Monday, 21 March 2011

A Boring Post about a Boring Painting of a Boring Thing

If I find myself alone with time to kill near Charing Cross, I often pop into the National Gallery for a few minutes and look at a couple of paintings. Being brought up on photographic images, we often make the mistake of reading paintings as though they claimed to represent reality in the same way that photos do. And it's often through the details extraneous to the main subject – the stuff in the background, a fleeting gesture or play of light, an accidental, unposed moment – that photographs assert their claim to 'truth'.

But in painting – at least, until the birth of 'modern art' with the French realists and impressionists, which coincided the birth of photography – nothing is accidental. Even when the painting is done directly from a model, the exact composition is something completely unspontaneous and the details are as significant as the overall subject. Every inch of the canvass is contrived and predetermined, entirely 'unreal', if you like. It's worthwhile – and pleasant – to throw off your twenty-first-century perspective and to flex your observational muscles by delving into a painting's contrivances (though, oddly enough, now that Photoshop is ubiquitous, the notion of photographs supplying an unaltered account of reality is out of fashion, and a whole generation is growing up with much keener critical eyes than those of their parents).

In Room 18, which contains mid-seventeenth century French paintings, near the spectacular portraits of Cardinal Richelieu, there hangs my candidate for the most boring painting in the National Gallery. It would normally have bypassed my eye muscles, but something about it must have struck me as odd. Here it is:

Allegory of Grammar (1650), Laurent de La Hyre

Its subject matter is both nebulous and uninspiring, its composition clumsy yet static, its execution flawless and banal, and its style unoriginal – a sort of sub-Poussin classicism without anything in the way of poetry about it. Allowing that Laurent de La Hyre wasn't bad at perspective, we must assume that there is a compositional reason why the foreshortening of the figure's left arm looks so odd, but God knows what that might be, and anyway, who cares? The explanatory notes for this painting are so vague as to remove any last vestiges of intrigue it might yet invoke:
This is probably one of a series of half-length female figures of the seven Liberal Arts* which once belonged to Gédéon Tallemant (1613–68), apparently painted for his house in the Rue d'Angoumois, Paris. The pictures vary in size, and all are dated 1649 or 1650.

Grammar is here personified as a woman. The essence of this art is explained in the inscription, which may be translated as 'A meaningful and literate word spoken in a correct manner'. A second series of the Liberal Arts, also by La Hyre or a member of his studio, may have existed in Rouen; and a total of ten paintings of these subjects survive today. An identical version, perhaps from the Rouen series, is in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery).
It is 'probably' one of a series (although it might not be), and just in case you thought you could imagine them all handsomely arranged in identical frames along a corridor or library wall, we learn that they're all different sizes, with no clue as to whether this one is one of the bigger ones or smaller ones. There 'may' be more similar paintings, by him or by someone else, that also exist, at least one of which is exactly the same. Seldom has an explanatory panel cast more shadow over an already dull image. Art history will not help us here. We have to look at the painting.

The figure of Grammar is a woman – an utterly featureless, generic classical matron – watering a plant. The flowers look like violets. If the violets are being fed by grammar, then presumably they represent the young student, part of whose education will include a dose of grammar. Violets sometimes symbolize humility, and this student is planted in a very humble vessel. It looks like an bog-standard B&Q terracotta plantpot. I suppose this represents the uncultivated mind that will benefit from a grammar education – the so-called empty vessel. The other plant, which has either just been watered or is about to be watered, is a poppy, a wildflower. Odd that, as wildflowers don't need watering. But of course, it never will be watered, because the artist has caught the moment when the violets are being watered. They are to be watered in eternity. Every time you come back to this painting, the water will continue to pour down on the poor violets, which look like they're being drowned by Grammar. To emphasise the point, the water is shown leaking out of the bottom of the cheap plantpot. As an advertisement for Grammar as part of an education, it is a bad one. The flowers will certainly die if they're overwatered like that.

The other plant life in the painting are the mature trees seen through the window behind the figure of Grammar, in the upper right corner separated off by the diagonal element formed by her left arm (ah, that's what it's for!). They're placed in contrast to the young fragile plants being reared by grammar. Is this robust vegetation what a young violet can aspire to, after years of applied study? That doesn't make sense. A violet can never grow into an oak tree, no matter how much grammar it manages to soak up. Besides, these trees are uncultivated. They, like the poppy, thrive perfectly well on what rain provides. They don't need watering. It's not looking good for our sad little B&Q violets. Grammar will stunt them; other plants thrive without it. If this is what Laurent de La Hyre is saying about Grammar, he's subverting one of the Seven Liberal Arts, and potentially undermining the serious intent of the whole series.

The clincher is in the inscription: 'A meaningful and literate word spoken in a correct manner', in Latin 'Vox litterata et articulata debito modo pronunciata'. But the words meaning 'in a correct manner', 'debito modo' are seen backwards, where the strip of cloth folds back on itself. Oh yes. When the words that mean 'in a correct manner', or 'in the right order' are the ones shown backwards in the wrong order, we must deduce that Laurent de La Hyre means for us to read this painting back-to-front. This Allegory of Grammar carries a secret, ironic, anti-grammar message. Let students express themselves naturally, this painting says, rather than smother them in rules that will stifle their growth.

Well, I'd like to see the other pictures in the series, to see if they subvert their subject matter in similar ways. It's always enjoyable to discover a hidden meaning that contradicts the stated one. There are plenty of these hidden meanings to be found, not just among the boring paintings in the stuffy old National Gallery, but among the visual and written material that surrounds us on a daily basis, perhaps even in this blog if you look hard enough ...

* The Seven Liberal Arts, as described by Martianus Capella in the 5th century AD, represented the pillars of medieval educational system, the equivalent of today's 'three Rs'. They were: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Michael,

    I highly appreciated your irony and of course the quality of the reproductions. Let me note only that you are not quite wright about watering. The flowers in the pots are not in their natural environment and they do need some water. By the way, as I see, the flower being watered is a primrose and the flower beside it is anemone. However you are absolutely wright to be venomous concerning information we obtain about de La Hyre’s allegories. I lost a mass of time to search in Google an answer to my very elementary question: how many allegories of the painter are known? I know Grammar, Music, Arithmetic, and Geometry. And what about the rest of the three Ladies? Do they exist, at least in the history of art? Halas, I hear only silence! That is why I have a question to you: do you know anything about the allegory of Logic (Dialectic)? I am specially interested in it.

    With best regards,
    Vladimir (Bulgaria)