By David Llewellyn Dodds
“Echo” — the title alone bears with it the danger of
sending someone with the right (or wrong?) sort of playful mind reeling, intoxicated, into the heights, or depths, or over the hills and far away, with thoughts of reflection, mimesis, referentiality — and who knows what-all else — and how much the more so, when one realizes that there is an “Echo II” as well. But, still! How to avoid, or at least keep at bay, such maniacally exhilarating possibilities? What if one had not yet attended to the title? (Hard as the word ‘ECHO’ is to miss, there, in the painting itself, in all its clarity!) We are, after all, talking about a painting! What would one see – even from a distance; say, on first walking into the room, and not yet paying conscious attention to that word ‘ECHO’? Dark colors, blues, less dark greens, and, by contrast, peering out from the midst of it all, a very white face, like – like what? A Green Man, or something – or someone – of the sort? Not exactly – it is not a green face, to start with, nor a leaf mask, though that veining – it is peering through something, and there is something that might be a blue flower on or in front of the right cheek; come to that, there is something flower-like about the right eye itself … The more one looks, indeed, the more fleeting flower-like suggestions one finds in form and color. What else might it be like, that face? A pierrot, perhaps? That white face, surrounded by blues and greens. And, here, another aspect of the question, “what does one see?”, and the related question, “what does one feel?”, call for attention: the language or languages – especially, the emotional language(s) – of color. What was it Kandinsky said about one of his paintings, where after a while the harsh lemon yellow becomes so painful to the eyes that they cannot hold out any longer and swerve off to seek depth and rest in the greens and blues that are also there? There is nothing so physiological at work , here. But what are these blues and greens? Are they restful? Mysterious? Is it the dark colors as well as the face itself, together with it, that convey such an overwhelming weight of sorrow?
Here, again, we are not only concerned with color but with forms, with representation, with other aspects of style. Why, or how, does a painting which is representational, but in no sense visually ‘realistic’, with its playful, even quirky collage effects, a painting that emphatically creates and reminds one of distance, why does it move one so, and (more technically) how?
Alas, I have here reached the limits of my personal critical competence, primary and secondary: I do not know, and if others have explained such things, I have not had the good fortune to talk with them or read them. I can only record that it is so. There are styles that at once create, and move (in more than one sense of that word) across, a distance, and in “Echo” we encounter one of them.
And now I have perhaps bridled my wild interpretive urges long enough and well enough to loosen the reins a bit, and turn again to details of form and color. What the face is peering through, from behind, is a peacock’s feather, the top of which is clear to see above the face, to the viewer’s right of the center of the picture. To the immediate right of the face is something scratched through upper layers of paint to echo the form of that top, and by its vivid color something of its gold as well as its green, a sort of vortex that is – like the feather itself, of course – also evocative of an eye. We have already noted the flower-like right eye, and could add that the flowerish something below it can also seem disconcertingly, surreally eye-like in turn. And what is that pale, white – but not only white – form in the upper left-hand corner? The moon? An eye? At once the moon and an eye? Looking closely now, peering into the dark of that corner, those other strokes or lines, do they suggest, another, the left, eye, a nose, and right jaw-line, so that a dark face faintly echoes the bold pale one, or the pale the dark? Or is that moon-eye more part of a face in profile than frontal, or again, frontal and profile at once? And then, much darker and still higher in the upper right-hand corner, is that not another echo-eye? Whatever it might mean, there is a rich, elusive play of echoing forms at work here. But what might it mean?
Here we may note that the title of the painting is not merely “Echo” but “Echo uit Ovidius”, Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
We are, then, among other things, concerned with not merely a mythological but also with a specifically literary reference or allusion – or dimension. We are, further, concerned, not with an illustration, at least not in the first place (though its use as an illustration – as works of Chagall have been used in an edition of the Bible – might be fitting enough), but, I would venture, with that inherently interesting kind of interaction between works of art instigated by the chronologically more recent artist, for which I have not to my knowledge encountered an established term, when one or more of the works involved is not a text, though one might (with all due reservation – and realizing how ghastly some good tastes may find it) suggest ‘interartefactuality’.
Ovid treats Echo, together with Narcissus, in Book III, in the framework of a successful answer by Tiresias, as part of that prophetic seer’s story… and so on, in Ovid’s inimitably adept fashion. (For the reader’s convenience and mine, I will draw upon the translation, as delightful as impressive, by Mary M. Innes, first published by Penguin in 1955.) The nymph Echo was loquacious, fluently, endlessly talkative, and repeatedly very consciously used this fact or talent for a specific end, to detain Juno from catching her royal husband, Jupiter, and other nymphs lying together on the mountainside. When Juno realized what Echo had been up to, she punished her by making it impossible for her to resist speaking when she heard another speak, but only then, and only by briefly repeating the last words she had heard spoken.
