Around noon on Sunday I was reading Erwin Panofsky's ET IN ARCADIA EGO: Poussin and The Elegiac Tradition because I am going up to see the Poussin exhibit at the Metropolitan next Friday.
In the essay Panofsky traces the way that Latin phrase has been translated down through the years. He begins with Sir Joshua Reynolds showing a new painting to his friend Dr Johnson in which the Latin phrase appears inscribed on a tombstone. Johnson thinks it is nonsensical: "I am in Arcadia." However,Reynolds tells him that it is far from nonsensical and King George III who had seen the painting the day before said, "ay, ay, death is even in Arcadia."
AN ASIDE: those of us who were in Dublin in the early 1960s learned to always understand Dr. Johnson, with Patrick Kavanagh's dismissal, "that English bore."
Panofsky's essay could serve as a wonderful outline for a course of readings... and I will not belabor that or any other aspect of it.
I was taken by the way that Panofsky in clear crisp sentences takes his reader through an understanding of the word Arcady and how this place, "in the imagination of Virgil, and of Virgil alone, that the concept of Arcady, as we know it, was born--- a bleak and chilly district of Greece came to be transfigured into an imaginary realm of perfect bliss. But no sooner had this new, Utopian Arcady come into being than a discrepancy was felt between the supernatural perfection of an imaginary environment and the natural limitations of human life as it is."
Eventually, Panofsky will get to the two paintings by Poussin that include this inscription. At the Met only the first of these will be on exhibit as the latter one was too fragile to travel from Paris.
In the painting at the Met we will be reminded as Panofsky writes, "The phrase Et in Arcadia ego can still be understood to be voiced by Death personified, and can still be translated as "even in Arcady I, Death hold sway," without being out of harmony with what is visible in the painting itself."
But, when next in Paris there will be the chance to see the second painting and there see the truth embodied in a very beautiful paragraph by Panofsky, "Thus Poussin himself, while making no verbal change in the inscription, invites, almost compels, the beholder to mis-translate it by relating the ego to a dead person instead of to the tomb, by connecting the et with ego instead of with Arcadia, and by supplying the missing verb in the form of a vixi or fui instead of a sum. The development of his pictorial vision had outgrown the significance of the literary formula, and we may say that those who under the impact of the Louvre picture, decided to render the phrase Et in Arcadia ego as "I, too, lived in Arcady," rather than as "Even in Arcady, there am I," did violence to Latin grammar but justice to the new meaning of Poussin's composition."
And the result, "Poussin's Louvre picture no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality. We are confronted with a change from thinly veiled moralism to undisguised elegiac sentiment."
Panofsky it should also be mentioned will sweep the reader through Waugh, Fragonard, Diderot, Goethe...
The one painting I am looking forward to seeing is LANDSCAPE WITH TRAVELLERS RESTING which is usually in the National Gallery in London and which I look at every January. It depicts three men on a road: one walking, one resting and another fixing his sandal.
For more than a year I have been writing about those three men. It is the only thing that still holds my interest in European things. I can not imagine such a painting taking place in Arizona, say, south of Tombstone. I have not discovered how to make vivid a tall dark man striding at the end of day towards Tombstone by the side of the road dressed in shredded rags because I can not stop him to pause to adjust the rope that binds his waist.
Later on Sunday, I was waiting in a Walgreen parking lot and read Mary Engelbreit's editorial in MARY ENGELBREIT'S HOME COMPANION magazine. On the cover readers were invited to: HEARTFELT & HANDMADE 47 Ways to put a little love in your rooms
and WOW! our annual artist's studios tour.
The editorial was occasioned by those artist tours, "It's always been one of my favorite quotes: "I don't believe in art," avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp once said. "I believe in artists."
So do we. The idea of "art" itself can all too easily turn into a frozen, abstract, past-tense concept. Art with a capital "A," a fossil that's now safely on ice in a museum, viewed maybe once a year by a bus load of school kids.
Art is kind of like marriage. It loses its zing without a steady infusion of fresh renewable energy from everyone involved. It's energy, supplied by the audience as much as the artist, that can keep a work of art alive long after the museums have crumbled to dust. And it's this energy that we pay tribute to in our annual artists' studios issue."
Yesterday, today, tomorrow--- these are servants' categories. For the idle man, sumptuously settled in the Inconsolable, and whom, every moment torments, past, present, and future are merely variable appearances of one and the same disease, identical in its substance, inexorable in its insinuation and monotonous in its persistence.
from A SHORT HISTORY OF DECAY by E. M. Cioran