THIS IS THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF A SPECIAL COMMISSION FOR OUR FOOD FOR THOUGHT SERIES. FOCUSING ON EACH OF THE FOUR CLASSICAL ELEMENTS – WATER, EARTH, FIRE AND AIR – AMERICAN NOVELIST JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS PLACES OLD MASTER PAINTINGS IN THE CONTEXT OF OUR CHANGING AND THREATENED CLIMATE.
In his effort to define the ideal human form, at least as it appears on canvas, Ruskin once wrote that “the purity of flesh painting depends…on the intensity and warmth of its colour.” Lesser painters are tempted to bring bodies to life with pure lasciviousness—with that rounded, pendulous nakedness we now call Rubenesque. The “splendour of colour,” by contrast, “is in itself purifying and cleansing, like fire.” And all the more life-inducing for it.
Ipso facto, “Much may be forgiven Rubens,” a master of color in his own right.
Of all the ways Rubens profaned Ruskin’s ideal of the flesh, tainting his paintings with lasciviousness and excess, then “redeeming all by the glory of hue,” perhaps no transgression was so great or so forgivable as The Fall of the Damned, which hangs in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. It’s Oktoberfest when I arrive, and the draw of the beer tents has left me with the famous Rubens room more or less to myself. A torrent of waxy, gluttonous figures pours diagonally across the frame, striking impossible positions as they’re caught in the ready mouths of demons; an especially rotund and terrified trio (detail above) is enough to make you wonder whether Ruskin was mistaken: figure painting relies not so much on color as on energy–on a certain suggestion of kineticism.
In Europe’s conflagrating, energy-strapped present, it isn’t so easy to find fire “purifying and cleansing.” To the contrary, fire and sin are inextricable in the Western context. When Prometheus stole that single spark from Mount Olympus, he saved humanity and condemned himself. In 1937, right here in Munich, the Nazi Party damned Der Blaue Reiter collective and other pioneers in Expressionism as “degenerate” and staged a mocking exhibition; 5,000 paintings that could not be turned for Party profit were later desecrated in a mass bonfire in Berlin. (“Where one burns books one will also, in the end, burn people,” Henrich Heine wrote with terrible prescience back in 1821.) The day I arrive in Munich, the UN has dispatched a team of experts to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine, which Putin’s recent strikes have turned into a de facto nuclear weapon. Robert Frost famously summed up our accumulated apocalyptic wagers thus: “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.”
Such conceptions of sin–the conflagration of desire–have seeped into our most pressing energy debates. We’ve lived Rubenesque-ly, excessively, degenerately; we are fallen. It is tempting to frame the future in terms of sacrifice and monasticism when the world is quite literally reaping what we’ve sown. A few weeks later, Rubens still fresh in my mind, I open Die Zeit to find an environmental economist taking Germany’s uniquely climate-conscious left to task for its obsession with reducing individual “carbon footprints.” His argument: the EU-wide, cap-and-trade system nullifies a great deal of individual action, since a credit saved when I decide not to fly from Berlin can simply be bought up by heavy industry in Poland. I’m not so sure I agree. (After all, as long as we’re still emitting CO2, wouldn’t we rather use those credits more efficiently, shifting shrinking allowances from discretionary travel to, say, heating homes or producing solar panels?) I share the suspicion, however, that framing energy use in terms of virtue and vice is a dangerous game.
The original sin of climate change is coal combustion, that Promethean savior and trespass that drew billions out of poverty but released eons of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The Pinakothek’s 19th-century highlights capture this transformation with Brown Coal Mine by French painter and Nabis member Pierre Bonnard. It’s an unusual painting for Bonnard, who isn’t so easy to categorize himself. The bold experiments in color, the fleeting composition (Bonnard, who painted from memory, is often considered one of the last Impressionists), are here exported from his usual, bourgeois interiors to the mines that heated them. Two children play near the edge of the pit, which appears oddly, even dreamily, aflame. The horrifying exploitation of human labor – and especially that of women and children – in French and English coal mines was documented by novelists from Emile Zola to D. H. Lawrence. Bonnard’s presentation is more matter-of-fact: the simple juxtaposition of brown coal and green lawn is unapologetic, equanimous.
These echoes between religious and environmental conceptions of fire-and-brimstone recall the absurdist practice of contemporary German artist Thomas Bayrle, for whom combustion is a productive metaphor and an eternal return: “I see religion and technical developments existing as two sides of the same coin since Gothic times,” he said in a 2018 interview with Frieze. “The construction of the first Gothic cathedrals a thousand years ago was…the first time humans worked with ‘engines’ – full-scale ethical and technical creations.” This historical continuity underpins Bayrle’s own “compressed cathedral” sculptures, whirring, auditory works comprised of live carburetors. In Spatz von Paris, currently on view at the nearby Lenbachhaus, a carburetor’s drone harmonizes with the warble of Édith Piaf. The effect may not rise to Ruskin’s “purification,” but it offers an exit from self-flagellation. Bayrle’s 2012 dOCUMENTA (13) highlight Monstranz, a series of buzzing carburetors arranged in a dial, echoes the ornamental “monstrances” used to hold the Holy Sacraments. Each of these cathedrals-as-engines manifests quite literally Henri Bergson’s definition of the joke as the unexpected disruption of the mechanical.
Power can be stored in more ways than one: The first thing Prometheus did after gifting humans fire was to teach them so that they might challenge the gods both in beauty and in war. An hour outside of Munich, the towns of Nuremberg and Ausberg once served as the heart of European gold and silver forging; in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum’s precious metal collections, a 17th-century monstrance featuring the asserts Bavaria’s former dominance in the art. The desire ‘to show off’—”monstrance” is derived from the Latin “monstrare”—is surely one of those ‘engines’ of Bayrle’s technological development. It could just as easily be said to power capitalism, supported through the centuries by ecclesiastical commission.
It’s sin that motivated Ruskin’s preoccupation with ideal forms: How to depict a model human after the Adamite Fall? Alone in the Rubens room at the Alte Pinakothek, surrounded by so many iterations of damnation, I’m reminded why I’ve always despaired over such universal claims to the sordidness of our souls. As a child, growing up unbaptized in the heart of evangelical America, many adults tried to save mine by way of similar threats: in another of Ruben’s studies of the Final Judgment, Das Große Jüngste Gericht (1617), those to God’s left tumble toward Hell, while those to his right ascend. Those Cassandras who say we’re well en route in our own Fall of the Damned aren’t wrong, though I wish the solution were as simple as it’s depicted here: turn right for salvation. The moral schema is more complex. In an environmental politics steeped in the rhetoric of sacrifice, sin, and repentance, what do you offer the brown coal miner in Germany or Poland who is about to lose her job? Or to countries in the Global South, who struggle to achieve development goals while leaping-frogging industrialization powered by fossil fuels? These aren’t questions of virtue and vice, it strikes me, but of power: Who decides?
There’s no reason to pretend the future is secure—who knows, perhaps the world will end in ice after all—but little is to be won, I think, from treating energy reduction as a spiritual, as opposed to a political, transcendence in the public sphere. Much may be forgiven Rubens, but perhaps especially the fact that even in Hell he retained a certain cartoonishness: those red hues of desire, gluttony, lust, and shame that, radiating to the surface, make us human.❖