Echo, seeing one day the almost irresistibly attractive, but proudly aloof Narcissus, son of the river nymph Liriope and the river god Cephisus, falls in love with him on the spot but cannot use her old powers to woo him, being only able to echo what he says. When he finally calls to this mysterious voice which speaks out of the woods, “Come here, and let us meet!”, she willingly replies with “Let us meet!”, rushes forth, and tries to embrace him. He, however, flees her, crying “Away with these embraces! I would die before I would have you touch me!” Her repeating the last six of these words, is to no avail.
It is after this point of Ovid’s story that Rick van der Linden’s painting must be situated. For, in the words of Mary Innes’s translation, “Thus scorned, she concealed herself in the woods, hiding her shamed face in the shelter of the leaves”. So hiding, her love only increased by the pain of rejection, she wastes away, until “only her voice and her bones are left”, and then only her voice. The painting seems to capture and prolong a moment before it has come so far that Echo is reduced to echoing voice, a moment of her anxious, wakeful, wasting agony.
One does not need to recall, or even know, Ovid’s story in detail, to be affected by the painting. But the primary effect of the painting itself is clarified and sharpened by that knowledge. It applicability, its universality, only gain by that specificity. If one aspect of the mysteriousness of the painting is thus resolved, others are enriched. The dark colors are both related to the sheltering darkness of leaves, of woods, and lonely caves, and expressive of the dark weight of Echo’s grief. Might there also be a watery reference in the blues and greens, to that son of river god and river nymph, Narcissus? And a foreshadowing – or foreseeing – of his body’s fate, transformed into “a flower with a circle of white petals round a yellow centre”, in her flowery right eye, and the flower on her cheek? Ovid tells us that Narcissus met his strange fate, as a result of Nemesis granting the prayer (curiously described as “righteous”) of a scorned male admirer, that he might fall in love with “another” and be “unable to gain his loved one”. Seeing him waste away in his hopeless love for his own self as reflected, Echo, though still angry at his having rejected her, grieves for him in his sufferings. The painting is not simply an illustration, but the fruit of a distinctly other interaction between the later artist and the earlier work, conducing to the play of our minds between the two works contemplated. So, we can wonder, does Echo here foresee – or is she shown as directly seeing (not yet quite fades away, or somehow reappearing)? – the suffering of Narcissus, and does the agony we see spring, too (or at the moment shown, spring most of all) from a sympathetic love for him?
The painting is not simply an illustration. If the dark colors are related to the dark of woods, of leaves, it is not through leaves, from behind a branch, that Echo looks forth, but, as we have already noted, from behind a peacock’s feather. And here, another dimension of the painting’s richness, going beyond the details of Ovid’s telling of the story, presents itself. For the peacock was sacred to Juno. And indeed while the shape to the right of Echo’s face clearly recalls the top of the peacock’s feather, the whole color scheme of the painting – the blues and greens, even the palor of Echo’s face – are related to the colors of the feather, including its quill. Even the shape of Echo’s face and the composition of the painting as a whole resonate with the shape of the top of the peacock’s feather. And then, that pale, emphatic moon-shape, eye-like, in the mysterious suggestions of a face , in the upper left-hand corner – could it have something to do with the fact that Juno was, among other things, a moon-goddess? Might we here see Juno watching over the consequences of the punishment she has laid upon Echo? Echo under the eye of Juno and the peacock? Echo looks through the feather as through bars, as well as if through leaves. In the painting as object it is literally laid upon her face, adhering to her – so may it also be in what is imaged. Yet in a sense – in various senses – it gives form to her, too. There seem to be rich ambiguities or complexities here. Surrounded, barred, shaped – perhaps even overwhelmed – by the feather and its form and colors Yet also sheltered, and delicately, if strangely, made more beautiful. If one is inclined to think immediately of the pride of the peacock, it is worth recalling how it is also a symbol of transformation and rebirth, of the driving away of evil (the iridescence of the feathers was once ascribed to an ability to transform serpent venom into a sun-like substance) including spiritual evil – sometimes in a complex image where the cry of the peacock show forth a lamentation for faults seen and hated and a prayer for purification. Might we see in the painting a suffering imposed and borne enabling the sympathetic suffering of Echo with and for Narcissus?
Did Rick van der Linden consciously intend all this? I don’t know, I haven’t asked him. (Even if I had, he might, of course, have answered cryptically or playfully, and I’d be none the more certain.) Have I, then, somehow just ‘sucked all of this out of my thumb’, as the Dutch put it? Is it merely ‘eisegesis ’ (so to call it), the fine old prestidigitational art of reading something in, to draw it out again to the wonderment of all? I don’t think so, not ‘just’ or ‘merely’, anyway. That is, I do not think it simply arbitrary; I hope it is not unfitting.
