guggenheim

2019.28 (Paulus Potter, Figures with Horses by a Stable)

            Things I was taught at horse camp: 1. How to clean stalls 2. How to brush/groom horses 3. How to pick out and clean their hooves 4. How to feed them 5. How to ride them.   

            Things I learned the hard way at horse camp: 1. Don’t touch an electric fence. 2. Don’t try to steal anything out of a vending machine because the owner might see you do it and wear out the seat of your pants. 3. Don’t throw a ton of hay down the chutes that lead to the horse stalls for the same reason that you don’t steal from a vending machine. 4. Don’t double up on a pony ride with your friend if that pony has recently given birth. When that pony knows it’s going back to the barn and back to its colt, it will take off at a ridiculous speed and buck you off to lighten their load. If you are lucky, you won’t get stomped by the pony once you’re on the ground.

            My lone horse camp experience occurred when I was 6-7 years old. It would be disingenuous to say that I attended. That would imply intent. I had a friend that owned a pony. He went to a camp at the stable where his family kept the pony and they invited me to go with him. I think if you ever know anyone that owns a horse, it’s probably just one kid from your childhood. It’s not a gang. If you know more than one person that owns a horse, you probably own a horse as well. You’re horse people. This boy’s family, from a 6-7 year old’s perspective, seemed to do pretty well. The kid had a go kart and a zip line in his backyard. Their garage was so big that he had a basketball goal installed in there. That blew my mind. It still blows my mind.           

            I don’t know how many hours a day that camp lasted, but my memory of it is that it went on all day. For all I know it was just the morning. In retrospect, it seems like a lot for a kid with no farm experience to learn all of this in a week. Maybe I just sell my own son short. He could clean some horse hooves and manage to not get kicked in the head. Somewhere, someone that grew up on a farm is reading this, laughing. “That’s all you had to do?” No one over the age of 7 probably likes to clean out horse stalls but I remember it being fun. At some point, a person loses their fondness for horseshit.

            The week ended with a set of races for which I was not remotely qualified to participate. I might have been the only one at the camp that did not own a horse or a pony stabled at the farm, so I had about 4 hours of riding experience by the time they had us “race”. I ended up in a contest where you had to carry an egg on a spoon while riding a horse. I don’t know that I could walk and do that, much less ride a horse and do it. There were only two kids in the race: a girl whose name I don’t remember and me. She could legitimately do this: carry an egg on a spoon while sitting on a walking horse. I could manage no such thing. I made it two feet and it fell. Someone picked up the egg and put it back on the spoon. It fell again…and again…and again. It wouldn’t break. Maybe they were hardboiled. It was muddy. Maybe that helped. There may have been some tears involved. The girl finished her race. Based off my showing up to that point, mercy was granted, and I was not expected to finish. I got a second-place ribbon, which is accurate but does not necessarily reflect the entirety of the event.

            We spent the final night in the loft or mow or whatever you call the top level of a barn. There was a nighttime horse ride. I don’t remember much else but that all seems like a good amount for 1st or 2nd grader to experience in a summer, and I think the camp only lasted a week. I remember that my primary horse’s name was Charlie. He was solid but, one day he decided to run rather than walk which freaked me out, and Charlie was dead to me after that.

            That camp represents 90% of my total farm experience. Someone in Philadelphia once asked my wife why I didn’t have a country accent. She said, “Rob’s southern. He’s not country.” True. No matter whether I lived in a small town or a suburb growing up, I was very much in a residential, “town” environment. No one ever had to get me up at the crack of dawn to feed anything, ever. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family lived and worked on a farm. Nelly Oleson’s family ran the mercantile. I’m Nelly.

            Despite that, or because of it, I do like northern European painting that centers on farm life. It is always referred to as “peasant” life. I get it. Within this genre, there is a sustained interest in depicting the dignity and honor of these people and their commitment to a simple life. Implied in this is a choice of a “simple life”. Like someone walked up to these people and said, “You can continue to labor in difficult circumstances and provide this country with sustenance and probably die early of some malady or you can join us in the city during this continent’s greatest economic boom of the century. Poverty and farming it is? God bless you, noble peasant! Let me paint you.” Despite being regarded as realism, it is a romanticism of a subject. The realism extends only to depicting a “real” subject otherwise ignored by art history. Otherwise these painters treated their subjects like Bono speaks about anything from Joey Ramone to Crest toothpaste.

