robert piccart

the ways of history

the ways of history


The landscape is, in the first instance, the place where not so much man himself, as rather the traces of his presence are to be seen: the inhabited world (urban landscape) or the laboured world (agricultural or industrial landscape). Showing the inhabited or laboured world, rather that the humans that inhabit or labour it - the scene rather than the drama, has the major advantage that it makes visible complex relations that threaten to remain invisible when concentrating on purely human interactions: think of what is revealed when showing castles amid the laboured land or of sky-scrapers amid an ocean of slums - not to mention more sophisticated images like Brueghels 'Tower of Babel'. Of this kind of landscape, there is also a more 'sublime' (erhaben) version: the ruin - also as industrial ruin, or, broader still, as an archaeological site, where the remains of human activity are still visible, whereas what motivated it has disappeared. To phrase it with Bertolt Brecht 'Und von den Stätten wird bleiben: der durch sie hindurchging, der Wind.' (Of these cities will remain: that which passed through them — the Wind!)

At the opposite end of the inhabited and laboured world of man, is the uninhabited and untouched - virgin - world of nature: the idyllic or sublime nature. As a rule, there is no trace of humans here - at least not of working or acting people: if there are people altogether, it is 'passers-by', whose physical presence merely makes them look irrelevant, not only in the spatial sense of inconspicuous in the face of the overwhelming presence of nature, but also in the temporal sense of being merely a wrinkle on the crest of waves in another dimension of time. This landscape is not so much the scene of the human drama, as rather the indifferent crust of the earth that carries the human doings, indifferently and unperturbed. It is in such spatially and temporarily transcendent landscape that the Flemish Primitives used to situate the nevertheless crucial Biblical events.

Robert Piccart's landscape belongs to neither type - rather is it a reversal and sophistication of the latter. It departs from an impression that often imposes itself in many a deserted landscape: that people must have been passing here fleeing from disaster or under way to some evil undertaking; or that the now peaceful place must have been the scene of some murder or execution, if not of battles, like the now peaceful landscape of Flanders fields. In such a landscape, humans are not physically present, but rather as 'revenants', ghosts that have not found their resting place, or that may rise from death at any moment. A deserted landscape is the place par excellence where such ghosts use to dwell: the living in the inhabited world all too easily tend to forget the violence that turned them into survivors, and that, precisely therefore, is all too often relegated to the inhabited world. With Piccart, such relegation is made undone: the expelled ghosts have taken a physical shape, and thereby transform the landscape into the scene of its opposite; a 'history painting': the depiction of some important event.


It is, however, not so much the dead that are risen here, as rather killers: two groups of armed men, one in uniform and one in civil dress, standing next to corpses (detail). And they are not so much risen, as rather catapulted from other contexts into this orchard - no 'revenants', as rather displaced persons - or, more eloquently, in French: 'des dépaysés'. No doubt, their equivalents must have been active in this landscape, but that they are displaced from elsewhere to the here and now, reminds us of the fact that they are not only of all times, but also of all places. The here is turned into the everywhere, whereas, conversely, the events are removed from the context in which they have been photographed - and are thereby turned into events that could happen everywhere and whenever - so that the everywhere is also the here, an impression that is only intensified in that the soldiers are drawn from diverse conflict zones in the present world. On top of that, the 'dépaysement' only intensifies the expressiveness of the images: in that the scenes are displaced from their urban context into a deserted and desolate orchard, we come to see what they really show: how unscrupulously the killers are standing there, whipping (detail) or kicking corpses (detail). The 'dépaysement' turns out to be an excellent method of providing a universal meaning to what is only a documentary here-and-now, a method that is far more convincing than, for example, the 'mythologizing' à la Odd Nerdrum ('the eternal warrior').

And it is not all killers there in the orchard: there is also the peaceful group op children with balloons on an excursion (detail), and a pair of unsuspecting ballerinas walking in tutu (detail). Apparently, they have nothing to do with the soldiers and their victims: there is no interaction whatsoever between the groups, and they seem not even to be aware of each other's presence. That only highlights their objective relations: not only that these children have fathers and that these girls will soon marry men, but also that only the children of the victors will grow up - the others are killed or will never be begotten by the fathers that are heaped up as corpses. And also: that the life at school or in beauty is a life after or behind the fronts.


The landscape itself is not a mere backdrop to the proceedings on the foreground: structurally and contentually, it is intimately entwined with it. The sharpness of the dead branches on which mistletoe parasitises, contrasts with the strange light that tries to break through the clouds and that casts darks shadows on the trees and the grass on the right. From that shadowy zone, the horizon sinks to the right, to dissolve into the light over a meadow, to which three figures flee (detail). More in the foreground, the group of schoolchildren contrasts against the lighting background, which refers us again to the right, where the ballerinas light up against the dark background that wraps the killers in the shadow.

