À Claude Rouquet
Primal symbol of rebellion and grief
There is, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, a fresco by Giotto that depicts Christ angrily chasing the money lenders from the temple; he is portrayed in the attitude of a boxer, his right fist raised to attack the transgressors. In a letter addressed to his brother Theo, dated September 18, 1888, Vincent van Gogh writes that he has long been moved by Giotto and that he understands him better than most because Giotto was “always suffering and always full of benevolence and zeal, as though he were already living in another world.” In Christ’s raised fist Giotto has expressed Christ’s anger but also his sorrow. The wrath of the Lamb, St. Bonaventure observed, is sorrowful: the Lamb weeps for our sins even as he punishes us.
The fist is the first gesture we make with our hands. In the womb we close our fingers, once they have lost their web-like form, in a mirroring of our body curled in upon itself, our eyelids shut, seeing inwards. Only later we open up, stretching and blinking as we come into the world. But in moments of fright or passion or suffering, our body recalls the gesture and we curl up, we hunch down and close our fists again. Among the first signs our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves, tens of thousands of years ago, were the marks of open palms. We can’t tell, of course, what they were meant to signify, but we can suppose in their depiction was a shadowy memory of our earliest gestures. Making a fist is almost unknown among primates other than humans. The fist is an indication of our humanity.
The double significance of Giotto’s fist became divided in later depictions. In certain settings, the fist signals rebellion. In 1968, for instance, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Summer Olympics in Mexico to signal their protest against the human rights abuse of African-Americans; their gesture became emblematic and lent a new meaning to the long sequence of fists that, from early twentieth-century revolutionary posters to symbols of civil combat in our time, mirror the athletes’ raised fists. In certain other settings, however, the fist signifies grief.
Two months before his suicide in July 1890, Van Gogh completed a painting that he called At Eternity’s Gate, but which is also known as Old Man Grieving. The painting depicts an old, balding man sitting on a chair by the burning hearth, elbows on his knees, his face hidden in his two clenched fists. It was inspired by a popular print by the now forgotten artist Hubert von Herkomer of an old war veteran asleep in his chair, which was the basis for a painting later exhibited at the Royal Academy of London. As early as 1882, Van Gogh had made two drawings of an old man in a similar position, and wrote to his brother: “What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.” And later: “It seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high’ in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms.” Grief certainly, but also a quiet rebellious quality, an ardent melancholy of which the flames in the hearth are a kind of emblem.
The title Van Gogh gave to his painting, At Eternity’s Gate, sets the figure of the old man in a continuous timeline without end and without beginning, stretching into the time beyond his approaching death but also in the vast unfolding time behind him, stretching into the infinitely remote beginning of things. This is the time Aby Warburg called “a ghostly and symptomatic time,” outside the measured cadences of history and the regulations stipulated by historians. Giotto’s frescoes belong to the fourteenth century, the age of Dante, but for Warburg they cannot be understood without understanding the anachronistic time of the survival of ancestral images (the Nachleben of images, as he famously called it) they embody. Warburg conceived this notion of time, in the realm of artistic creation, as a chain of counterpoints or mutual responses that contaminate or influence fact and chronology, and restore perceived forms—a lit fire, a grieving old man, a fist—to their original archetypal condition. In a letter written in 1884, Van Gogh quoted the words that Herkomer had addressed to his students: “My aim is to set original forms free.” Words, too, have their Nachleben.