            A large number of Dutch and French painters committed themselves to this work. Van Gogh probably considered himself one as most of these painters were his true conceptual heroes. For the casual art fan, consider what van Gogh painted in the south of France and you’ll see the connection. He was not a Parisian Impressionists painting the middle class engaged in leisurely activities and ridiculous amounts of bathing. He painted farmers. He was attracted to “sowers” and “reapers” and “gleaners”. It was all very Biblical for him. His formal execution was radically different, but his subjects were no different than his Dutch predecessors.

            The genre is meant to bring dignity to this slice of the Dutch population through how they are presented in the work but, it’s not like they could buy the art. Instead, their dignity is sold to the merchant class. I assume the subjects appreciated the hat tip to their lifestyle, but I don’t know how much they believed it. Very few people living this life would look at it and think, “You know, you’re right. I’m a dadgum folk hero. Thanks for capturing that part of me.” It’d be like painting a version of that now but the dude in the painting would rather be listening to Florida-Georgia Line than looking at your painting. More than likely they were glad to get paid to pose for the work. There is cultural history and the recognition of a hard day’s physical work shown in the painting which is something that might be lacking in the life of the importer/exporter that bought it. Like I said, I either like this work because of the limited experience that I have or because I have so little experience with it that I carry these same misguided stereotypes. Either way, all of this leads to a piece from this genre that sticks with me more than most others.

Paulus Potter- Figures with Horses by a Stable, 1647, oil on panel, 17.75x14.75”, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paulus Potter- Figures with Horses by a Stable, 1647, oil on panel, 17.75x14.75”, Philadelphia Museum of Art

            17th c. Dutch painter, Paulus Potter died of tuberculosis when he was 28. His focus in subject seems to have been animals and, despite his premature death, is judged to have left an influence in the way they are/were depicted in art. Because of his early passing, he left behind a relatively small number of paintings and etchings, around 100. If I would have died at 28, I would not want to be judged on the 100 pieces that I had made until that point. I’m 45 and I still would not want to be judged on my 100 most successful pieces.

            Potter’s focus was farm life: cows, horses, dogs, etc. There are a lot of low horizon lines to make the animals loom in monumentality. Despite his young age, he already seems to have developed a system of composition. He has one formula where the animal of choice is the largest element- seemingly a portrait of a horse, dog or cow. He has another method that focuses on the landscape, with the animals clustered in a bottom corner, not dissimilar from Chinese landscape painter, Ma Yuan, or “one-corner Ma”. Potter had another compositional structure with a farm building or barn holding down one side of the piece, with a door revealing part of the interior and the other side allowed to remain open in a landscape with a horse alongside the building and a smattering of other farm animals in the foreground. He was masterful at foreshortening which leads to a lot of cow and horse rumps in his work. He painted life-sized pieces and a number of intimately-scaled works.

            The Potter that I know best is Figures with Horses by a Stable from 1647. It is small in size: about 18x15” and has one of those titles that curators at museums slap on it when it enters a collection. Potter was around 21 when he made it. It falls under the “barn on one side, infinite landscape with horse on the other, animals in the foreground” method. As with most pieces that I know better than others, it is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Some of my coworkers and I were incredibly confused by this piece for a long time. I guess I should say that we were confused what the farmer was doing to the horse. It ends up that he’s probably brushing the horse. The horse’s body is blocking your view of the farmer’s hands so that mystery sat with us for a few months. You just see the farmer’s glowing face. When you get too close to the painting and just look at the farmer, you forget where the light that illuminates his face is coming from and you can fool yourself into thinking that the light is coming out of the horse’s butt in a mysteriously veiled way like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. I will say that I learned enough at horse camp to know that the farmer is standing in the wrong spot. He’s just asking to get kicked in the stomach by standing directly behind the horse. I took a hoof to the butt during my week because I lost focus for a bit.

