Friday, June 21, 2013

On the Surreal Pontine Opera of the Absurd Sublime

Responding last night to the magazine/art media moguless Louise Blouin's tweet:

My spirit animal is a Wren, don't ask me why Just something nice about its feathers And that magnificent pecker

I wrote:

Aah, "The wren, with little quill." Midsummer Night's Dream--Song / small throat - loud song (courage)

        She favorited the tweet, but will she remember the artist with her wallet? Probably not. Later last night I was enjoying dreaming at Horace Vernet's duo of Pontine Marsh paintings with a pot of Gao Shan, using both the web, and a few books of my own to trace the criticism of Vernet. The books I was using were Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism by Patrick Noon, and Baudelaire's The Mirror of Art. Horace Vernet was not a well liked painter by the critics. Baudelaire professed outright hatred, but the public adored him, and I think all around they are all correct. Horace Vernet is nobody's idea of an ideal painter on any account, but the two works he did concerning the Pontine Marshes to my mind speak volumes about the period just before the advent of say Melville's Moby Dick, when the philosophical concerns of Romanticism were lined up with an uncanny sense of the sublime as an adventure, or as an enchanted place where ruin and danger combine accidentally into beauty, and/or sorrow, or success. In Noon's text he mentions the critic "Pillet" providing what he describes as a 'considered, if ultimately unfavourable assessment' of Vernet's Hunting in the Pontine Marshes "likening it to a stage set for an opera about bards and druids" which doesn't exactly sound negative, and which is completely ironic, and exactly wonderful, when you figure out that Pillet is Fabien Pillet, whose son was Léon Pillet, "a French journalist, civil servant, and director of the Paris Opera from 1840 to 1847. A political appointee, he was probably the least successful director of the Paris Opera in the 19th century." But, in a way, I think Pillet actually hit on something. There is a stageyness to the scene, but what salon or academy painting of France wasn't guilty of that! What I find interesting is the subtle biosemiotics of the piece. The way that there might be an implied, or 'applied', ecopoetics concerning something like 'a poetics of the spaces of decay figured as an architecture of the sacral, or the real. With nothing exactly grandiose going on but a hunting trip, the picture becomes about the sublime as aesthetic rapture, a rapture of the real, or even better, the irreal, because this is certainly an idealized space, if not a direct proto-type for visionary surrealism, but I wouldn't have painted a hunting trip. So I guess in a sense I do line up with Baudelaire in a certain way, but, I also appreciated other things. There is a sort of comedy of representation going in the piece which makes it into something wholly unhistorical. When I first looked at it, I saw the huge U which is made by combining part of the fallen white tree corpse's branches with the crutch-like branch of the darker tree supporting it as an oarstay? That empty oarstay combined with the fact that the boat is being propelled by a gondolier-like companion seemed, well, oddly Rousselian. To make a cryptic monument of an oarstay is just really great. I mean you could take it to a Minoan horns of consecration kind of place, making the marsh an analogue of the labyrinth, but in his jaunty special hunting costume, I could only read in a weird dandyistic poetics of absurd boat components. Then, I started noticing that the broken tree off to the left looks exactly like a sperm whale head bursting up out of the sea, but this painting was made nearly twenty years before Moby Dick came out.
And then in the foreground is this curious, odd, "brontotheridian koala tree" which is completely ludicrous, but wonderful, just barely deigning to stick its tow, or claw in the water? And the comic pièce de résistance is the explosion of orange confetti feathers positioned ever so compellingly near the end of the hunter's gun. Just like a cartoon BANG! but prettier, a starburst of feathered boas?

The other painting also has an even more subterrean feel to it, and in a way, it somehow prefigures Jules Verne for me. The logic employed by Baudelaire in his critic is very bitchy and odd, but also sort of understandable. He says that Vernet is 'chic' and 'poncif' in which case he means shallowly readable, and easy, and or cliche'd in gesture, I guess.. I like where Baudelaire says he hates painting "manufactured to the sound of pistol shots", to which I can only reply, Fuck you Baudelaire (chuckling as I write this), you try it, it isn't that fucking easy to paint this way in a 'field studio' in the muck.. But whatever.. I love to rejoin the olden times and to just attempt to see or feel what they were about. It's all incredibly charming and of a peace for an old hippie like me, drinking high mountain Gao Shan from Taiwan. Baudelaire in a sideswipe calls Vernet a little Vaudevilliste, but if I were Vernet, I would take that and treasure it. Against the vicissitudes of war and nature who isn't a clown? And a fine thing for Baudelaire to cry clown when he so carefully cultivated his own weird skinny caricature of a Pierrot of sex and gloom.. Criticism is fine, but associationism is finer. And who could have asked for a more mythic romantic place to hunt than the Pontine Marshes in the early 19th century, full of little more than disease and bandits, only a brave and well-prepared man went there to 'sport', and maybe that's the point of all the criticism, really...