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary. They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]
[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.
[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.
[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.
[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.
[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.
[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.