Phantom Pleasure: Consolations from Some Online Art

March 28th, 2020  |  Published in *, March 2020

I was looking forward to reviewing the N. C. Wyeth show at the Taft, and was planning on seeing it on a Sunday with my wife. We’d see the show, have brunch, check out the gift shop. On Friday the 13th—I know, right?—I went online to check out the museum’s hours—is it that they open late or close early?—and saw the headline at the top of the web site that Taft would close, effective that day, for the foreseeable future. The CAM and CAC made the same announcement the same day.

I was bereft. By then, the coronavirus was already changing my life. UC had announced that it would be shut down until April 13 and the smart money was saying that the shutdown might turn out to be indefinite. I expected upheavals at restaurants and movie theaters and changes in food shopping (though nothing like what turned out to be the case). I hadn’t thought through the pandemic’s consequences for Lyft drivers or my dentist or my barber. In the same way that when a spring storm knocks out your  electricity but you still flick a light switch when you move to a new room, I hadn’t taken in what sheltering in place would do to the arts. What would this do to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s season, for example, or all those CCM kids whose whole semester had been focused on their spring opera? Who will see the Cincinnati Art Galleries new show “Atmospherics: Longing for Beauty,” guest curated by Aeqai’s editor, Daniel Brown, that had the misfortune of opening on March 20? And I hadn’t really processed that I wouldn’t be able to zip down to the museum—any of them—for that mixture of comfort and stimulation, or being challenged and being reassured—that I get from a great art museum experience.

The online world is a medium that supports its own, and pretty soon I was seeing recommendations for the best virtual museum experiences (here’s a pretty good one from The Guardian: What I miss from any of these tours is the ability to slow time down, to come to a complete stop in front of something and let other people flow around you, while you just look, controlling as best you can the momentary private relationship any visitor to any museum can form to an object that doesn’t belong to them. With Wyeth out of the question, I proposed writing about one single, local, currently unvisitable work as my memorial to all that we’re having to do without these days and weeks and months.

Hercules Segers, Town with Four Towers (c. 1631), collection Cincinnati Art Museum

I chose “Town with Four Towers” (c. 1631), a small etching and drypoint at the CAM not much larger than a sheet of typing paper, by Hercules Segers, a strange and  mysterious Dutch print-maker and painter, just a little younger than Rembrandt, in whom critics and audiences are a good deal interested these days. I had come across him initially around the time I moved to Cincinnati in the mid-70s from a book on the history of printmaking by the mid-century curator and scholar Carl Zigrosser. Not long afterwards, I was visiting Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and the Print Collection happened to open to the public. I went in and asked the young men at the desk if I could see their Segers prints. They laughed that laugh that better-informed people save for the rest of us. They didn’t have any. “Do you have any idea how rare Segers’ prints are?” I didn’t then, but I do now. Of the barely more than 50 different images that make up his printed work, less than 200 pullings survive in total, and of them, fewer than ten are in the United States. The Met has only one.

Not too much later than that, I found out that the Cincinnati At Museum has two (the other is “Ruins of the Abbey at Rijnsburg” c. 1620), through the truly enduringly amazing bequest of the collection of Herbert Greer French. The CAM’s Curator of Prints and Drawings, Kristin Spangenberg, likes to say that actually we have 2 ½, because we also have Rembrandt’s etching “Flight into Egypt” (c. 1653), which is his reworking of an etching plate originally by Segers of “Tobias and the Angel,” done some twenty years earlier.

There is a great deal that we don’t know about Hercules Segers, including the years of his birth and death. Not a word that he ever actually said or wrote has come down to us. We don’t know for sure how he learned etching or whether he was ever successful  enough to have owned his own press. We do not know for sure how many of his famously idiosyncratic pullings of his idiosyncratic plates he made or for what audience he intended them. The biggest single accumulation of his prints came to the Rijksmuseum as a gift from a single collector whose 40 Segers prints can probably be traced back to his studio, and were conceivably bought at his death, either directly from his estate or possibly because they had been collected by some contemporary of Segers, conceivably Rembrandt. Though a brief 17th century biographical account of Segers tells us that his prints were so little thought of in his own time that they were used to wrap fish and soap, we know that Rembrandt thought highly enough to own 8 of his paintings and at least the one etching plate that he reworked. It would be the subject for another essay to explore why Rembrandt might have replaced Tobias and the Angel with the Flight from Egypt, but it is unsurprising that he might have altered the subject in the foreground but kept intact Segers’s landscape in the background, because for Segers, the background is the foreground.

