Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A stretch of river XXXII: Dog-walker in the snow

First of all: a warm welcome to those of you who are my students. I encourage you to spend a bit of time here; for what they're worth, you can find some of my better past posts linked to in the right-hand gutter under the heading "Assemblages." And if you like anything you read here, you'll find even better work over in the section called "Daily (B)reads."

I plan to borrow Mrs. M.'s digital camera when I see her on Thursday and take some pictures of this bit of river Scruffy and I walk along and that I keep yammering about. In the meantime, though, Brueghel will have to suffice.

Sunday morning, after our half-foot of snow the day before, Scruffy and I went on our usual walk. When we crossed over into the park and looked back across the river at the apartments on the opposite banks, I thought, The trees, the crows, the snow, the ice . . . it's Brueghel. Well, okay: It's more like Brueghel's light and mood. But it's that mood that draws me to this painting--not that I particularly delight in that mood (for me, a sort of chilly melancholy), mind you, but that it so effectively evokes it.

The new semester began yesterday, including Intro. to Humanities. In that class, I talked our goal of establishing links between our own particular moment and a past that, for our course, begins with the Renaissance. Not that my linking what I saw on Sunday with the Brueghel painting is in the least profound, but my hope for that class--and indeed for all my classes--is that in their daily lives my students will make the occasional connection, however tenuous, between their lives and what they we discuss in class. Otherwise, what we're talking about and looking at will have no value: we'll leave our tracks in the snow for now, but come the spring thaw that is the end of the semester, nothing will remain of our meeting and tramping about. The river's freezing over again next winter will surprise them as if they hadn't seen it frozen before or could not imagine such a thing ever happening.

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7 comments:

Ariel said...

This strikes me as a very good way to introduce a Humanities class - one my Rockhurst profs would have benefitted from trying.

John B. said...

Well, yeah--it's a History of Culture class, is what it is. As I've done before, last night I showed my students Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and after we talked about each painting in turn I said, "Okay: about 400 years separate these two paintings, but each is a product of something we call 'Western Culture.' The goal of this class is to show how we got from the one to the other." There are probably better, more sophisticated ways to approach this class, but the last thing I want to have happen is for this course's content to be reduced to names and dates and terms to be memorized for exams. What's more important is whether and to what extent we can still recognize ourselves as we examine our cultural past.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"What's more important is whether and to what extent we can still recognize ourselves as we examine our cultural past. "

A worthy goal... it is exceptionally difficult to know just how strange, and conversely just how familiar, is the past. A lot of my research and thinking concerns that point, and truly I am no nearer an answer. I suppose this is why I like books like C. S. Lewis' "Studies in Words", which demonstrates how even simple words reveal different nuances and assumptions when used at different times. My wife TAs for an art class, and it's all names and dates, multiple-choice questions... a waste of bloody time, it irritates me.

"each is a product of something we call 'Western Culture.'"

Crucially, though, not only is each a product of Western Culture, but Western Culture is a product of each. It is this dual movement which has obsessed historians since the 19c.

Brueghel is marvelous, unendingly so. I don't find it melancholy; perhaps that is a slightly overused word? It is too bright and brisk, too cold, to be melancholic. I think what makes it for me is the bird silhouetted against the enormous and vague expanse of mountains in the distance--that colour is the most perfect sky colour I've ever seen on canvas.

John B. said...

Conrad,
Thanks for stopping by.

it is exceptionally difficult to know just how strange, and conversely just how familiar, is the past.

We touched on this a bit in class last night: a woman asked about the flowers floating in the air in the Botticelli painting, and that reminded me of the elaborate flower symbology of the Renaissance, of which we have just traces remaining today, and I reminded the class that, botanically, a flower's bloom is a sex organ: its function is to perpetuate itself. The flower symbology isn't or wasn't just esoterica; it was part and parcel of a much more closely-felt connection between humans and the things of Nature, whereas nowadays flowers, in contemporary culture's eyes, are basically Pretty Things. My student said she would never think of flowers at a wedding in the same way again.

Re "melancholy": The painting doesn't usually make me feel that way, either; but it also happened that day that I was thinking on some melancholy things, and THAT mood got slapped on to the Brueghel. "It's not you, Pieter--it's me."

And speaking of which: Not that I know a great deal about Brueghel, but there are times when I look at his work, its sheer variety, and I think that he really could do anything and everything as an artist.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"he really could do anything and everything as an artist."

Those guys could. Van Eyck, Leonardo. Uccello. Carpaccio. Bosch. It's all terrific. I've been getting into a bit of Nicholas Hilliard recently. He's really great, though a bit later.

(But do you know your Brueghels?)

John B. said...

(But do you know your Brueghels?)

Good heavens--a whole basketball team of them!

Gwynne said...

This painting speaks for my mood last weekend also, enjoying a walk in the snow with the dogs but also brooding a bit about the gray sky and the long wait until Spring. Nice choice.