The artist did in fact tell me that there were very personal elements in the coming to be of both paintings, but I stopped him from telling me more, because I wanted to brood over the paintings themselves, and the confessed interaction of at least the first with Ovid’s work of art, without running the risk of complicating things with too much knowledge. (Am I a Philistine? At least I have precluded some temptations to think I am a psychoanalyst!)
It is perhaps worth noting, though it brings me no closer to being able to say how it is done in any given case, that Ovid, too, is an artist who often seems to move one, despite many of the salient features of his style, a playfulness, a hardness, an indulgence in artifice, that create a distance – yet not a fatal one.
Having gone on at such length about “Echo uit Ovidius” from 1998, it is interesting to turn to “Echo II” from 2004. Ought it also to be disconcerting, when the later painting is so different in palette and use of forms, and in emotional effect? It has – in a sense, in common with the earlier “Echo” – a lot of green, but also brown, and a very different use of white, and here is no peacock’s feather but a leafy branch, obtruding from the frame. Here, then, Echo does certainly look out from between the leaves, and there is a basic compositional similarity, despite all the striking differences. How impressive the effect of her looking out from a considerable depth is, when one sees the painting from a distance of twelve feet or so. A closer view reveals a rich elaboration of textures and layers. The right eye of Echo is actually, at its fundamental layer, a scrap of a photograph (of Kate Bush, so Rick van der Linden informs me: I have not yet inquired why, though presumably for more reasons than the play between her surname and the boskiness of Echo’s surroundings!).
One must always guard against the progressivist prejudgements that inevitably haunt our vision of things, artistic and otherwise. A given painting may seem ‘rougher’ just because the artist is trying something new – he may even be experimenting with ‘roughness’! Even so, consciously cautious just because I know that “Echo II” was painted some six years after “Echo uit Ovidius”, I think it is fair to say it is clearly a more mature work as well as one showing more technical accomplishment. There is an easy enjoyment about it, a relaxed confidence in its playfulness, almost a bravura, that is quite fetching. (The rich, loaded, variegated brushstroke to the viewer’s lower left of Echo’s right eye, for example – something, alas, only the most detailed and masterly of photographs could hope to give a reasonable impression of .)
What may we say of the fact that compositional similarities coincide with such a difference in tone, in emotional effect? Is this Echo significantly “from Ovid’s Metamorphoses”
, too? Can we relate it to an earlier moment in the story? That of first seeing Narcissus? Or the very instant after his flight? Not yet a time of settled agony? Or is it the imagination of a much later moment, Echo long since only a voice, having grieved for the suffering of, having grieved with, Narcissus, as he was slowly consumed by love’s hidden fire, Echo herself transformed by that refining sympathetic fire, visible again?
In any case, one does not have to play favorites, but can as gratefully enjoy both these two different versions of Echo as one might two distinct harmonizations of the same chorale tune, or varying musical settings of one text. Both are paintings to which one returns with pleasure, and where new pleasures grow from such renewed attention.
Can one venture on any observations that are worth making about more general characteristics of the art of Rick van der Linden on the basis of these two paintings? I think so. Both have an immediacy of appeal and intelligibility that make clear that the works are not a sort of demonstrations, quite dependent upon, and individually less interesting than, some or other (aesthetic) theory. Here is a seriousness that is more vital than (merely) cerebral. That seriousness is strangely but successfully combined with a wacky playfulness, here most readily apparent in details of collage technique. What is that half –a-clothes’-pin doing next to the twig or branch in “Echo II”, for example? (Remnant of wood-become-useful-artefact. Yes, and…?) Or that screw in the lower left-hand corner of “Echo uit Ovidius”? A tumble of meanings of, and expressions including, the words ‘screw’ and ‘screwed’, spring unbidden to mind, most slangy, some bawdy (is it not so, dear Reader?), yet the total effect of the painting, including its seriousness, survives them all – perhaps enriched much as Macbeth
is by the Porter’s scene. Finally, that thoughtful, playful seriousness is not only concerned with (strong) emotion, with passion and suffering, but with beauty. Just yesterday, I ran into a quotation from a letter written by another contemporary Dutch artist, Rinke Nijburg, to the art historian, the Revd. Dr. Antoine Bodar, cited by him when he introduced a reading at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem, on March fifth of this year. Nijburg writes (if I may venture an unofficial translation), “presumably, our own time and our own culture and art can also bear within themselves a certain beauty, one perhaps more tragic than that of old, yet no less moving, no less beautiful”. The art of Rick van der Linden is a conscious bearer of such beauty. And that is not something one encounters every day. Both “Echo” paintings are very fine, but not uncharacteristic, examples of it.