I spent much of last summer thinking about description. I was dissatisfied with the attention I'd given in my paintings and my pastels to describing specific things in specific places. I wanted to stop describing. To be good, a picture must capture something more than houses, trees, churches. It could be the contrast between sky and ground, land and water, smooth and rough, or better yet, some large relationship that can be sensed but not put into words.
I thought that going off to a new place might help. The Comtesse Anne de Liedekerke had invited me to lead a weeklong painting workshop for 20 people at her house in Damme, near Bruges. I'd never been to Belgium, and I didn't know what I would find there. But, in general, travel is liberating; it frees us from routine and commonplace assumptions. This is the banner under which all art should ideally march. I decided to go. It was early September when I arrived in Damme.
Day 1 Damme is a picturesque little town -and until the 15th or 16th century, it was a great port. Since then the waterway that linked Damme to the North Sea has silted up, and a large, cultivated plain separates the town from the sea. This plain is divided by long, straight canals bordered on either side by poplars planted at equal intervals. The prevailing sea winds cause these trees to lean in the same direction, so much so that anything tall and really straight looks strange. Altogether, the landscape has a manicured and geometrical quality.
Anne's house is one of the oldest in Belgium. As she unlocks the 14th-century wooden doors an elderly British couple demand to be let in, convinced that the house is a museum. It takes some doing to persuade them otherwise.
Inside, the house has been modernized; a spare elegance prevails. I am shown a room where the members of the workshop might gather, but the walls are lined with glass cases filled with artifacts, some of which date to the Stone Age. How would we hang our work on the wall so that we could talk about it as a group?Fortunately there is another large room, empty but for a 17th-century cupboard-bed of the sort seen in Pieter de Hooch paintings. It is in this room that my lessons will begin.
Day 2 We gather early. The group comprises a princess from Italy, a countess, a marchesa, and two baronesses, as well as seven untitled Americans. Some of them I know to be quite talented; all of them will, I expect, be very committed to their work. I tell them to paint something to which they cannot give a name. They walk away shaking their heads, not having understood.
We head for the garden, where we strew ourselves picturesquely about and prepare to paint the unnameable. I open my bag of pastels and work alongside the students. The sun is shining. There is discomfort in getting started, for teacher and student alike.
Day 3 The morning begins with a heavy fog. Taking into account the possibility of rain, we paint in the garden once more, keeping close to the house in case we need to run inside. Having to work in the garden is no great misfortune; an unbelievably well kept lawn dominates four marvelous acres, bordered by a 600-year-old wall. Beyond, one can see two church steeples and any number of tiled roofs, ranging in color from bright orange to dark gray-green. There are fruit trees here and there, some with ripe apples. It is impossible to stay away from description.
In the afternoon the weather clears, and we set off for the beach. Only one section of oceanfront isn't dense with resorts: a bird sanctuary called De Zwin, whose high dunes offer a view over the sandbars and the incoming tide. Here, finally, is a landscape with few "things," and our spirits expand to fill it.
The dune grass in the foreground presents a problem for the less experienced among us. They dutifully render each blade of grass with one stroke of a pastel crayon. After asking permission, I rub my fingers across the passages to create one mass of color. General amazement at the ease of transformation.
Day 4 The ringing of church bells. In the square in front of the town hall a book fair is being held, and a brass band sounds like a cross between jazz and a military march.
This afternoon, I take my students to draw and paint in a field that we share with cows, pigs, and a herd of sheep. The village, seen from the back, looks so much like a typical Pissarro landscape that it's dangerous-red roofs interspersed with gardens and fields and trees grouped around a church steeple. Remains of fortifications serve as a reminder that every inch of this soil has been fought over many times.
Day 5 It is wet out. We're near the sea, and even nice days start off foggy. But by the time we finish looking at our work together, the rain has stopped. We go to an area along a canal to try to draw "non-descriptive" -elements of the landscape. The poplars have begun to change color, from gray-green to a brownish green. It's a melancholy color-a good contrast to the saturated yellow-green of the fields and the white of the short-legged cattle that resemble oversized pigs.
In the evening, the group is invited to dinner at the castle of the Baron and Baroness van der Elst. On the living room walls hangs a cycle of paintings by Goswijn van der Weyden (the grandson of Rogier) depicting scenes from the life of the Belgian Saint Dympna. We are served an extraordinary dinner. We can't help being moved by the van der Elsts' hospitality.
Day 6 This afternoon we drive three miles down the canal to Bruges. We're having lunch with Baron Jean-Pierre de la Faille, who lives in one of the oldest houses in the city. The wallpaper is antique, and flawless; the floors and the furniture are polished to a blinding shine. Only the garden looks a bit unkempt, with the ruins of a romantic loggia at one end. We keep glancing out the window, craving a bit of imperfection.
As a group, we're impressed by the great taste and care with which everything is done, but for us Americans it is difficult to imagine living here. I suppose we're comfortable with dirt and a little chaos. Such is not the spirit of Jean-Pierre's house-it may not be the spirit of Belgium at all.
Day 7 The workshop is over. It's time to pack and clean up. As can be seen from the pastels reproduced here, I make no claim to have achieved what I came for: less description. I enjoyed the Flemish countryside too much to turn my back on those rows of poplars, on the canals, on the steep-roofed houses and the green, green lawns. I see now that to avoid description, it is best to stay at home, where one has come to know the landscape through years of exploration. Art, it seems, thrives on the familiar.
Hotel de Snippe 53 Nieuwe Gentweg, Bruges; 32-50/337-070, fax 32-50/337-662; doubles from $132. This Relais & Châteaux property was formerly the mayor's residence. The nine rooms are decorated in 18th-century style.
Groeninge Museum 12 Dijver, Bruges; 32-50/448-711, fax 32-50/448-778. Six centuries of Flemish, Dutch, and Belgian art-from Jan van Eyck to Marcel Broodthaers.