New Book

The sight of death : an experiment in art writing by T. J. Clark

ND 553 .P8 C57

An interview with Clark about this book can be found here.

From the San Francisco Chronicle “With his new book, “The Sight of Death,” Clark has changed lenses yet again, shifting into a diaristic critical voice and into extremely close focus on just two paintings by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665). “I want this book to be about what occurs in front of paintings more or less involuntarily,” he writes, well into it, “not what I think ought to occur.”

A stint at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in early 2000 gave Clark the chance to study nearly every day Poussin’s “Landscape With a Calm” (1650-51) and “Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake” (1648).

The Getty owns “Calm,” as Clark shorthands it, and “Snake” belongs to the National Gallery in London. Seeing them paired at the Getty presented a rare opportunity to probe the relationship between two major works that Poussin may have conceived as companion pieces. Both belonged to the same collector and patron of Poussin, about whom little is known besides what he owned.

Clark began accumulating notes on his responses to the paintings and found that they showed how, as he writes, “astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again: aspect after aspect of the picture seems to surface, what is salient and what incidental alter bewilderingly from day to day, the larger order of the depiction breaks up, recrystallizes, fragments again, persists like an afterimage. And slowly the question arises: What is it, fundamentally, I am returning to in this particular case?”

His approach makes vivid to readers how our museum-oriented, democratic assumptions about painting and its reception differ from those of ambitious 17th century painters in Europe and their patrons. They assumed that a viewer would live with a picture, not visit it for a few minutes or seconds, once or twice in a lifetime.

Clark’s project approximated the ideal conditions of ownership, in which a picture might present itself unhurriedly under ever-varying influences of light, weather, mood and familiarity.

Only the social setting remained beyond Clark’s control. He notes a few occasions when school groups or other disruptions impaired his work. His honesty on such points, rather than making him sound churlish, help win the reader’s confidence.

He needs it because reading “The Sight of Death” will tax the patience of anyone looking for quick answers to flashy questions. As his accounts of details of “Calm” proliferate, “it occurs to me …,” Clark writes, “that readers looking over my shoulder may find a touch of madness in them, or maybe pathos. I seem to be operating on the assumption that just pointing things out, in the case of a painting like [this] …, can (and ought to) go on for ever.”

Any reader who knows Clark’s work will anticipate an element of political critique in it. He finally make this explicit about halfway through the book. “We are living … through a terrible moment in the politics of imaging …,” he writes. “The more a regime of visual flow, displacement, disembodiment, endless available revisability of the image … and sewing together of everything in nets and webs — the more this pseudo-utopia presents itself as the very form of self-knowledge, self-production, self-control — the more necessary it becomes to … suggest what is involved in truly getting to know something by making a picture of it.” Under such a regime, he argues, returning to a painting, respecting its stillness and exact reality, “is a form of politics in itself, meeting other forms head on.”

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