Ex Die in Diem



I was struck today by something that Steve Jobs said in the commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005: that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”. I was in the National Gallery at about four o’clock, and I was reading a sign in front of one of the most spectacular sculptures I’ve ever seen: Rodin’s Le Baiser, on loan from the Tate. I thought of Jobs’ words because I had seen the statue before, but not registered it.

Technically, I had seen another copy of it, the one on display at the Musée Rodin in Paris. There were two reasons, I think, that I couldn’t remember the sculpture. The first is the observation of Jobs: I didn’t know then that there was any significance to this piece above any other, that one day I would meet its brother. The second reason stems from a point in that last sentence, “above any other”. That day, the 22nd of May, was the day I realised that I wasn’t in fact a cretinous art-hater, but that I’d just not been pointed at the right art.

The art I pointed myself at that afternoon in France was The Harvesters, by Van Gogh, and it changed something in the way that I understand what’s around me. Since then, I’ve known what sort of thing to look for in a gallery, and so have found Pisarro, Cezanne, Degas and Monet. Finally I can talk about art and not just be making up opinions.

The thing that I so love about Impressionist art, I think, is that it has so little in common with photography. Until 150 years ago, when people painted they were doing a job that couldn’t be done nearly as well in any other way. The advent and refinement of colour photography meant that events and portraiture could be captured with much greater detail and scientific accuracy than a painter could hope to acheive. The genius of Impressionism is that there is no reaching after detail and scientific accuracy. If the mountain was blue, stick some blue on there.

What great Impressionists painted wasn’t what a camera could see and capture, but everything that it couldn’t. Looking at a painting by Monet, we see what he saw, including the movement and the changing light and the essence of the thing. If you stand in front of a Van Gogh and let yourself be taken up by it, you can almost hear the sounds of the fields at Arles, birds calling over wheatfields and cypresses groaning in the breeze. You can feel the wind on your skin, the light catching your eye and causing a halo around the brightest objects.

These are things that you can’t get from photography, because they occur via a conjunction of human and environment, and no machine can ever capture that conjuction, the way that each influences the other. Just don’t expect that to stop me taking photographs, because I can’t paint for toffee.

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