The fisherman’s gaze

The other day I was exploring Eastern Europe painting with a friend. JM and I often have these purely pictorial exchanges, sending images to each other, trying to unearth lesser masters and discrete jewels of the history of fine arts. As it turned out, the second half of the nineteenth century in Russia is a painting goldmine — if you don’t insist too much on being at the avant-garde.

Anyway, I found myself looking at Polenov’s work. His academism is not entirely devoid of merit, but that’s not my point here. What caught my eye when looking at this:

Pond at Abramtsvevo (1883)

Pond at Abramtsvevo (1883)

was a kind of familiar way to look at water, to find the micro events on the surface interesting. To be drawn by a landscape as soon as there’s water in it. Suddenly it dawned on me: this guy must have been a fisherman. The places, the space he builds, strongly invite an exploration with the rod.

I’ve not pursued an investigation into his life, but a good chunk of his work fits with the hypothesis.

Old Mill (1880)

Old Mill (1880)

This is, to my knowledge, the only representation of fishing in Polenov’s paintings. It also happens to be, at least in my view, one of his best works. The phantasmagorical background is really good.

Pond at Wehle (1874)

Pond at Wehle (1874)

The mill at the source of the river Vel (1974)

The mill at the source of the river Vel (1874)

With the years, the palette grew stronger. Water is still one of the central themes.

Klyazma River. Zhukovka (1888)

Klyazma River. Zhukovka (1888)

Oka, evening (1903)

Oka, evening (1903)

Polenov won’t make it in my shortlist of painters, not even of the nature painters. Maybe I’m having one of those fits again. Maybe it’s more about me… But I’m sure any fisherman can relate to his way of looking at water. What I would call the fisherman’s gaze.

Like the knowledge that you’re going to die

Field&Stream features here one of the best short text on fly fishing I’ve read online in a while. It’s from Bill Heavey, and it’s good.

Flyfishing is like the knowledge that you’re going to die. No matter how good the party gets, it’s always there in the background to remind you what awaits: tangled line, wind knots, snagged vegetation, broken leaders, and the very real possibility that by the time you do make a decent cast, your own eyeball will be attached to the hook. I have been flyfishing on and off for 35 years, during which period I have progressed from beginner to advanced beginner. With continued practice, I fully expect to be an intermediate just three or four years following my death.

And the converse is, as it sometimes happens in life, no less true. The words of John Buchan** ring all over the internet, to the effect that the charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope. No quote gets viral like that without having at least the ring of truth to it. The astute reader will have noticed that this may not directly apply to fly fishing, but I think it does. It obviously does: for instance each time I throw a loop, I hope it won’t tail.

** Despite quite an intense search over the whole internet, I did not find the book where Buchan wrote this. If, by any chance, you know which book it is, please leave a message. The darn (Right Honourable) Scot wrote lots of books.