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Essman, E. (2010). The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing by T. J. Clark New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006; 260 pp.. Fort Da, 16(1):76-85.

(2010). Fort Da, 16(1):76-85

The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing by T. J. Clark New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006; 260 pp.

Reviewed by
Eric Essman, M.A.

What is it, fundamentally, I am returning to…?

What is it I want to see again?

—T.J. Clark

Of the great European artists of the 17th century—Rembrandt, Rubens, or Velázquez, for example—the French painter Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) is perhaps the least familiar to the general public. Though admired by contemporaries, widely studied and variously interpreted by art historians, and distributed among many of the museums of the world, Poussin's work is said to be “difficult” because of its obscure subject matter, requiring “a mediator to open the eyes of the viewer” (Rosenberg, 2008, p. 5). But perhaps in part because of its obscurity as well as because of the masterful way it structures a theatricality into nature itself, the work is bizarrely seductive. Often the mediation required exceeds narrow scholarly expertise to involve a deeper psychoanalytic domain, as with paintings such as Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648), where Poussin depicts a traumatic encounter involving multiple, indirect witnessings of a horrific death in a bland, oddly tranquil setting.

Over the course of four months at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2000, art historian T. J. Clark, with acuity and a passion approaching compulsion, studied Snake along with a serene but haunting Poussin counterpart, Landscape with a Calm (1650).

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