Paintings, says the author of the excellently well-illustrated “Heaven on Earth: paintings and the life to come”, are not propositions. They are to be looked at closely, with regard to their form and grammar, and the author proceeds to do just this with four late medieval and early modern artists: Giotto, Bruegel, Poussin and Veronese.
T.J. Clark begins by pointing to the failure of liberation ideologies around the world, from the USSR to Latin America. He sees this as having led to a renewal in the power of religion to offer a transformation in how we think and act. This is a background for looking back at the four artists and their expression and exploration of a balance – unstable because it can tip in either direction – between an earthbound here and now and a transfiguring vision of heaven on earth.
Singling out Joachim’s Dream, from Giotto’s extraordinary paintings for the Arena Chapel in Padua, and exalting in the artist’s use of blue and grey, Clark zooms in on pictorial details of significance: “The half-rhyme between the shocks of hair and the fading trails of the angel’s pale garment – the first all salience, the second all dry volatility – is the creature’s ontology summed up”.
What astonishes is the painting’s ability to represent the angel as a miraculous but materially real presence. The visionary and the prosaic are held as equal truths, a unity of opposites within a culture that believes in and yearns for the transcendent in the face of life’s barrenness without such a belief.
Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne becomes a test case for deciding if the artist is being humorously condescending about peasant life or affirming an allegiance to the body. It could be a moralistic warning against gluttony or a comic celebration of innocent physicality: peasant culture not a subject of ridicule but, by turning consumption into carnival, an evocation of earthly life in a public and performative mode. Healthy excess, not binging in private, rules OK.
The chapter on Poussin is, firstly, an erudite and intriguing study of female figures half hidden behind columns and, secondly, the theology of marriage as a conjoining of the profane and the sacred.
Veronese’s Allegory of Love by showing scenes from the ground up provides an earthbound perspective, albeit one that gazes up at something beyond our ken. Clark probes Veronese’s use of shadow to depict the body in a state of uncertainty compared to the solidity of non-organic matter.
The short chapter on Picasso seems out of place and the book’s coda, returning to political concerns, is disappointing in its despair over the contemporary state of the Left – to ask if it should ‘put its faith in the proletariat of Guangdong’ is a cheap jibe. His brush strokes are too broad and details are smudged (Lenin’s wannabe assassin was not, as he asserts, an anarchist). But when it comes to art criticism, T. J Clark is unsurpassed.
“Heaven on Earth: paintings and the life to come” by T. J. Clark is published by Thames & Hudson