Claude: The Enchanted Landscape
6 October 2011 until 8 January 2012
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Arcadia's appeal is not timeless. Nostalgia for a golden age thrives in times of upheaval, when farmers lose their lands and soldiers return from wars abroad to an uneasy exile in their own country. Like Tasso in his bitter lament "O bella età dell'oro", poets emulating Virgil's Arcadia tend to speak to the malaise of their contemporaries, no matter how insistently their pastoral song evokes love lost and time past. In our current season of economic uncertainties the Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Claude: The Enchanted Landscape should draw many visitors to its elegant new exhibition space. A perfectly scaled, beautifully presented show, it allows the visitor access to some of the most potent images ever devised of an idealised pastoral past.
Despite the coy title, the exhibition is not a celebration of enchantment. It aims to alter our view of Claude Lorrain's art, and Claude's art is overdue for reassessment. It has long been divided between different national schools and artistic categories. Born around 1600 among French-speakers in the duchy of Lorraine, the artist spent his entire career in papal Rome, working for the highest patronage and eventually serving an international clientele. But the French now claim him as their own native son, while the British latched on to his art as a national predilection, and the German Romantics took Claude to heart as well. Claude's original context is not that simple. He was from polyglot Lorraine, then an independent state; he became a citizen of Rome, and surrounded himself with friends and housemates who were Dutch and Flemish, alongside whom he sketched and painted in the Campagna outside Rome. His metier was as a landscape and view painter, an area in which the Northerners in Rome excelled.
After 1640, in his middle and old age Claude united idealised landscapes with narrative history painting, not unlike the art of his French neighbour in Rome, Nicolas Poussin. Although the claim has been made that Claude's storytelling should be given greater attention, narrative in his art is weighed in the balance with qualities harder to capture in words. The extraordinary refinement of Claude's colours, which capture exquisite subtleties of light and atmosphere, give us the strongest sense that his art is more akin to poetry in its evocation of sentiment and its embodiment of place. Goethe wrote that Claude's "paintings possess the highest truth, but no trace of reality". The transformation of his contemporary "reality" into "truth" has to do with Claude's peculiar artistic practices.
The exhibition provides the most food for thought in its portrayal of Claude's working process. The curators, Jon Whiteley of the Ashmolean and Martin Sonnabend of the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, have brought together works from their two institutions, supplemented by loans of a few rarely seen works from private collections as well as works from other British and German museum collections. Their initial emphasis is on Claude's habit of pairing his landscapes into pendant compositions that juxtapose seascape and landscape, dawn and dusk. Once you have seen the Ashmolean's own Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, Claude's final work dated 1682, together with its intended pendant Dido and Aeneas at Carthage of 1675-6, which is usually on view in Cologne, it is hard to go back to seeing them separately (see previous page). Each composition is slightly unbalanced, weighted to the left in the one and to the right in the other, to allow the two paintings together to form a balanced whole. Warm reddish tints of sunset light in one work contrast with the clear yellows of early morning in the other. The paintings' narrative subjects are both turning points, acts of destruction that form new beginnings in the story of Aeneas' founding of Rome. Claude's pendants show us that the first principle of his artistic practice is to divide his representations into contrasting halves. The second principle is to unite the pair, in composition and subject, into one harmonic unit. For the first time, thanks to this exhibition, we can see that these principles run through every medium that Claude employed.
The exhibition's true innovation is to give equal weight to Claude's output as a painter, a draughtsman and a printmaker. The attention given to Claude as printmaker is especially welcome, as his etchings were innovative and yet are little studied. An entire room here is devoted to his 44 etched compositions. His first attempts to use the etcher's needle were in the 1630s, precisely at the time when Rembrandt also turned to etching; both artists were likely inspired by the brilliant innovations of Jacques Callot. Claude experimented with the relation of line and tone on the printed sheet, seeking a painterly effect through linear means. He may have begun to etch because he hoped to reproduce his own paintings for a broader market (as Rembrandt also apparently hoped). Yet rapidly the experimental nature of etching led him, again like Rembrandt, down another road, toward the rearticulation of his painterly vision in a new medium, creating entirely new works of art that were nonetheless intimately derived from, and fed back into, his paintings and drawings. The show's display of all the etchings in very beautiful impressions demonstrates how Claude reworked six older plates into a new landscape series of 12 prints around 1640, creating six pairs of seascapes and landscape views, possibly in order to create a bound print series that would serve a less wealthy clientele than the patrons of his paintings. Another innovation in the popular format of print series lay in Claude's sequence of Fireworks in 1637. In place of the sequential display of different theatrical sets that was the stock-in-trade of festival prints, Claude depicted only a few macchine, or illusionistic floats, and he portrayed them in a stop-action photography avant la lettre. Illustrating the celebrations for the crowning of the "Re di Roma" in 1637, Claude etched a square tower that bursts apart as fireworks erupt, revealing another round tower inside it; in the next prints we see progressive destructions of the same macchina. In his prints as well as in his paintings, Claude experimented not only with light, but with the passage of time.
Moving through the three rooms of the exhibition, viewers can see for themselves the centrality of drawing to all Claude's work. On view are preparatory drawings, as well as presentation drawings made after finished works and dedicated as gifts to named individuals. There are the sketches from life done in the Campagna, with recognisable sites and buildings. The Liber Veritatis, the sketchbook in which Claude meticulously recorded nearly every composition that he painted after the mid-1630s, is also represented in the exhibition, and the capacity of these ricordi to generate new works is demonstrated as well. It may be that the hang of the show, with the three media neatly divided into three separate rooms, hinders viewers from appreciating the relations between drawing and painting, drawing and prints, which the curators have taken such pains to point out in the catalogue. But the visitor's effort to look not just at individual works but at pairs, sequences and the interlocking of images both large and small, will yield many rewards.
This fresh look at Claude's working process is a welcome event. Curiously, the treatment here of Claude's mythological, biblical and Arcadian subjects is underplayed. Indeed the curators' approach to his depicted subjects seems profoundly old-fashioned. Some of the most interesting recent research on Claude has brought out the traces of reality in his ideal vision of the landscape around Rome. The ravaged pastoral economy of the Campagna, malarial and famine-struck during the middle years of the 17th century, was a place where landowners found it more lucrative to leave fields fallow than to produce food. Bodies of the disease-ridden and the starved were regularly carted away from the rural places sketched by Claude and his fellow artists. Claude worked a very particular kind of artistic transformation in order to cast the light of a golden age on scenes that were much darker to the naked eye. This is part of the working process of early modern artists, but one that the general public rarely gets a chance to see. What the exhibition does bring into focus, though, will provoke thought and give pleasure to us in our own era of unease and discontent.
Sheila McTighe is senior lecturer in 17th-century art, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.