Friday, September 27, 2013

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

This is one of the paintings I grew up looking at, in one of the Time/Life Art Series books I kept checking out from the library.  There were not a lot of paintings to see in my town but there was a wonderful library with art books. The first famous painting I remember seeing in person was at a school field trip to the Detroit Museum of Arts. Please, people, do not sell off the paintings at the Detroit Museum of Arts.

This painting was long attributed to Pieter Brueghel, but since it's an oil and Brueghel worked in tempura, it's now thought to be a copy by a student. It shows the moment that Icarus, son of Daedalus, plunges into the ocean as a result of the candle wax melting off the self-made feathered wings (while escaping from a tower with Daedalus, the boy had defied his father and flew too close to the sun, thus melting the wax that held his wings to his arms).

I liked this painting as a child because I knew about the Icarus story and I was fascinated by the fact that at first glance, this painting doesn't seem to be about the fall of Icarus at all. It seems to be a painting about a farmer plowing his field, though how you can plow fields that steeply inclined is a mystery to me. Far away in the background, a boy with wings is falling from the sky into the ocean, and nobody notices, they just go on about their business.

As a child, you identify with the boy falling into the ocean and of course being an alarmist even then, I figured, well, yes, awful things happen all the time, even to children and anyway, you could see that the bird wing experiment was a pretty dumb concept to begin with.

But as I got older I got the point that is made by the poets that wrote about this painting -bad things happen, and yet the world moves on, largely oblivious. People keep planting the fields, people go about their business, boats sail by and a miraculous being who tried to achieve something incredible dies instead and it all goes without notice.

Of course, this is not the point of the Icarus myth itself. The point of the myth is to obey authority and avoid hubris, as if that is ever a fun couple of objectives. But the point of the painting is, I think, much more interesting. The artist has made a very interesting comment on human nature and how  we are the center of our own world, often to the exclusion of others and some very interesting events. If you don't doubt that we think we are the center of the world, go look at Facebook and watch the artists talk about themselves. "Well, enough about me, tell me, what do you think of my work?" (And yes I am just as bad, I guess.)

The real point of this post is that you can interpret a painting a million different ways. It's not just the knowledge and intent of the artist that matters, it's the knowledge and intent of the observer, too. A painting is a dialog. We need good, educated viewers, just like we need good, educated artists. If you don't know the legend of Icarus, how will you understand this painting? Well, you'll get something out of it, and it could be interesting, and you might be really impressed by the whole steep hill plowing reference, but you won't get as much out of it. If you didn't know the myth, part of the language between you and the artist would be lost. Ars longa, vita breva, etc. but ars gets a lot more breva if we lose a part of our cultural heritage. You could listen to the story on your headphones, but wouldn't it be better if you knew a little something about it in advance of your museum trip?

Now you'll have to go and Wiki the legend of Icarus if you don't know it.

There are a few excellent poems written about this painting. I'm going to write out the poem by W.H. Auden, "Musee des Beaux Arts", otherwise you'll be too busy to go and find it:

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Joaquin said...

I love to learn things in a way as nice as I do here.

Linda Tracey Brandon said...

Thank you Joaquin! you're very kind.