Every picture tells a story: How Tom Lubbock changed the way we view great art

For 14 years until his death in January, Tom Lubbock was The Independent's chief art critic. His acclaimed writing included his explorations of famous artworks. A selection is now being published as Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored. Here are four extracts...
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Boy Lighting a Candle, 1570-75

(oil on canvas, 60.5cm x 50.5cm )

El Greco

Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Imagine three short films.

Imagine a film of a kitchen sink. The cold tap is running, releasing a continuous flow of water into the sink. But when you first look at the image everything seems still. It's a calm and gleaming scene of metal and ceramic. It's only after a while that you notice the flow of water, and realise why you hadn't noticed it before. The tap is on, but only just. It emits a thin, clear, perfectly steady vertical spine of water, a liquid column that flows into the sink without any spitting or foaming or wobble or pulse, without the least variation in its appearance. You're looking at something in movement, whose movement is invisible.

Imagine a film of a man in mid-air, falling. He's plunging through space, with a cliff face behind him, and as he falls, the camera stays close with him, following him down, and the cliff keeps rushing upwards – and it seems that soon he must make impact with whatever it is, ground or water, that lies at the foot of the cliff. But no, he goes on falling, for an impossible duration, and you eventually realise, because you start to notice repetitions, that somewhere in the film there must be a seamless join. The man's descent is held in a perpetual loop, and he will never land. But hold onto the point before you realised this. You're in the middle of a process that has a limited span, and won't take long, but you can't tell how far through you are. The imminent climax is continually deferred. Any moment now... but when?

Imagine a film of a man on a bicycle. It's a stationary exercise-bicycle, and he's pedalling away for all he's worth. It is night, or anyway a place of total darkness, and all that illuminates this cyclist is a small spotlight aimed at his body. He goes on pedalling hard, and you begin to wonder what he's really doing, or what the point is of this strenuous nocturnal scene, until you perceive that, from time to time, there's some slight fluctuation in the strength of the lighting; and then you notice that there's a cable running from the light to the bicycle, and it's attached to a dynamo on the bicycle, and that the man is pedalling in order to make the light shine. His visibility, in other words, is dependent on his activity.

Now imagine these three short films turned into three still images. Each one would be curious. With movement that doesn't show, there'd be no difference between a film and a still. With an imminent, suspended climax, you wouldn't need any looping trickery, the still image by itself would put things on hold, and maintain an endless "any moment now". With the lighting generator, the subject's visibility wouldn't be – what it normally is in pictures – an assumption. It would be a contingency. You'd have a scene that implied a change of scene, where the light was out and everything was lost.

And now imagine these three effects in a single picture. Or, rather, here it is.

El Greco's Boy Lighting a Candle shows a boy blowing on an ember. It's an action that, while it lasts, can be perfectly steady and show no change. The passage of the air is invisible. The pursed lips, the glow of the ember, the hold of the hands: all these things can stay as they are for a while. It is movement without any movement to be seen, while it lasts. Of course this process can't continue for ever. His lungs will soon run out of air. Who knows how much puff is left? We can't tell, but it can't last. And when the boy's breath fails, the ember will fade too, and the whole scene, lit entirely from this light source, will revert to darkness – unless he can get the candle to catch and hold on to that light in time.

It is one of the great pictorial subjects. With its play between stillness and timing and visibility, between breath and light, it's rich in allegorical possibilities, in thoughts of life and death. At the same time it's based on a simple, natural physical event – the beautiful two-way relationship between a face and an ember. The face blows air upon the ember, causing the ember to shine back upon the face. The boy puffs himself into light. While he breathes, he is there before us.

It's painted in the most realistic style El Greco ever used, and it looks like everyday life. It was, in fact, inspired by classical example. Almost no paintings survive from ancient Greece, but many are described by the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopaedic work Natural History.

Post-Renaissance artists often tried to recreate them. El Greco painted several versions and variants of this subject. So did other artists, after him, in the following century. It's not clear, though, whether any of them realised the original idea in full. Because what Pliny describes is not just a picture, it's an installation. He talks about the artist "Antiphilus, who is praised for his Boy Blowing a Fire, and for the apartment, beautiful in itself, lit by the reflection from the fire and the light thrown on the boy's face..."

This seems to mean that the original picture was shown in a specially designed room, where it was lit only by the fire in the grate. That would really up the effect, in terms of animation and viewer-involvement. The fire's flickering glow would give an appearance of slight but real movement to the still image. It would make it look like an act of blowing was really being indefinitely sustained.

