J’en ai assez de ces putains de serpents!

It was probably T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death that convinced me that it is a good idea to go to some of the biggest art galleries and museums of Europe and write a whole bunch of posts on this blog about the paintings and sculptures that occupy their halls.

Source: Wikipedia

His book is about two Poussin paintings that were in the Getty museum where Clark sat watching them, took notes, and finally rendered them into a book. My own intentions were never that ambitious, but the posts I have written about what saw in London and Paris have forced me to absorb a little bit of art history along the way and that, I suppose, is sufficient. One of the paintings Clark writes about is Poussin’s Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake, and while it was not in the Louvre among the tons of other Poussin paintings I saw (and wrote about) I did think about it a lot during my stay in Paris. Especially that evening when, after a very long day at the Louvre, I watched Snakes on a Plane in my hotel room, dubbed in French, of course.

In London, I finally got to see this painting which had already become quite mysterious in my mind. It was, once again, one of those museum shocks where you are strolling along a corridor not really thinking about anything special, turn a corner, and suddenly you are confronted with something known previously to you only from legend and song.

Source: Wikipedia

Maybe it was the legion of mannerist paintings I had seen that day or something else, but I have written in my notebook: “Is the blue a Jesus-thing?” There are certain blues, reds, and yellows which are part and parcel of religious painting and these colors are often seen in Poussins — perhaps it was Caravaggio himself who began changing this, I have an essay about it somewhere. Anyway, the painting has suffered a great deal. It has even been ironed, I’m told, and who knows what else it has had to bear. As a result, it is a horrible mess of a thing. There are little figures strewn across the canvas, making it a very busy landscape even without the incredible drama unfolding in the foreground. This means one can draw all kinds of stories about whatever is going on wherever this place Poussin has painted is.

That is something that has clearly been placed there consciously to make the canvas more interesting, but this bustle has been balanced with incredibly dark regions where everything is pretty much black, or almost, and these are the places the viewer has to supply for himself. They are stimulating, make the eye see whatever the mind imagines, and make for a richer viewing experience. However, some of these black smudges must have been the result of years of mistreatment, black bruises on the canvas, if you will. Conversely, some of the simple black shades might have been made interesting because of cracks, discoloration, or whatever. So, what I might have taken as a wonderful shadow with a specific function, might actually just be dirt. Should I be impressed with dirt? I’m not sure, but I think I was.

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