T. J. Clark’s latest book, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, attempts to understand the troubling present by examining works of art from the past. The authors of these paintings range from Giotto in the early fourteenth century to Picasso in the mid-twentieth, passing through two near-contemporaries from the latter half of the sixteenth century, the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel and the Venetian Paolo Veronese, and the seventeenth-century Frenchman Nicolas Poussin, who spent much of his career in Rome. Clark, a professor emeritus of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, brings to his latest study a penetrating eye for detail and a formidable level of culture. The book also benefits greatly from its generous complement of high-quality color illustrations. What it really needs, however, is editing, both of content and of execution, the kind of editing the author admires, and analyzes so perceptively, in the Italian painter Giotto and in the Baroque master Nicolas Poussin.
Thoroughly capable of painting elaborate surfaces in meticulous detail, Giotto stripped his landscapes, his architecture, and his figures to the essentials he needed to communicate—not his own virtuosity, but a story, or sometimes simply a state of being. As Clark observes, Giotto’s figure of Despair, a woman hanging herself, plumbs the depths of psychic desolation. In one of the most compelling passages of the book, he examines the landscape in which Giotto’s fresco for the Arena Chapel in Padua has set the agonized exile Joachim, father of the Virgin Mary, calling attention to the warmth of the gray that colors this desert’s pale, spiky crags, and how movingly they contrast with an intense but cool azure sky. Nature itself thus seems to add to Joachim’s isolation and despair with all that bare expanse of rock and chill air, just at the moment when an angel materializes out of a smudge of nebulous pigment to bring the old man the “comfortable words” that will bring him home again.
Poussin, as Clark demonstrates, also stripped down his paintings to austere essentials, albeit amid a welter of visual citations from classical statues, ancient architecture, contemporary historical research, and fellow painters like Raphael. Clark lingers on the way the veiled half-figure of a woman hidden behind a column at the far left of Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage brings the whole picture to life with its mysterious presence, not to mention the shimmering intensity of the light that falls on her clothing. Here, he argues, Poussin uses the sparest of means, a half-figure and a column, to achieve spectacular effects not only with the visual impact of the painting, but also with its symbolism. Clark rightly points out that classical columns often stand in for the human figure in Renaissance and Baroque art, so that the half-image of the veiled woman is, in a sense, completed by her architectural counterpart. No photograph of Poussin’s work, however, can capture one of the most surprising aspects of his paintings: all those columns, temples, and walls have been conjured up in brushstrokes that almost never hew to a straight line. What looks sharp-edged and severe from a distance transforms up close into soft dabs of paint. This refusal to take the easy way out of depicting a plane surface is another kind of editing on Poussin’s part, or at least a deliberate, fascinating artistic choice.
Clark also admires the power of restraint that Pieter Bruegel can command when he wants. Best known for his crowded, riotous portrayals of life’s pains and pleasures (from his joyously ribald Peasant Wedding to the shocking Triumph of Death), the Fleming could also sharpen his focus to acutely observed vignettes: five blind men following one another dutifully into a ditch; a group of lame men; a black-clad misanthrope being pickpocketed by a jolly thief; three gluttons sleeping off their excess on a hill of porridge in the Land of Cockaigne, to whom Clark devotes particular and jovial attention. He argues, against some interpreters of Breugel, that the artist portrays the group of lame beggars with compassion rather than ridicule, and this seems right. Breugel’s durable appeal lies precisely in the affectionate indulgence he shows his fellow creatures, especially when they are misbehaving, and in his outrage at the cruelty that struck so often, and with such savagery, in early modern lives. Clark compares the cycle of life for these peasants with the rounds of work and rest in the current Western world, contrasting the frenetic pace of contemporary consumption and recreation with the slower rhythms of a life linked closely to nature.