Avigdor Arikha, who died last week, was that rare person- both art historian and painter. Here's another obit, which tells you more about his painted output, which I'm not familiar with. I knew him chiefly as art historian, mainly through my interest in Poussin.
Arikha and Poussin coalesced for me in 1995 when I saw him on a legendary arts strand programme- the Late Show- a special made on Poussin and Blunt to accompany the exhibition on the artist mounted in London that year.
My abiding memory is of a quiet-spoken man, knowledgeable but un-didactic, speaking in front of Poussin's late masterpiece the Deluge. Though I wasn't yet a serious Poussin scholar, just a member of the informed public, my interest was engaged enough to record the show, a video that I still have. Later when I embarked on a PhD on Poussin, and amongst other things, researched the relationship between Poussin's landscape paintings and religion in his France, I recalled Arikha using both voice and hand to unravel the complex strands of meaning in the Deluge. Unlike most Poussin scholars who concentrated on the iconography and symbolism of the painting, Arikha delved deep into the painted material itself, downwards into the monochromatic pigment because he discerned there the real meaning of the picture. As a painter, he recognized that it is also necessary to track the passage of Poussin's brush –something that Tony Green has been saying for decades- as well as the thoughts crossing the painter's mind as he worked. Here's Arikha commenting on Poussin's Rape of the Sabines:
"Poussin came back to a rapid touch with a small bristle brush, generally round, which left its marks, as if the strokes had dried under his hand."
When I visited the 1995 exhibition (twice!) I spent a lot of time peering into the murky depths of the Deluge with Arikha's ideas fresh in my mind. Later during my doctorate I read a lot on the Deluge. Most of this material seemed to focus on iconography, which was fine but hardly groundbreaking. Looking for fresh thinking on the painting, I returned to Arihka's ideas that seemed to me to make more sense in terms of understanding (a) Poussin's intentions as a religious painter; (b) how religious themes informed nature painting in the mid-17th century; (c) how the monochromatic treatment of the picture related to the theological themes within.
Fast forward to November 2009 and I'm in the Turner and the Masters exhibition contemplating Poussin's Deluge again. Arikha's interpretation still holds good for me, even now. Here's an extract from his long essay on Poussin where- for me- he nails the picture's hidden structure in a way no one else has.
"The scene represents the last season of the year (winter), the last season of life (old age), the last hours of day (nearly night), and the end: the deluge. Noah's Ark is in the background. All sinks, all drifts downward to its end.
Two men (as in the Jewish minyan), one woman, one child and one horse are desperately clinging on. With them, a horse and a baby. All goes downwards, except for the ascending prayer suggested by the little twisted figure placed on the horizon line, lifting his wringing hands towards the dark sky, by the waterfall. The baby lifted upwards from the sinking canoe on the right will not be saved: placed on the same horizon-line, the outstretched hand will never reach the baby. In contrast, the only living being not to sink, is the snake creeping upwards. The snake illustrates not evil only, but eternity.
The snake alone prevails in Poussin's composition. The lightning striking down is its echo. The snake is painted dark on light, and the lightning, light on dark. They are parallel, like voice and echo. Their form constitutes the key to the painting. The variations of the twisted line continue, throughout the composition: dark on light angular lines (rocks), light on dark spiral lines(trees). Hanging on the upper-right tree is another small snake. This one is the echo of the snake creeping upwards.
The ascending snake and lightning striking down uphold the praying figure, with another one clinging onto him, in a diagonal syncopation. Poussin painted the biblical deluge as seen from the side of the doomed."
For me, the strange, disturbing monochromatic pattern suggests both sin and salvation in the world, which helps to retain a degree of ambiguity in interpretation, not a bad thing.
Arikha called Poussin's Deluge the artist's testament. Perhaps Arikha's careful unraveling of his 17th century predecessor's masterpiece should be seen in terms of inheritance too- Arikha's legacy to Poussin's studies, that still hasn't been properly understood.