Heaven on Earth

Painting and the Life to Come

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T. J. Clark
  • New York, NY: 
    Thames & Hudson
    , September
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780500021385.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his latest book, Heaven on Earth, T.J. Clark takes the reader on an adventurous journey to discover what the “heaven on earth” from the book title may possibly look like in the artistic imagination. In each of the five essays that constitute the heart of this book, one artist and his imaginings of alternative worlds are discussed: Giotto, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Claude Poussin, Paolo Veronese, and Pablo Picasso. The essays previously appeared as journal or magazine articles or have been presented as lectures.

Clark gained fame in the 1970s and 1980s with a sociohistorical approach to 19th-century French art. Maintaining a strong Marxist tone, his writings focused on the societal conditions under which impressionist painting emerged. Yet, in the introduction to Heaven on Earth, Clark questions the relevance and urgency of this art for understanding contemporary, religion-infused times. He writes: “The wonderful easy godlessness of French painting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, still my teacher of the beauty and depth that so-called ‘secularization’ can attain, has little to tell us, sadly as men in orange jumpsuits plead for their lives on camera. We need the wisdom—which included the bitterness—of men for whom the Massacre of the Innocents and the smell of heretics’ burnt flesh were commonplace” (16). This confession prefigures the book’s coda, entitled “For a Left with No Future.” Although it praises art’s strength in reimagining new worlds, this last text predominantly operates from Clark’s disappointment in the political left and his worries about religious fundamentalism in the 21st century.

Two types of “the life to come” are essential in Clark’s approach: first, what happens when the earthly world of the here-and-now “might open onto another,” heavenly or miraculous world; and second, what happens when the earthly world is “raised to a higher power, ‘deified’ by an energy that, though it may ultimately be a gift of God, is manifest here and now in a quickening, an intensifying, an overflowing, a supercharging of altogether human powers” (17). When it comes to painting, with its open-ended nature, Clark does not shy away from broader notions of “the life to come.” The most fruitful analyses rest in the connection between the represented imagined worlds and the painters’ contemporary earthly counterparts. Clark is not concerned with truthfulness of the depictions, but rather their meanings and significance for the painter’s contemporaries.

A wonderful example of this is the discussion of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Land of Cockaigne (1567). It shows a world in which abundance of food and laziness are the rule. In Bruegel’s depiction wine, cakes, and pigs are freely available, while three men lay on the ground after overeating and drinking. It looks like Carnival, during which their class differences have faded away. The men represent a soldier, a farmer, and a cleric, or man of letters. Rather than seeing it as a cautionary and moralizing depiction, Clark argues that the painting is a parody on the human yearning for an alternative life. Drawing from a well-known image from Netherlandish folk culture, Bruegel’s painting does not show us what he (or his contemporaries) thought heaven looked like. Rather it pokes fun at those hoping for a heaven that offers abundance and free time, in contrast to their lives of threatening hunger and demanding physical labor. Where Bruegel’s depiction is drawn from folk culture, Clark also discusses Veronese’s Allegory of Love (1570-1575) and Picasso’s The Fall of Icarus (1958). Religious heavens can be found in Giotto’s Joachim’s Dream (1303-1305) and Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage (1648).

Poussin’s painting results in the most remarkable discussion. Clark begins at the center of the painting, with Mary, Joseph, and the priest placed on a cross patterned in the marble floor. Clark discusses the mysterious nature of the sacraments, while simultaneously establishing them as “social and natural facts” (143). Through the positioning of the figures and the use of light, Clark observes how the painting primarily communicates Mary’s relationship to Christianity, with the priest figuring much more dominantly than Joseph. Then, the analysis moves to the utter left of the painting, where a figure is half hidden behind a column, with only cloths and veils visible. Clark’s associations flow freely from what this figure is doing there and which meanings she might convey. He identifies her as a primary witness of the event. While she is positioned far away, she is the only one that really observes. But then Clark suggests, because her face is invisible, perhaps she looks out the picture plane. Contrasting his own line of argumentation, this second interpretation relates the divine marriage scene (and the sacrifice of Christ it prefigures) to the outside world. This relation between inside and outside, between divine and earthly, is Clark’s favorite (and arguably the most interesting) connection to make in understanding depictions of alternative worlds.

Although at times Clark’s rhetoric can be easily challenged, his determined engagement with the paintings’ visuality is fascinating. Heaven on Earth provides insights into what it means to conduct Clark’s conception of art history—with primacy given to visual analysis, followed by interpretation fed by intuition and parallels to literary, poetic, or documentary source material.

Even though the book is at times trying (with the author’s attempt at writing a poetic interpretation as the pinnacle), still very few are as informed and intuitively sensible as Clark. He is able to deliver an engaging read that evokes further intellectual and visual engagement. Richly illustrated, Clark’s every thought or reference can be followed via his descriptions and the many reproduced artworks. Asking of us what we might understand as heaven, how we shape (and yearn for) alternative worlds to the ones we know, and which heaven we are forming for ourselves at this very moment, Heaven on Earth provides Clark’s conceptions of heaven from which we may depart.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lieke Wijnia is Curator at Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, The Netherlands and Fellow of the Centre for Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen.

Date of Review: 
July 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

T. J. Clark is Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many books including the seminal The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism.

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