It might even make you feel (as you looked at the picture, not the fire) that it was the image itself that lit the room – which would in turn put the illumination of the room you stood in under threat of imminent blackout.

Still Life with Lobsters, 1827

(oil on canvas, 80.5cm x 106.5cm)

Eugène Delacroix

Louvre, Paris

Lobster. Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster. There is a phenomenon known to most language users: a word is repeated too often, and loses its meaning. It gets stranded and estranged, becoming a pure or empty sound. Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster. The term given to this in cognitive science is semantic satiation, or semantic saturation. That describes the cause. The effect is semantic evacuation. But it need not only afflict words. Images and things too can be evacuated of their meanings. Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster.

The lobster is strange anyway, famous for it. It's a mascot-beast of Surrealism, but long before it was surrealised, this marine arthropod was recognised as weird. It's aquatic but not remotely fishlike. It's a living creature whose surface is hard, shiny and dead as ceramic. In art it has often cut an incongruous figure. Two of them make a notably bizarre appearance in a picture painted by Eugène Delacroix, Still Life with Lobsters.

Even without the lobsters, this is a strange, borderline work. It shows a view of fields stretching to the horizon. Its main subject is a pile of lifeless eatables. In other words, the picture belongs to that hybrid genre, the landscape still-life. A group of foodstuffs is assembled, not on a kitchen table, but on the ground somewhere in open country.

The landscape still-life always surprises. It puts fruit (say) in a place normally occupied by humans or living creatures. But it's not inherently incongruous. There can be an obvious enough link between the foreground subject and its background setting – the link between goods and the land that produces them.

Delacroix's picture suggests something like that. Some dead game lies in the foreground. Red-coated riders appear in the fields beyond. A sporting scene, then? But there's a misconnection. The game in question isn't huntsmen's quarry. The birds and the rabbit have been shot. Rifle and game-bags lie amongst them. The huntsmen are in some other story.

These huntsmen in the landscape introduce a further twist to the genre. Painting traditionally ranks human over animal, and the living over the dead. But this painting directly reverses these orders. What's more, the still-life pile looks huge compared to the background. We have no way to gauge the distance between the near mound and the far plain. We have no idea how big these lifeless things are. They could be enormous.

The picture casts its still-life as if it were something much more than a bunch of equipment and small corpses. It might be a group of people sleeping, or dead human bodies on a battlefield. The tartan bag suggests clothing. The pheasant's wing, furled back so that its tip reaches the very top edge, becomes a framing device arcing over this group.

But then, for extra anomaly, there are the scarlet lobsters. They snuggle into the still-life without any explanation. They are sea creatures among terrestrial game in the heart of the countryside. They are cooked food among raw corpses. How ever did they get there? Why? And what about – a final bit of gratuitous underlining – the little lizard that wiggles across the foreground?

By this point, the picture has abandoned all connections. The relationship between its component parts goes beyond mere incongruousness or reversal (which are only another form of order). There is simply nothing between the huntsmen and the boiled lobsters. There is nothing between them and the lizard.

Delacroix takes a structuralist approach to painting and to the world. A picture has a main subject, something big up front: a person, a vase of flowers, a building, a ship. A picture has a setting: a room, a landscape, sea, a tabletop, pitch darkness. It may have framing devices. It may have a subsidiary subject, something smaller which acts as a foil to it, a role performed here by that lizard.

The structure of Still Life with Lobsters is conventional, but its contents are random. "Nature is a dictionary," Delacroix said, "one draws words from it." They become like words that have been vacated of meaning, retaining their sounds alone.

Lobsters, bags, guns, birds, rabbit, lizard: they lose their sense. These things are alienated from their creaturely lives and from human values. They become existentially null, the elements of a picture, objects, forms, reduced to their material beauties, their colours, patterns, sensations. Red crustacean lies by green reptile. Flashes of plumage echo glimpse of tartan. Soft fur rubs against hard shell and rifle stock, against leather, gun metal, thick weave.

The Child in the Meadow, (detail from morning), 1809

(oil on canvas, 152cm x 113cm)

Philipp Otto Runge

Kunsthalle, Hamburg

A work of art, or so they say, should be more than the sum of its parts. Maybe. But it is also the sum of its parts. And it is also its parts, one by one. When it comes to pictures, it may not be so obvious what the parts are. Unlike a text, a picture has no clear internal breaks. It doesn't divide up into words and sentences, lines and paragraphs. When you take a detail from a painting, its exact size and shape and edges are rather up to you. Still, pictures do often visibly come to pieces.