Segers’s genius was poured into his landscapes. The recent show of his work (shown at the Rijksmuseum and then at the Met in 2017) was called “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.” What is so mysterious about Segers? His career, for one. By some contemporary accounts, he died unknown and impoverished, but clearly Rembrandt knew and valued his work. If not wholly mysterious, his technique was complex; he seems to have invented the sugar lift, which allowed an etching plate to develop lines and marks that looked immediate and hand-done as the sugar varnish is dissolved. His subject matter has a good deal of mystery to it: there are fairly few recognizable topographies in his work. He seems to have preferred inventing landscapes from his teeming imagination, perhaps guided by prints of Italian artists he might have seen, perhaps guided in part by willfulness and accident, as Leonardo had encouraged his students to do. The biographical sketch we have of Segers which is included in a much larger work by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1678) sees him as a student of the landscape of the mind: “It was as if he were pregnant with whole provinces, giving birth to them with immeasurable spaces.” What we know is that the geography he produced in his graphic work is mountainous and sparsely civilized, marked by rough and bleak terrain and boulders the size of large buildings—exactly what a closely observant Dutch artist would never have seen. Many casual amateurs have looked at prints like “The Mossy Tree” and concluded that Segers was exposed to Asian landscapes and that might have been an important source of inspiration, though just how that might have happened is a mystery and virtually all scholars strongly disagree. It is nonetheless a fact that Segers, like many Dutch artists, would have had some exposure to trade goods from Asia, and was probably the first European artist to print on Japanese paper, using it some two decades before Rembrandt.

Hercules Segers, Mossy Tree (c. 1625-30)

In some ways, the greatest mystery about Segers’s body of work is his intentions. It looks like he was in part inspired by the pleasures of making marks. Though his scenes may be deserted, he never gave in to the temptation of economy of means; he was given to the exuberant multiplication of febrile webs of lines and blots. His forms tend to be both lifelessly ghostly (more than one critic has called his landscapes “lunar”) and yet also richly and sensuously organic. On close examination, many of his rocks look more like coral, or brains. In one of his most extraordinary etchings, the relatively early “A Skull” (1618-22), the bones do not look like the glaring white or discolored, deathly brown of the many, many skulls one can see in 17th century moralizing Vanitas paintings. They are covered with a tracery of lines that do not seem directly related to shape or lighting or drama. They seem to suggest instead that this is what the skull is made of—and by extension, perhaps, that this is what all organic life is made of. It is as if the skull were made of the same material as a landscape; in his work, the landscape may also be serving as a sort of anatomy lesson.

Hercules Segers, A Skull (c. 1618-22)

What may be most distinctive about Segers’s work is hard to appreciate by only seeing one of his prints. Segers’s 180-odd pullings of his prints are mostly in color, mostly hand-painted by the artist in a variety of ways. He prepared his printing paper by painting on it; he used colored inks to print; he painted directly on his etching plate with brush and pigments. Van Hoogstraten says of his work that he produced “printed paintings.” (Some of his prints—including the CAM’s “Town with Four Towers”—are printed on woven cotton cloth.) Adding color, in part, hearkens back to the early history of western graphic arts which began as the poor person’s versions of rich people’s pictures; they were mass-produced woodcuts with hand-coloring on them, and then could be tacked to the wall of modest houses and look just a little like a burgher’s altarpiece. But for Segers, the goal was clearly different. If the core of the early colored print was to mass produce the same image, Segers’s goal seems to have been to use color to produce different images—sometimes slightly but always significantly different, and often massively different, making one version look like day and another like night, or one version to be springlike and another to be autumnal.

Hercules Segers, Mountain Valley with Fenced Fields (c. 1625-30), collection Metropolitan Museum of Art


Hercules Segers, Mountain Valley with Fenced Fields (c. 1615-30), collection Rijksmuseum

Of the printed work of Segers that has survived, over twenty are in unique pullings, but many are in multiple versions; one of them exists in 22 different variations. For all the stateliness of his imagery, there is a kind of feverishness to Segers’s creativity. As far as we can tell, a work was never fully completed. Everything was pressed back into service. He would etch on the back of a plate he had already used. He would cut down large plates and re-use them, reintegrating, for example, the mast of a large ship into the trunk of a large tree. Sometimes he just left the earlier image. There is a hungry quality to his art, devouring whatever he needed to make his prints. Van Hoogstraten tells us that as his career waned, he “painted and printed on his shirts and the sheets from his bed.” An old man mad about printing? There is both a self-celebratory and selfdevouring quality to his work and world. It is perfectly common for artists at various points of their careers to be at the mercy of slender means. But Segers seems, in part, to have made the slenderness of his means into his subject matter, and let it shape his work with both morbidity and exuberance.

