One looks first to the farmer. The landscape teems with life, and the farmer seems to be something of an orchestrator. While he stands a bit awkwardly on tiptoes, echoing his horse’s gait, both are pushing forward with purpose and force. The horse’s tread looks strong like it could be pulling along all the action within this frame. A shepherd looks to the sky. Sheep surround him, treading perilously close to the edge of a cliff, but they don’t seem to mind. Ships’ sails are full, suggesting movement and a destination. Someone waiting. In the distance, a town or city.
The title of this (c. 1560s) painting is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. With the title, the eye is suddenly drawn to the lower right quadrant, to the pair of legs in the middle of the ocean, kicking a protest against the sudden fall. It’s a cruel and indifferent scene, oblivious to the tragedy playing out within its frame.
In his poem about this work, WH Auden describes ‘how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster … As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green.’
When I was 18, you introduced me to this painting. You also introduced me to WH Auden’s work – until then my knowledge extended as far as that bit from Four Weddings and a Funeral – ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…’ These two things are only a small patch of what I learned from you – and that pool is a deep one. Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, grammar rules, Derrida, radical feminism, squatting culture, the power of positive thinking. Luce Irigaray, Freud, postmodernity. You always, fiercely, believed in my ability to think and speak above my weight.
This painting, though. This is so important to me. You sent me this image. You told me, ‘Icarus wanted to experience what was beautiful no matter the cost.’ This was how you told me to write, even when I wasn’t sure.
When your son told me – ‘Dad has passed away’– all of a sudden I was white legs disappearing into the green. Something pulled out from beneath me.
For years I have been writing around the edges of this painting, never quite able to express what it is about it that shakes me so deeply. Your departure has allowed me to open it up. To break it down. To understand it properly.
It’s been six weeks. The world keeps moving, wind in its sails, despite this disaster in its harbour, and it’s cruel.