Just as literature has its famous quotations, painting has its famous details. Look at the postcard racks in any gallery shop, if you want to know what they are (an obvious example would be the almost-touching hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo's fresco).

Perhaps this approach seems wrong. We're taught than an artwork should be a unified and harmonious whole. It may feel frivolous or philistine to have an eye just for the good bits. But don't overlook the fact that many artists of the past weren't only trying to be harmonious etc. Just like writers, they were trying to be quotable too.

When you read traditional art criticism, you find the critics are always pointing out this or that detail as especially striking and worthy of admiration. Ever since the ancient Greek painter Timanthes, remembered for a single touch – how he portrayed the grief-stricken face of Agamemnon hidden behind a cloak – the history of art has often been a parade of telling details. And there are pictures where a detail doesn't merely catch the eye or steal the scene. It demands to be a picture all of its own.

The picture here is only a detail. It comes from Philipp Otto Runge's great project, The Times of Day. This was a painting sequence that consisted of four allegorical scenes – Morning, Day, Evening, Night – depicting a universal, elemental mythology. The images from it, as tall as altar paintings, showed earth and sky, figures, flowers and stars in geometrical compositions. Their forms and colour schemes were carefully calculated. They were to be displayed in a purpose-built sanctuary, accompanied by music and poetry.

Ars longa, vita brevis. At his early death, aged 33, Runge still hadn't completed the first picture, Morning. He suggested that the unfinished canvas should be cut up into its more or less finished parts. Later on it was. One of these pieces shows a naked baby lying on the ground. It comes from the middle of the bottom of Morning. As a fragment it was given a new title of its own, The Child in the Meadow.

It works well as a self-sufficient image. Even though the separated parts of Morning have now been stuck back together again (with some gaps between them), Runge's deathbed solution makes visible sense. Morning as a whole was composed of isolated incidents. It could easily be cut up into pieces, without cutting anything important in half. What's more, this particular fragment, partly because it is a fragment, acquires a peculiar power.

The baby: it's not Jesus, not precisely. It looks like Jesus, of course, very like him, as he appears in many Nativity scenes, lying naked on the ground, with quite a bit of space around him. The echo is plain, and plainly intended. So is the difference. This is a divine baby, yes – but non-specifically divine. It's not the virgin-born Christ-child of the Christians. It's a universal symbol of the miracle of birth. (And, unlike in many Nativities, Runge leaves the child's sex unclear.)

In other words, in the picture Runge has performed a kind of collage. The Child in the Meadow, this detail cut out from Morning, is itself like a detail cut out from a typical Nativity painting. It extracts the baby alone, removes it from its specifically Christian context and story – Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels – but holds onto its aura of divinity, its miraculousness.

In the full picture of Morning, Runge gives the extracted baby a new context. He sets it in an elaborate and rather abstract mythological scene of his own devising, with a skyful of naked symbolic figures overhead. But when you see the fragment, it's clear that the new context isn't needed either. You need no more than the detail alone: a divine baby, taken out of Christian theology, and laid in nature.

All by itself, the little scene generates an elemental drama: a drama between earth below, and sky above, and human creature in between. Lying flat on its back on the world's flat surface, the baby is emphatically grounded, under gravity. Facing and gazing straight upwards, it bathes in the morning light that falls from the sky – the sky off-picture, but strongly implied by the glow reflected on the baby's body. It opens its arms in welcome.

The new arrival is like a creature landed, fallen from the sky, an extraterrestrial materialising on an unpeopled earth. Equally, it's like a flower growing out of the fertile ground and opening to the sun. And, because the fragment is tightly cropped, the whole picture belongs to the baby. It lies there, isolated from any wider human context, in a world of its own, the first child, a small thing but wholly self-sufficient.

The cut-out detail becomes an extraordinary image of new life, of pure beginning. The child's origins are made far more miraculous than those of the virgin-born Jesus – or of any normal baby, of course, with its mother and father, its genetic history and social setting. This fragment is a radical nativity scene that corresponds to our sense that every child (even if we've made it) is also a strangely new thing, original, individual, arriving out of nowhere.

