Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death, by Laura Cumming

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I am a very critical reader; there are not many books that I unreservedly admire. So it is notable that when I finished reading Thunderclap, I closed the covers, turned to my wife, and said, “This is a truly lovely book”. Laura Cumming, who is art critic for The Observer newspaper, looks carefully, muses, reflects, uses her knowledge, experience, and history to reflect on paintings, the lives of painters, and the cultures in which they are embedded. Thunderclap won the non-fiction category of The Writers Prize 2024.

As with her previous books, The Vanishing Man: In pursuit of Velázquez, and On Chapel Sands: The mystery of my mother’s disappearance as a child, Thunderclap weaves together multiple narratives. The book opens with reflection on a painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London: A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, signed C. Fabritius (all the paintings she discusses in depth are well reproduced in the hardback edition). So this is to be a book about the C17 Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who we may also know was killed in an explosion that devastated Delft – hence the art and death in the book’s subtitle. But we soon learn that this is not the single narrative, not a biography, or an academic art critic’s book that would distance us from the experience of looking. Cumming throughout locates the pictures within her own life experience, leading us understand that looking at pictures necessarily evokes multiple narratives: ‘we see pictures in time and place and always in the context of our own lives’. We are introduced early in the book to some of the other narratives – Dutch art, her beloved painter father, how she learned to look at pictures. As I read, I was held by the tension in the book, waiting to learn about Fabritius’ fate, but also content to be drawn into these other narratives she weaves together so beautifully.

If you want one take-away through this weave, it is that ‘Laura Cumming shows us how to look at paintings’. It is significant that she shows rather than tells. We have already been invited to look closely at A View of Delft, and to reflect on the identity of the musical instrument maker – presumably Fabritius himself. This leads to a close look at an early self-portrait by Fabritius – she first saw a poor reproduction as a child, then the original in the National Gallery. We are invited to consider the way the paint is laid, the texture of the wall behind, how the painting conveys an image that is romantic, almost modern, and what it portrays of the man himself. Fabritius is often classed as a pupil of Rembrandt, but he developed his own artistic style, showing his subjects in a naturalistic light in contrast to the theatrical brooding of that tradition. Reflecting on the painting leads us to the beginning of Fabritius life story, his birth in 1622 in one of the worst winters the Netherlands had seen.

But we don’t stay with Fabritius. Cumming takes the hint of winter to pick up another thread in her weave to look at the Dutch tradition of paintings of snow scenes ‘polished ice beneath a rival expanse of white sky’. She walks us through A Scene on the Ice near a Town by Hendrick Avercamp, inviting us to relish both the quality of the whole and the details, reflecting on her own experience of ice and snow in her childhood Edinburgh so as to invite the reader into their own memories.

We return to learn about Fabritius with some sense of the social and artistic context of his time and the struggle of his life. Into this biographical sketch is woven accounts of Cumming family visits to the Netherlands to learn about Dutch art, and the land and cityscapes in which he worked. But we know so little about him, he lives ‘below the level of common knowledge’; Cumming tells us:

I don’t know what pictures Fabritius saw, what poetry he read… he does not leave any letters in which his voice can be heard… And I know that when you look at his first full self-portrait, you are looking into the eyes of a man who lives with the burden of such sorrow.

Through this account, never taking the direct route, she weaves a loving account of her father, in many ways a tragic figure like Fabritius. She clearly adored her father ‘I see his thinking all around me’ and lives with his teaching, ‘Seeing is everything. Looking is everything’. We stay with father long enough to appreciate his life (and return later in the book to his early death) but are soon taken off into reflections on the nature of seeing, her daughter’s and then Dr Johnson’s challenges with sight. This leads us back again to Dutch art, which we learn was scorned by Sir Joshua Reynolds when he visited. Holland. Reynolds saw it in contrast to ‘the soaring saints and goddesses of Italian painting’, as having no narrative content at all, ‘It is to the eye alone that the works of the school are addressed’. Cumming shows us how narrow-minded was Reynolds’ view; she ‘cannot get enough of Dutch art’, which she sees as ‘sacraments, or hymns to everyday existence’. She leads us into appreciations Dutch still-life painting, including works such as Still Life of Asparagus by Adriaen Coorte, writing, ‘He does not speak through these humble objects; he paints their pure uniqueness their free and concentrated presence in this world’.

UK hardback cover

And so Thunderclap continues, lightly touching here on De Hooch, there on Vermeer, back to memories of her father, to paintings of Delft, to Fabritius’ struggles with debt. She wonders why so few of his paintings survive: when a man could paint with such ‘depth and subtlety and high originality’, why were his paintings not all over the Netherlands? ‘Yet there are none… Fabritius is sunk in mystery still. Or he is sunk in sorrow’. Of course, we look at Fabritius most famous painting, The Goldfinch, which many will know of from Donna Tart’s eponymous novel. Once again, Cumming takes us beyond any superficial familiarity we may have, suggesting: ‘The beauty of the painting is in equal tension with its almost unbearable poignancy: the captive bird so enigmatic, a mortal being made apparent to us all for all time yet forever imprisoned by the chain (and the picture frame)’.

We are, at the end of the book, taken to Fabritius tragic death (among many other citizens of Delft) in what was at the time called the ‘thunderclap’. An explosion in a gunpowder arsenal destroyed a large part of the city, mortally wounding Fabritius while he was engaged in painting a portrait, killing his sitter and all the others in the house. And we now know, from recent meticulous restoration work, that The Goldfinch was there with him when he died and was somehow rescued from the ruin.

Through this, Cumming suggests, something of Fabritius’ presence can still touch us today. I wondered whether Donna Tart knew that the iconic painting survived this original thunderclap when she placed it the middle of a terrorist explosion at the New York Metropolitan Museum in the first pages of her novel. The dates suggest she could not have known, which makes for a remarkable synchronicity.

As I write this review and turn the pages, I enjoy it a second time. It takes me into the same feeling as when visiting an art gallery, looking at pictures, in conversation with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend. Whether or not you are interested art history, in painting and painters, you will be drawn in and illuminated by her writing.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: He has been regularly sitting with the River Avon and with invocation and ceremony addressing River as a community of sentient beings: “If I call to the world as sentient being, what response may I receive?” He is writing about this inquiry in a series of posts on Substack Learning How Land Speaks. His most recent publications include The Teachings of Mistle Thrush and Kingfisher,  On Presence, and On Sentience (all with artist Sarah Gillespie). His online presence is at peterreason.net, @peterreason, @peterreason.bsky.social, and peterreason.substack.com.

Laura Cumming, Thunderclap (Vintage, 2024). 978-1529922530, 320 pp., paperback.

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