Next to the light-architecture, there is also the purely geometrical structuring of the whole. Read in the two dimensions of the plane, the image is articulated in twointertwined rhythmical progressions: that of the six groups of figures that are symmetrically arranged around the foot that, in the middle of the bottom side kicks a corpse, and the rhythm of the trees, that is organised on both sides of the tree that, leaning against the golden section, divides the plane in a rather light and a rather dark zone. Behind the combined rhythm of these two articulated strips, two diagonals cross each other: the strip of trees on the horizon that descends from the right to the left, balanced by the ascending transition of shadow to light.This structuring in the two dimensions of the plane is only enhanced through the intriguing structuring of space read in its three dimensions. Parallel to the plane runs a movement through the barrel of the bazooka and the gaze of the soldiers with the machine guns to the right. At right angles with this movement - albeit slightly leaning to the right - the two killers with their hands in their pockets are looking forward, whereas the man in the middle kicks backwards. And the crossing diagonals of horizon and transition from dark to light in the two-dimensional plane finds its echo in two diagonal movements that lead into the light that breaks through the clouds, and from which the first one - over which the ballerinas walk unsuspecting along the proceedings of war - departs from the right lower angle, whereas the second - over which the figures flee to the light(detail) - departs from the middle of the lower side, at right angles with the movement of the whipping figure.


To fully appreciate the merits of this image, it is worth to remind that the modern plastic arts have been very successful in avoiding one of the most important tasks of art: depicting human existence also in its political dimension. That is deplorable, not only because so many crucial political developments have been taking place during the last century, but above all because especially the handmade image is predestined to construct a synthetic image, in which complex relations can be made visible by combining representations that cannot be seen from one single perspective. The potential of such an image have only been developed to turn sense into nonsense, like with Surrealism.

This failure has much to do with the fact that the classical formula of history painting - in its glorifying as well as in its critical form - can no longer convince in our era, because there is no longer talk of a subject that could claim to represent mankind as a whole, like in the olden times of the advent of the 'world religions' and their secular heirs after the French Revolution: all contemporary economical, national or religious subjects cannot but be particular in a steadily globalising world. In expectance of the emergence of something like (the avant-garde) of a new encompassing collective subject - a human world without heathen, outlanders or human prey, the inhabitants of the world seem to deliberately have chosen to no longer understand themselves as members of a universal subject: after the relegation of the 'proletariat' to the realm of fable, the world seems to have been transformed into a playground where everybody hopes to belong to the predators, when necessary appealing to national formations of all kinds, not to mention the meanwhile somewhat provincial world religions. No wonder that especially the plastic arts have abandoned history painting in as far as it glorifies or criticises the feats of such formations, to withdraw itself in a vain ritual of (self-)negation, that only seemingly allows to uphold a semblance of universality.

Piccart's image is a first step to break that double deadlock.

In the first place, it escapes the pitfalls of the presumed visibility in the perspectival and/or documentary image. In many a history painting - already form Altdorfers 'Battle of Issus' onward - the view on the military exploits bereaves us from a view on the motives of the battle, so that history painting threatens to degenerate into a mere 'genre painting' where the conflicting parties are essentially interchangeable. Piccart rather shows us some rather trivial events from the periphery of the spectacle, events that are rather non-events, a pause, that all the more highlights the roguish indifference of the killers, that is only surpassed by the unworldly ignorance of the survivors in whose name the whole proceedings are set up.

Only as such can it become part of a more encompassing synthetic image. The killers are not confronted with their enemies, rather are they standing shoulder on shoulder with another opposite: the peaceful undertaking of culture. Only thus can the invisible made visible: the real action that is the major crime of our age - the choice for the particular, for the encapsulation that succeeds in binding the aggression internally, only to unleash in the outer world. Therewith - as already announced in the panoramic size - history painting is elevated to a higher and more contemporary level: higher, in that the attention shifts from the heroic or scorned violence to the particularism that lies at the roots of it, and more contemporary in that, from the point of view of humankind as such, it becomes all too apparent how humankind is raging here against itself.

And, precisely because this image seems so unworldly and unreal, is it the reflection of the actual Western, especially Western-European consciousness. To many Westerners, the fall of the Iron Curtain seemed to herald the end of the struggle between 'capitalism' and 'communism'. Instead, in Europe with the Balkan war, and in the United States with 9/11, entities turned out to be alive and kicking that many deemed to have disappeared forever, although they have been in a constant rise especially after the French Revolution. Because the struggle between the 'totalitarian' and the 'democratic' forces had made us blind for that seemingly unstoppable advent, the killers on Piccart's image are 'revenants' indeed, at which most of us look somewhat orphaned and paralysed.

Rather than glorifying or criticising from some particular point of view, this image confronts us with a poignant question: whether what it shows is 'sublime' in the sense of belonging to the nature of the beast - so that nothing is left but to make sure that we will belong to the survivors, or whether, rather conversely, it is the repugnance for what shocks us in this image that is the 'sublime' - our true nature, that threatens to succumb under the weight or our less respectable - all too human - propensities.

© Stefan Beyst, June 2012

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