'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'
Bruegel made the ploughman central:
the pattern of his lines of force
(pleats, furrows, movement) arrests us.
Icarus is incidental.
Yet what great heights he'd fallen from,
tumbling from noon to sundown down!
And now, their ardour failed, the sun
and Icarus together drown.
So be it. He is out of breath
forever, with that high kicking
comic gesture of a leg.
There is no dignity in death.
Why should the ploughman turn his head?
Whether folly or tragedy,
this fall is just another fall.
He has known it all already.
Indifferently to each his own
dream of heaven; to each his own
nightmare of sweating wax, falling.
He has a job still to be done.
Indifference is a defence.
With time he's learned a callousness
to what he cannot help. So now
his husbandry of spirit is
to bend his efforts on the soil,
working with nature where he can;
by graft, not grace, trying to
remake the garden before nightfall.
“... Two centuries ago, I would have been painting ‘Susannah
Bathing’, now I just paint ‘Women in a tub.’”*
No art was ever less spontaneous
than mine. What I do is the result of
reflection, the study – and my love -
of the great masters. Now, as my eyes
become weaker, I have to heighten colour -
amber-rose with arsenic, gold-orange
with lobelia – to find a strange
equivalence for limber flesh and squalor.
Ugly, awkward, contorted, true, my girls
strain and deport themselves as work and life
and art require them to – it is as if
they had no life but that of animals
transcended in their dance, those uncouth poses
in pastel velvet of blown roses, roses.
*The epigraph, the first tree-and-a-half lines and several phrases come from Degas’ letters. © 2018 Nicholas Bielby