            The look of pleasure on the farmer’s face is odd, considering that he’s staring at a horse’s rear end and lit by an invisible light source that you can only assume is a window or open door to the barn that is out of frame to the right. It’s an intense light considering the limited value range in the background and in the cloud. The closest cow to the fence line has a shadow that is in line with what could be lighting up the horse and farmer but it’s the only animal that registers a shadow at all. It seems like the sun is low, which makes for some confusing light because if it were that low, would it be that white? It’s the beauty of art, I suppose. Lie to tell the truth or bend elements and principles to get the image you really want. It’s like in The Big Lebowski. The Coen brothers tried a number of takes to throw a bag of underwear (“the ringer”) out of a car and over a bridge. They couldn’t get the arc of the bag’s flight to be what they had envisioned. It takes a lot of strength to throw it out of the car that high in the air, especially while the car is rolling. After a few failed attempts, someone suggested driving the car backwards and throwing the ringer at the car, then rolling the film backwards in post-production. As with everything else about The Big Lebowski, it works.

Rene Magritte- Empire of Light, 1953-54, 76 15/16 x 51 5/8”, oil on canvas, Guggenheim

Rene Magritte- Empire of Light, 1953-54, 76 15/16 x 51 5/8”, oil on canvas, Guggenheim

             The Potter bends the rules to make it work. He beats Magritte to his Empire of Light trick by 300 years. There are issues. The white horse’s head, despite Potter’s gift for foreshortening, doesn’t really jive with the body. The body fades into a convenient shadow to cover up that the neck doesn’t connect to the body well. There is a missing front leg that should be in frame but is not. Either that or the horse has 5 legs. Something is amiss. If I had to guess, the horse’s body was from one sketch and the head was from another and Potter stitched them together with enough success. The horse on the outside of the barn with the two figures is beautiful though. It is such a great total positive shape, cutting a high contrast with the ground around it. You could remove that and make an early 20th c. modernist abstraction out of it and it would sing. The rest of the foreground is a simple arrangement of chickens and twigs to activate the lower 1/5th of the piece. I looked at this a lot when I had a landscape show a few years ago. I’d study this and Dürer to see how to activate the ground. I needed to use beer cans and cats for props, but Potter seems to understand that you just need to put something there. Anything will do as long as it makes sense in the scene. For this he has twigs on the left and chickens on the right. There is a dog outside the barn, scratching itself and Potter has put a lot of time into the dog’s testicles. There is a pile of what I assume is dog poop next to the fence near the horse’s back hoof. The strongest shot of color is in the nursing mother’s dress. It calls attention to her but is also one of only a few solutions for not having her swallowed by the background. Her bonnet is abnormally lit as well, breaking another rule to insure the clarity of the piece and establish her presence. The tree growing next to the barn connects the barn, sky and ground and also seems poorly placed in a real-life situation. It’d tear through that barn over the years. A cloud activates the top left and, aside from a couple of birds, Potter allows the top right to remain static.

            This painting became one of my favorites in the museum over the years because of the mixture of gentle-rule breaking, compositional prowess and general oddness. I was working in this format in drawings for a while and it gave me a few ideas. It was a structure that was lovingly referred to by a friend as “a tree, some people doing something and some crap on the ground”. I wasn’t trying to romantically depict peasant life, but I learned a bit about landscape from it. I always placed the horizon line higher than Potter because I was too enamored with Dürer-esque overlooks into an infinite beyond, but I learned how powerful a subtle cloud could be and what could be altered to be highlighted yet still fit the intended vision. I’m the furthest thing from an iconoclast. I’m not a rebel. I believe firmly in tradition but, being an artist that represents anything in two-dimensional form understands that you enter into it knowing that everything you put down on paper or canvas is an abstraction and therefore not true. Everything you do breaks rules. Bending reality to your will is unavoidable so don’t get fussy about it and say the thing you want to say in the way it needs to be said.