Event on the Downs, 1934

(oil on canvas, 51cm x 61cm)

Paul Nash

UK Government Art Collection

Some things are never funny, or so Henri Bergson maintained in Le Rire, his philosophical study of laughter. The natural world, for example, is inherently non-funny. 'The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable.'

It's a generalisation that invites contradiction. But the obvious counter-examples confirm Bergson's basic idea. A landscape garden could be laughable, but precisely because of the human input. A landscape painting could be laughable too, inadvertently or deliberately, for the same reason. Even a plain old bit of unmodified nature could be laughable, when in imagination we humanise it.

Nature often seems to wear something like a human face, which can also turn into a funny face. When you come across a broken tree, or a standing rock, it's common enough to see it as a kind of animate creature. Sometimes this gives the thing a solemn and mysterious presence. Sometimes the effect is funny. And sometimes there's a blend of both mystery and comedy in these transformations – and perhaps a doubt about whether you're laughing at nature, or nature is laughing at you.

Paul Nash's Event on the Downs is full of these mixed feelings. This picture is a bit funny, and a bit mysterious, and altogether a bit odd. The setting is somewhere in the south of England, but this isn't quite a landscape painting. It belongs to that small sub-genre, the landscape still-life. It is a consciously surreal image, with an incongruous juxtaposition of abruptly separate objects.

The painting has mystical suggestions, with shades of Samuel Palmer and pagan spirituality. These downs are ancient British country, long-barrow land. Just over the hill there might be a chalk figure, or a circle of standing stones. But there is also a feeling of coast and sea, with the white cliffs and the ground falling away to the right.

The scene's protagonist is inanimate. An old, gnarled, stump of tree root stands stage front. It's a characterful object, a little creaturely, and the way that it's placed and singled out make it somehow significant. And then beside it – a tennis ball! It sits there like the root's daft sidekick, an all-too-human intrusion. It pulls the scene away from deep nature and ancient henges, and into a Home Counties social world of country clubs, cocktails and dances. Though the poem was written a bit later, and set in non-pagan, non-coastal Surrey, this ball might have come bouncing in from John Betjeman's "A Subaltern's Love Song":

"Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!"

The tennis ball introduces a note of drawing-room comedy. But it's not just a joke.

What is the "event" in Event on the Downs? The picture is wide open to storytelling, sign-reading, echo-sounding: "I was walking over the fields, and suddenly in my path there was this weird tree root." Or: "I was looking for my lost ball, and there it was, sitting next to this weird tree root. It was as if it had been put there. It was as if they were sitting there together, waiting for me. It was rather spooky. I almost laughed." In a way, the picture presents a realistic situation. Nature and chance do sometimes contrive these strange meetings for us, these discoveries that feel meant – part-numinous, part-funny. And then, for good measure, the picture arranges some extra levels of resonance.

Notice the groove on the tennis ball. It falls into a perfect S, and gives the ball the form of the Chinese yin-yang symbol. It is like a winding path too, and echoes the curving Y-shaped paths that lead over the field into the distance. And how big is this ball, actually? The picture gives a very unclear sense of the scale of things. If the tennis ball was normal size, that would make the tree root tiny. But surely the tree root is not tiny. So is the tennis ball enormous? Or look at the lonely cloud, hovering above the cliff. It appears pretty rock-like itself.

Several Nash pictures of this time depict standing stones – and they're rendered in exactly the same way as this cloud is. His pictures often have moons too, white discs in a day-time or night-time sky. This picture has neither stones nor moons. But isn't the cloud really a floating megalith? Isn't the tennis ball, directly beneath it, with its crescent of shadow, really a landed moon? Haven't sky and ground just swapped places?

You can notice all these things. But noticing them won't tell you what they're supposed to add up to. Perhaps you're a visionary, having a revelation of mystical correspondences in the natural world. Or perhaps you're a member of the Famous Five, scouring the countryside for clues to a non-existent mystery.

Event on the Downs tells nothing, that's its secret. It has a perfectly sceptical view, not believing or unbelieving. It's full of hints of meaningfulness, clues and signs and connections. It lays them out pat before you, to be picked up if you wish, or to be dropped dead. It assumes that the world and the human mind are such that strange presentiments are likely to arise, but it makes no further claims, either positive or negative. Here is a curious tree-root. Here is a lost tennis ball. Here is a world around them, loaded with reverberations that could mean anything or nothing. It's a funny landscape: funny, because it leaves the viewer quite stumped.