“Ane doolie sessoun” covid-19 and the art of isolation

 

At some point in the late fifteenth century, the poet Robert Henryson (who lived in Dunfermline, not too far from where I’m writing now), began his Testament of Cresseid with one of my favourite openings of any poem:

Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent.

Robert Henryson – The Testament of Cresseid and Other Poems, my edition Penguin Books, 1988, p. 19

I don’t think I knew, word for word, what that meant when I first read it, but I did get the meaning: essentially that miserable/sad times (‘doolie’, which I guess would be ‘doleful’ a few hundred years later; not sure what it would be now) call for tragic/sad/grim (“cairfull”, literally ‘full-of-care’) poetry, and the words, with their mixture of strangeness and familiarity (people in Scotland have not talked like that for many centuries, but I think that being attuned to the accents and patterns of speech here still makes it easier to understand), stayed with me. The poet goes on to talk about the weather; apparently it was an unseasonable Lent in Fife that year, when “schouris of hail can fra the north discend/that scantlie fra the cauld I micht defend.” Apparently, despite impending climate disaster, Fife weather hasn’t changed beyond all recognition, It was only two weeks ago, though it seems far longer now, that I was caught in a hailstorm myself.

my own photograph from April 2006

The season is still doolie however; not because of the weather, but because of the pandemic sweeping the world, one unlike any Henryson would have known, but which probably wouldn’t have surprised him; one of the key elements he brought to the Troilus and Cressida story in The Testament of Cresseid is its heroine being struck down by leprosy and joining a leper colony.
the cover of my copy of his poems has a drawing from a medieval manuscript of a figure which would have been familiar to most readers at the time; leper with a bell begging for alms.

Maurice Utrillo

 

 

In fact, with dependable cosmic irony (or if you are less fatalistic, normal seasonal progress), the weather, since ‘stay home’ has been trending online and quarantine officially recommended, has been beautiful here. The streets are fairly, but disappointingly not yet eerily, quiet. There are many silver linings to the current situation (major caveat: so far), from a measure of environmental recovery to time to read, and, if such things appeal to you and you’re careful about it, empty streets. I’ve mentioned elsewhere my love of art that depicts quiet or deserted streets, artists like Algernon Newton, Maurice Utrillo and Takanori Oguiss, and it feels like this is the time, or state of mind, that their art was designed for.

Hans Grundig – Cold Night (1928)

It has been said that Edward Hopper is the artist who has captured the moment, and his vision of loneliness in the big city particularly mirrors our own age of social media and reality TV in that it is voyeuristic*; we are looking at other people whose isolation mirrors our own, just as, online we are (a ridiculous generalisation perhaps, but if you’re reading this chances are you have internet access at least) sharing the experience of isolation; surely in itself a relatively new phenomenon, at least on this kind of a scale.
*not really a criticism; visual art is voyeurism

Edward Hopper – Early Sunday Morning (1930)

The appeal of Hopper’s paintings of lonely figures is humanistic and easy to explain; his art is profoundly empathetic, and now probably more than ever, people can identify with it.  It belongs to a tradition of quiet loneliness or at least individuality stretching back to the art of Vermeer (easy to forget as the children of it, but the idea of art reflecting the individual for reasons other than wealth and status is an essentially Protestant one*) through artists like Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose beautiful turn-of-the (19th-20th)-century are even more relevant to stay-at-home culture than Hopper’s diner, bar and hotel-dwelling urbanites.

*really the only ‘lonely’ figure in pre-Protestant European art is Christ himself, or those who have separated themselves from Christianity (note: this may be a completely false assertion)

 

Vilhelm Hammershoi – A room at home with the artist’s wife (1902)

But there are Hopper paintings too – including some of my favourites – where the only human presence is the artist, or the viewer, where Hopper could claim (though I have no idea if he would have) like Christopher Isherwood, I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking.* But recording, for a human being, is thinking. And the picture of a place-without-people is rarely as simple as it seems; even in the case of an actual photograph, someone had to be there to photograph it, and have their reasons for doing so. The tradition of landscape painting is a classic example; landscapes may be mythical, romantic, realistic, but they have been recorded or edited or invented for human reasons. The landscape painting of earlier eras was often self-consciously beautiful, or psychologically charged (Friedrich is the classic example; landscape as a personal, spiritual vision; in some ways in fact his work, with its isolated or dwarfed human figures, is kind of like a romantic-era Hopper), but the fact that the urban landscape is itself a depiction of an artificial, human-constructed environment gives it a different, possibly poignant (if you are me) quality.

*Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye To Berlin, in The Berlin Novels, Minerva 1992, p. 243.

 

Charles Demuth – My Egypt (1927)

This appeal is perhaps hard to explain to those who don’t see it, but I think it’s worth examining. At first it might seem misanthropic; how lovely the world we created can be without people in it, but although I don’t discount that entirely, I don’t think that’s it. There is a utopian tradition beginning with (or at least exemplified by) the ‘ideal cities’ produced in Italy in the late 15th century that is in a strange way misanthropic in that the city’s tranquil geometric perfection could only be made less harmonious by the introduction of human figures. This is true too of the post-cubist-realist paintings of Charles Demuth, where the geometric perfection of the industrial buildings seems to preclude more organic shapes altogether.

Ideal City c.1480s, previously attributed to Piero della Francesca

But if Demuth shows an ideal world where human beings have designed themselves out of their own environment, the ideal cities of the renaissance, with their impossibly perfect perspectives are something more primal and dreamlike; ideal in fact for surrealist examinations of the inner world of the subconscious. Giorgio de Chirico’s eerie proto-surrealist ‘metaphysical’ cityscapes are essentially these cities by twilight, and Paul Delvaux used the telescoped perspectives of the early renaissance to create his own prescient sense of urban displacement.

Paul Delvaux – Isolation (1955)

The use of isolated human figures, as in Delvaux and Hopper’s work, gives us a ‘way in’ to a picture (although Delvaux – like Magritte in Not To Be Reproduced (1937) – emphasises the loneliness and unknowable nature of human beings in Isolation by showing the figure only from behind), but the cityscape that is devoid of life, or which reduces the figures to ciphers, has a different appeal.

Rene Magritte – Not To Be Reproduced (1937)

Nothing about Algernon Newton’s paintings (or Oguiss’s, or the beautiful photographs of the city in Masataka Nakano’s Tokyo Nobody (2000) really suggests a post-apocalyptic landscape, but their slightly uncanny quality is reminiscent (or vice versa) of the eerie opening scenes (the best parts) of The Omega Man (1971) and 28 Days Later (2002) where, emptied of people, any sign of life in the city itself seems portentous and full of sinister power. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved to visualise (usually at night) a real place, say a nearby hilltop or field, as it is at that moment, with nobody except animals and birds there to see or experience it. It’s a strange kind of excitement that depends on not being able to experience the thing you’re excited about: psychology probably has a term for it, but at a time when people have never been more inescapable (not that one necessarily wants to escape them) there is something appealing about the complex landscapes we have created for ourselves, designed to cater for our needs and desires and routines and lifestyles, but without the most complex element of all – ourselves – in them. Hopefully we don’t have to get too used to empty streets though.

Algernon Newton – Spring Morning Camden Hill, 1940

Carl Theodor Protzen – Lonely Street (1932)

Volker Böhringer – the Road to Waiblingen (1933)

Algernon Newton – In Kensington (1922-3)

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