The Critic as Photobomber

T. J. Clark’s ‘Heaven on Earth’
Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim No. 5: Joachim's Dream, 1303-1305

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.

Paulo Veronese, Happy Union, ca. 1575

The discussion of four allegories of love by Paolo Veronese remains, by its author’s admission, a series of detached individual observations, many of them made with a copy of John Ruskin in hand, who brings his untrammeled enthusiasms—for him, Veronese is “this man whose finger is as fire and whose eye is like the morning”—along with his peculiar points of view. Neither of them, however, gets anywhere near the heart of this painter, who told the Venetian Inquisition in 1572 that painters, like poets and madmen, should be granted a certain license. (He had put two drunken Germans and a dog in a painting of the Last Supper, and finally resolved the problem by writing “Banquet in the House of Levi” across the tablecloth.) Clark does not quite know where he wants to go with his discussion of crazy perspectives, jutting angles, and enigmatic human relations, except in one respect: his opposition to some of his colleagues in the art-historical world. One short rant ends with the confession, “I am being unkind.”

In this remark and several others, as well as the final chapter in the book, about Picasso’s Fall of Icarus at UNESCO headquarters in Brussels, Clark seems to be reaching for wise conclusions to this collection of essays. But the enterprise is inconclusive. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. He is too seasoned a polemicist to take a detached view, much as he admires that detachment in artists who have achieved pictorial wisdom, irrespective of what wisdom they might have achieved in daily life.

Despite his capacity to recognize and explicate the power of restraint in the Old Masters, Clark has not yet achieved Giotto’s skill at paring down his own efforts, removing himself from the front center of every discussion, channeling his displays of expertise. This protagonismo, as the Italians call it, is especially evident in his introduction and final chapter. Like the late Umberto Eco, who headed the chapters of his novels, ostentatiously, with polyglot epigraphs (ostentatiously, because he poached at least one of them from the Talmud without truly knowing Aramaic), Clark conveys an implicit assumption that no one who reads Heaven on Earth will really catch all the references to Bach, Proust, Ruskin, Beckett, Eliot, and Walter Burkert, just to name a few among the clouds of witnesses. If these references were truly meant to illuminate the reader rather than to cast a spotlight on the author, then he would have pruned their vast number and paused to explain the points of connection that suggested such references in the first place. In the process of weeding out and crafting explanations, Clark might also have reached a clearer understanding of his own intentions in drafting what remains an earnest but slightly bewildered text. 


Clark returns repeatedly to his own atheism, for which he seeks, and finds, an echo in the painters he examines in Heaven on Earth.

Walter Burkert provides an instructive example. Clark’s final chapter, “For a Left with No Future,” a confusing presence in itself for a book ostensibly about Painting and the Life to Come, contains the following paragraph:

That is: the various unlikely and no doubt dangerous voices I find myself drawing on in these notes—Nietzsche in spite of everything, Bradley on tragedy, Burkert’s terrifying Homo Necans, Hazlitt and Bruegel at their most implacable, Moses Wall in the darkness of 1659, Benjamin in 1940—come up as resources for the Left only at a moment of true historical failure.

Taken as it is, the passage is about as clear as the Delphic oracle—that is, totally ambiguous. What “everything” is Nietzsche being absolved of this time around—something he wrote, or National Socialism, or the evolution of the Übermensch? A few pages later, Clark provides some citations from Nietzsche, A. C. Bradley (1851–1935), William Hazlitt (1778–1830), and John Milton’s friend Moses Wall (1562–1623) to provide a few clues to why these authors in particular should be the ones to guide the Left through historical failure; and we have the chapter on Breugel to clue us in to why a painter would appear in a list among all these critics and philosophers. The meaning of “Benjamin in 1940” is clarified in the footnotes as having to do with that writer’s massive Arcades Project.

But Homo Necans is an outlier, and clearly intended to be an outlier, the work of an eminent German classicist who combined anthropological research with close examination of ancient Greek literature to produce strikingly original theories about human society in general and the ancient Greeks and their rituals, including tragedy, in particular. First published in 1972, translated into English in 1983, Homo Necans is a spellbinding study about sacrifice, with tantalizing chapter headings like “Fish Advent,” “Werewolves around the Tripod,” and “The Comedy of Innocence.” Clark’s characterization of the work as “terrifying” draws upon the implications of Burkert’s title, not Homo sapiens, the “wise” species of the genus “human,” but Homo necans, “the killer.”

Walter Burkert, however, was not only a scholar of profound learning (which he wore lightly) and infinite curiosity; he was also a man who could change his mind if the evidence so demanded, and by the 1990s he had changed his mind about his own masterwork. The anthropological studies he had found so fascinating as a young man, he realized, had been inspired to a disconcerting extent by National Socialist ideology, and thus he came to regard his own werewolves around the tripod with outright amusement. In what sense, then, are we to understand Clark’s reference to Homo Necans as a resource for the Left? Or are we simply to marvel that an art historian has read Homo Necans at all? (Burkert was a visiting professor at Berkeley in 1988, when Clark first joined that faculty.) We are certainly meant to marvel that a single person can bring so many readings to bear on a single problem—but what is that problem exactly, the Left and its historical failings, or T. J. Clark’s current dark night of the soul? The run-on sentence fails to specify, leaping from personal despair to a larger state of things. And that continuing lack of focus between individual and universal concerns is what gives rise to the chief confusions of Heaven on Earth. That, and the choice to ignore the existence of El Greco, who did paint Heaven as Heaven, phantasmagorically, in a fantastic new kind of topological space.

Walter Burkert was a scholar who could look at his own research with so relentlessly critical an eye (and generous a spirit) that he could finally set its various stages in their own time and place, looking back at the vagaries of his own trajectory with a twinkle in his eye. Clark has not yet reached that point with his own “radical” Marxist past, which has been accompanied all along by every comfort of high-end academe rather than proletarian struggle. It is this ambivalence about personal history that so consistently muddies the waters of Heaven on Earth, but there is another confusion working against its coherence as well. The book’s basic premise is that Giotto, Veronese, Poussin and Bruegel depicted otherworldly realms and otherworldly events by using down-to-earth imagery because at heart, like Clark himself, they put their faith in the phenomenal world rather than God. Clark returns repeatedly to his own atheism, for which he seeks, and finds, an echo in the painters he examines in Heaven on Earth. For all his acuity of vision, he keeps standing in front of the picture, every picture, the inveterate photobomber of his own perceptions. He would see everyone more clearly, himself included, if he would just move out of the way.

Heaven on Earth
Painting and the Life to Come

T. J. Clark
Thames & Hudson, $34.95, 256 pp.

Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: 

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway. Her latest book, cowritten with Noah Charney, is The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art (W. W. Norton & Company).

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