As with a lot of Segers’s work, in the CAM’s “Town with Four Towers” we stand on (or hover above) a rocky platform from which the world of Segers’s invention stretches out in front of us. In many ways, the landscape is unremarkable—the sublime seems to have been an afterthought at best to Segers. There are steep valleys, hints at what van Hoogstraten called “savage mountains,” and a scattered settlement which might have added up to a town. (For the record, I count five towers.) It is unpromising terrain that these humans have settled in; I don’t make out any planted fields or other signs of human industry. And though I can’t see the world he depicts with the eyes of an architectural historian, the buildings appear to have been designed at very different epochs and according to different ideals of scale, function and beauty. It is a kind of a fantasy, but of what?

It is a world of rocks and roads. The scale is suited to fantasy: the landscape is littered with boulders larger and higher than the steeple of the largest church. The landscape is weighty; it seems to have accreted. Like many of Segers’s most striking pullings of his etchings, the hand painting suggests a striated landscape with bands of alternating colors woven into the terrain like a flag furling in the wind. The painting highlights the way the roads curl in serpentine curves. Many lines follow the lay of the land, but others seem to go nowhere. The color scheme is warmer than in some other pullings of the same print, with all things made of stone done in a kind of terra cotta and the surrounding land done in a couple of shades of light, warm, chalky green.

If I had to say what “Town with Four Towers” is about—if it were up to me to explain the mystery—I would say that it’s clearer what the print is not. It is not, as some landscapes are, a celebration of human industry, mankind carving a place for itself in the wild. And it is not a vision of how humans are in harmony with the world they live in, or a depiction of how different social estates make different uses of the land they cannot help but share. I think the focus is on the experience of the spectator. The landscape is in some ways staged. In this natural “theatrum mundi,” humans come and humans go, and have done so over the stretch of time. Their accomplishments will never be as significant as the boulders that tower over them. The landscape is cautionary, but not alarmist. In this world, there is beauty, but it is not inviting. The landscape is Other without being threatening. But it is all made of such attractive pieces—the loveliness of the drawn and colored mark, regardless of what it is called on to represent.

Hercules Segers, Town with Four Towers (c. 1631)

Perhaps the greatest mystery of Segers is why he did all this work in the form of prints. If your artistic goal is to create a world of every-varying images, etching is not necessarily the medium that would come first to mind. That is what sketchbooks are for. We can only address this within the fairly strict limits of all the things we don’t know, and are probably unknowable. Did Segers do variations on all his prints, only a fraction of which have survived? Who was his audience? Did he create his different versions of the same etching plate in a concentrated period of time or over the length of his career? With those caveats, it seems reasonable to think that his goal of variation seems to have needed to be shaped by the armature of sameness. Perhaps it was a kind of discipline for him. Perhaps too it was another version of re-using his materials. Reinvestigating his own materials might have allowed him to see it freshly; perhaps it allowed him to see himself freshly as well, so that his possibly endless returning to his own work became a form of economy of means but also a way to investigate himself.

His work is often written about these days as a precursor to Monet’s, with their shared interest in theme and variations. Perhaps a closer analogy is Degas, who saw his monotypes as the basis for further explorations. Not settling for the single image produced by the single pass through the press, he went on to color some with pastels or other pigments, or explored what he could find in a second pulling of a monotype, or took a counterproof—using a still damply-inked print as the basis for a new print—a technique that Segers apparently explored as well. It may also be that his inheritor is someone like Bonnard during the period of his so-called “decorative” work, where the mark—the brush stroke, the blob, the tiny shapes of which the work consisted—become the true subject of the painting.

I would like to ask Segers a great many things, not least about his practices, his audiences, and—especially—his opaque intentions. Perhaps underneath it all, I’d like to find a way to ask him if he meant to be so modern. But it might also be the best question is not for him to answer, but for us: how is that our sense of our own modernity owes so much to the spirit of the 17th century, to the baroque?

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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