Patrick Leigh Fermor (A Time of Gifts)

» July 19th, 2019

For, if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one [Holland]; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work.

I’ve been meaning to read Fermor for years and, now that I’ve given in to whatever impulse drove me to pick this book off my shelves, I’m glad I did. As an 18-year-old, Fermor, in 1933, walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople, escaping a troubled youth marked by the chronic inability to follow rules. This book is a travelogue of his salvation, published in 1977. The account is witty and insightful but also discursive in a way that allows the author to observe what he does in the quote above.

It caught me immediately, had me reaching for my pencil right away, and I’m delving a bit here into why. I think it touches on the relationship between art and reality–however we want to define those terms–in a way that reminds us of the priming power that representative art can have on a careful viewer. But this power also raises the question of whether we want to be primed, whether art serves us well by doing so, and if that’s what is subversive about art. Furthermore, we might wonder: Did the painter, when he painted the Dutch landscape, anticipate that viewers would see it elsewhere and have their expectations shaped from afar? Or was it painted to appeal to those more locally, those who already knew the landscape, intending to evoke a different sort of response? Maybe this line of questioning is too historicist, but it seems to matter.

Fermor is unfazed by my concerns. He has no trouble with the way Dutch painting, which he was exposed to in Kent as a schoolboy, shaped his vision of the actual Dutch landscape as he moved through it on foot in the winter of 1933. (Oh, a great quote, not appropo to this topic, but still: “On foot, unlike other forms of travel, it is impossible to be out of touch.”) And good for him. His lack of angst over such matters makes him good company.

But I’m going to think a bit more about the connection between art and reality. For one: Is it ever possible to see anything fresh in our image-saturated culture, one where most of what we see has been presented to us in a schlocky commercial framework? If you find this concern a legitimate one, maybe spending more time in museums, looking at art, protects us from the ongoing denigration of reality through commerce posing as art. After all, would I rather have my idea of the Dutch landscape shaped by Bruegel or a travel brochure?

Leave a Reply