Autumn, from the series The Four Seasons, by David Teniers de Jonge (circa 1644)
If anyone has issues with me posting a painting that was “appropriated” by a British museum (The National Gallery) from a Flemish court painter who worked under the patronage of an Austrian archduke,
the court painter having “appropriated” scenes from the “lived experience” of peasant life while also managing to “appropriate” Dionysian tropes from the ancient Greeks (more on that later),
the ancient Greeks being a people who lived in a loose collection of city-states who “appropriated” Dionysus from earlier inhabitants of Thrace and/or Phrygia,
that is, from those same earlier Thracian/Phrygian inhabitants who in turn “appropriated” Dionysus (whom they called Sabazios) from eastern Anatolia when they sacked the remnants of the Hittite Empire in 1200 BCE,
the Hittites being a people who in turn “appropriated” from the indigenous inhabitants of Anatolia when they arrived from the Pontic-Caspian steppe sometime before 2000 BCE,
where they had (most likely) “appropriated” religious ideas from an earlier Indo-European culture or cultures that were comprised of Indo-Iranian speakers,
some of whom migrated over the Hindu Kush into the subcontinent around 1500 BCE, and absorbed (I mean “appropriated”) from the indigenous Dravidian people,
who in turn probably “appropriated” elements of their culture from a mixture of earlier Indo-European and northern and eastern African cultures,
meaning that those Indo-Iranian invaders may have also committed a second-hand “appropriation,” via the Dravidians, of some cultural elements from east Africa, a region that every human being on earth is descended from . . . .
OK, I’ve lost the trail, but if anyone objects (horrors!) that certain tropes and images evolved over millennia, through various cultures and time periods, into a 17th century work of art that is now a public domain image posted on my poor humble blog . . . well, then, they can fuck right off.
Confused yet? You should be.
The world is a messy place. Cultures are messy constructs that make it easier to talk about certain places at certain times that share some commonalities – but like all mental constructs, the closer you look, the more they fall apart at the edges, and then beyond the edges, and then inward to the center, until what you’re left with are individual human lives caught in the strokes of a cave painting, or an oral tradition that gradually gets enmeshed in an alphabet, or broken pottery and food remnants collected thousands of years after dinner ended in the long-hidden layers of a tell.
There is no way to wade into the history of any idea without finding yourself drowning in the history of all ideas. If the humanities are no longer the study of humanity – all of it – then the war on the humanities has won.
But as to Teniers de Jonge ‘s Autumn.
Here, Teniers de Jonge gives us realism in all its glory. Or rather, as much realism as allegory will hold. Autumn is rough and dirty, his girth imposes presence. The bottom half of his body, clad in brown shoes and brown breeches that shade his rippled blue stockings, emphasize the fruitless land and barely visible, empty sea.
His dirty red outer garment fails to hide his even dirtier tunic. Even the sky bears dirt, that is, shows limits. Autumn is of the earth, the material, and that wine-red shirt forces us to keep looking at the material, whatever else might be going on.
But . . . even as Autumn’s presence focuses us on the bleak severity around him, he looks away. He ignores the two peasants who study his back while pausing in their barrel-work. He ignores their two companions who are focused on their own labor. He ignores us. Not even the wine glass in his hand, the fruit of the earth, merits a glance. The glass is full but he neither offers it to us nor drinks of it himself. Instead, his shape echoes the wine bottle in his other hand, signaling that he, like the bottle, contains hidden within himself the fruit of Dionysus.
Where does Dionysus come in? The figure strides the dark, stands in shadow as the light shows dim behind him, suggesting the equinox, the time when Dionysus returns and Apollo retreats to the north. Peasant Autumn appears sober (because after all, the glass is full, the wine untouched) while nevertheless contemplating something beyond the world of the painting, something we’re not privy to, perhaps anticipating the approach of something transcendent, an almost-trance-like state. As earthy and realistic as the outward trappings of this painting are, Autumn implies something not-of-this world.
So naturally (pun intended) the painter shows Autumn as an allegory; the thing standing in for the invisible spirit of every thing. It’s what Teniers de Jonge doesn’t show us, it’s what Autumn sees outside the earthy bounds of the painting, that matters.
Realism lifting its glass to Imagination in a kind of holy communion.
Blessed Autumn. Blessed Equinox.