Why great pictures, like close friends, always have something new to teach us

Why great pictures, like close friends, always have something new to teach us

Even the works of art we love and have studied for years can suddenly reveal new sides to their personalities, says Andrew Graham-Dixon

My favourite works of art are like friends, of a kind. With some, those in London’s National Gallery for instance, I remain regularly in touch: George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket must have flared his nostrils at me at least a dozen times this year.

In the case of others — such as Pontormo’s Visitation, in the church of San Michele in Carmignano, a little town west of Florence, or Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — I have to content myself with a long-distance relationship. I see them once in a while, and perhaps for that reason I am a bit more likely to be surprised by them, finding things in them I hadn’t found before.

When I do discover something new to me in a painting, it can transform my conception of it: it is as if someone I thought I had known for most of my life turns out, in fact, to be someone quite different, or to have sides to their personality I’ve never suspected.

The effects of what we know on how we see was the subject of John Berger’s inspiring television essays for the BBC, Ways of Seeing. The series was broadcast back in 1972, when I was a schoolboy, but I still remember one striking sequence as vividly as if I’d seen it yesterday.

First Berger invited us, his audience, to consider a painting by Van Gogh: Wheatfeld with Crows. A picture of nothing much, it seemed to me, although one painted with an arresting degree of urgency: some channels of windblown wheat, above which hovered dark shapes, the birds of the title abbreviated to squiggles in a troubled sky.

But then Berger invited us to look at the same picture again, this time with the addition of a terse subtitle: ‘This is the last picture Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.’ What did we think of it now, Berger asked? Did the picture look different in any way, now that we had been given that single, tragic piece of information?

For me, it has often been the experience of reading something about a particular artist — or reading an artist’s own writings — that changes my way of seeing their work. In 1989, art historian John Michael Montias published his pioneering archival researches, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History. The image of Vermeer and his family that emerged from Montias’s work opened my eyes — and those of anyone else who read it, I suspect — to the almost unimaginably difficult, disturbed and ultimately tragic nature of the artist’s story. Who would have guessed that this great painter of stillness and tranquillity could have had such a turbulent and utterly untranquil life?

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, circa 1660-1661. This work is held in the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague

Not long after I had finished the book, I found myself standing before Vermeer’s View of Delft (above), in the Mauritshuis, for half an hour or more, experiencing what felt like an epiphany. Suddenly I was seeing this great painting of apparent calm, the view of a city from just outside its gates, in a new light. In fact it was precisely the light in the picture that I was seeing differently.

For the first time, I properly noticed the dark clouds in the sky above the town; having noticed them, for the first time I understood the curious, glittery speckle the painter has given to his depiction of the city’s tiled roofs; lastly, I grasped something that had eluded me until now — namely, the emotions underlying the picture.

What had I realised? That the picture is telling a story of the weather. The dark clouds passing through the sky have just shed their load of rain on the city, hence that glitter on its roofs: they are still slick from the rain, and are now sparkling, wet as they are, in the sun, which has just come out.

In other words, what Vermeer has painted with such utter precision is a moment exactly after a storm, a still and beautiful moment when peace reigns and all is well. And he has painted it with such force and feeling precisely because, in his own life, he knew precious few moments as perfect as this. Like many an artist, he created in paint that which reality had denied him: the dream of a perfect world.

John Constable, Study of Cirrus Clouds. Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Bridgeman Images

Another about-turn in my understanding of a painter’s work occurred after I happened to be leafing through some volumes of John Constable’s correspondence published by the Suffolk Records Society.

Constable was a wonderful writer as well as a great painter, and in reading his letters I was struck, first, by the sheer intensity of his love for his wife, Maria, and, secondly, by the depth of his despair during the years of her illness and early death, in 1828, from tuberculosis.

One of the most distressing symptoms of her illness was breathlessness — it was why they chose in the 1820s to live in Hampstead, above the smogs of London, then in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Constable wrote of her emphysema in several passages, in harrowing terms. At the same time, he wrote with increasing fervency of his desire to capture, in his art, such qualities as ‘freshness’ and ‘breeziness’.

Could it be that Constable, like Vermeer, was using painting almost as a form of dreaming?

A few days after reading the painter’s letters, I went to one of my favourite galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a number of his oil sketches, or ‘cloud studies’ — paintings of the London sky high above Hampstead Heath — are to be found.

Suddenly I couldn’t help wondering whether these pictures, as fresh and as beautiful as they are, might not have been his attempt to breathe into his pictures all the air that Maria was unable to breathe into her lungs. Could it be that Constable, like Vermeer, was using painting almost as a form of dreaming?

Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew, 1598-1601, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. Photo Scala, Florence

As Freud once said, one of the main purposes of a dream is to fulfil an unspoken wish. It is not only books that can change the way in which we think of the pictures that mean a lot to us. Friends can do so, too. The other day I was discussing Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew (above), in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, with someone I love dearly.

She is a painter, which perhaps enables her to see the stratagems of other painters with more clarity than most. She had been looking at the picture intently and thinking about its formal structure, in particular Caravaggio’s patterning of light and dark, as an expression of its meaning.

In the painting, Christ has descended into the darkness of Matthew’s worldly life as a tax-gatherer — the scene is set in the 17th-century basement office of a Roman tax collector — and is calling him to join his band of disciples. Matthew is being called to leave darkness, and enter light, and this is communicated by the stream of light that illuminates the hand of Christ and shines in on Matthew in his den of thieves (or would-be tax-avoiders).

Now that I have seen it and been levered out of darkness myself, it seems such a blindingly clear expression

But my painter friend’s eye had seen shapes in Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro that I had managed to miss. She talked me through her way of seeing it. The light enters the room in the form of a wedge or a lever, angled like the arm of a set of scales that has been weighed down at one end.

Matthew is seated at the base of this light-lever, in front of his coin-strewn table, which, seen thus, might be the heavy end of a set of scales — with him in it along with all the money he’s been counting. His soul has been weighed down by the world, but now he will be raised up and made light — taken into the light.

In other words, the whole picture is designed like the very mechanism that is one of Matthew the tax-gatherer’s prime symbols in traditional Christian iconography: a set of weighing scales for counting gold.

Now that I have seen it and been levered out of darkness myself, it seems such a blindingly clear expression of Caravaggio’s original meaning: a perfect measuring up of what this great picture is all about. How on earth could I have missed something so obvious?

But perhaps, on reflection, I shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Having spent 10 years writing his biography, I suspect I have read just about everything worth reading on the subject of Caravaggio and his art — and no one else seems to have noticed the weighing-scale structure of the picture before now, either.

Maybe there’s a bigger truth here anyway. Great pictures, like close friends, always have something new to teach us. There’s no end to them.


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