'A double dream of spring' — Spring in Art 4 - whynow

Through daffodils, blossoms, and the (un)earthly delights of Boticelli’s Primavera, we’ve arrived at the need for an artwork that describes the strange spring we’re in.

With a bit of grappling, here we find the answer in an unexpected place: the work that best holds the mirror up to our present moment involves some disorientating mirroring of its own.

Spring, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1622-35

Ours is a double kind of spring. At once lived and unlived, savoured and lusted after. We dream of being immersed in the world outside our windows, in pub gardens and public squares. We encounter the season, as meted out in hourly allowances. Still, we think, rather this is all happening now than in the darkening days of winter. 

For Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Spring (1622-35) is an uplifting time of communal effort. We see Flemish peasants coming together to plant seeds, ready the livestock, and twine vines to a trellis. In the distance, a group of people are dancing together. The world is as in order as those immaculately tilled and evenly-spaced gardens. It’s an image both jealous-making and strangely apt: ours is a profound collective effort, but it involves staying apart.

Spring (or The Earthly Paradise), Nicholas Poussin, 1660-64

Nicholas Poussin’s Spring (or The Earthly Paradise) (1660-64) makes an Eden of the season. But, just now, Adam and Eve look lonely in the early morning light and the shadowy forest. For the time being, Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous phrase has been inverted: Paradise is other people.

For the time being, Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous phrase has been inverted: Paradise is other people.

Conspicuous by its absence, as Eve points out the Three of Knowledge to Adam, is the serpent. Instead, we find it slithering over rocks in the horrific sublime of the companion painting Winter (or The Flood). The serpent is mysteriously doubled: absent in the space where we expect to find it, present where we might not. Meanwhile, the pathos of a family desperately trying to rescue their child, while lightning forks in the background, seems more accurately to capture the struggle of our present spring. Or not quite.

The Tempest, Giorgione, 1506-8

Uniting the pastoral of Poussin’s Spring with the turbulence of Winter is Giorgione’s The Tempest (1506-8). A painting of two (seemingly unrelated) halves. In the foreground, a woman sits on the bank by a stream with a baby held to her breast, her thigh giving the child extra cover and protection — but from what? Perhaps from the fashionably dressed young man on the opposite side of the stream, who is looking at her. Yet she appears not to notice him, gazing instead at the viewer. Between them, prominently positioned, two broken pillars — whether to suggest fortitude or death, civilisation or ruin, is unclear.

In the background, a storm gathers above a town in brooding greens and blues. A bridge divides the foreboding sky of the background from the serenity of the foreground, such that it seems the storm will never reach the two figures by the stream. The Tempest rages, but at an uncanny remove. Life here is completely still, suspended.

The Tempest rages, but at an uncanny remove. Life here is completely still, suspended.

Indeed, in the time of Covid-19, normal life has been put on hold. But in art, nowhere is normal life so suspended as in the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Nothing here is what it seems. Familiar objects and environments are made strange. Everything is eerily at a stand-still. As with The Tempest, The Double Dream of Spring (1915) depicts two apparently related but separate scenes.

On the left, a statue of a man in a frock-coat, contemplating an open sky. The painting is divided by a wooden beam reminiscent of an easel. At the base of this beam is a blueprint drawing of an interior: architectural lines, large arches, distant mountains. The feeling of being inside and outside at once — especially since the background of the sketch is the same colour as the sky. The world through windows.

The Double Dream of Spring, Giorgio de Chirico, 1915

On the right, we are above what appears to be the same landscape, looking down at far-off people and the long, noon shadows they cast. The head of a tailor’s dummy looms over the landscape like a zeppelin.

At first, The Double Dream of Spring appears somewhat lifeless, characterised by fragmentation, inanimate figures, paintings within paintings, dreams within dreams, and pervasive alienation. But at the present historical moment, I find it full of life — it describes an ambient experience of displacement, in which we all seem to be joined. It’s an image for the double spring I’m living: inside/outside, alone/together, alienated/united, dreamlike/banal.

In the great stillness of de Chirico’s ghost town, the poet John Ashbery saw the potential for movement and song. Ashbery, who was also an art critic, praised the way de Chirico enlarged ‘the artist’s space of action by changing the rules of space’.

But at the present historical moment, I find it full of life…

In Ashbery’s collection The Double Dream of Spring (1970), named after de Chirico’s, we encounter similarly mashed up geographies and receding landscapes of the mind: ‘The land had not yet risen into view: gulls had swept the grey steel towers away’. These lines from ‘The Bungalow’ exemplify how readily these poems slide into abstraction, ‘disappearing into valleys, but always on the way’. Forced to put one foot in front of the other, before we slip down a valley or the buildings are swept away, we discover space is shaped by movement.

Rather than simply ushering us into paradises or sheltering us from storms, de Chirico and Ashbery show us how disparate elements can be held together. How displacement can be the site of repatriation. How stillness can erupt with momentum. If you’re prepared to follow them, through archways and sketches for archways, you’ll find intellectual and emotional spaces open out into a balmy springtime of the present: ‘They are the same aren’t they, / The presumed landscape and the dream of home.’

Rampa  They Will Be