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Title: The Battle of Alexander at Issus
Artist: Albrecht Altdorfer
Type: oil painting on panel
A painting is a static image. It shows things all at once. It cannot represent a sequence of events. But some kinds of prolonged activity it can manage. Among “the fittest subjects for painting” are “such actions whose incidents are all along similar lines, such as a battle’ which from beginning to end presents nothing else than blood, smoke, and disorder. Now such events may well be imitated all at once’ for however long they last, they are but repetitions of the same.” At least, that’s how James Harris, the 18th-century art theorist, reasoned. And he’s right to suggest that painting likes things that move, but move constantly, without conspicuously changing their appearance – things such as running hourglasses, burning candles, spinning tops, flowing taps etc. Whether that applies to a battle is another thing. “However long they last, they are but repetitions of the same.” Harris does not sound like he’s been in one. “From beginning to end… nothing else than blood, smoke, and disorder.” He pictures a battle as a continuous roaring mêlée, a kind of Andy Capp dust-up or Western bar brawl on a more epic and lethal scale, everyone fighting everyone for hours without a break, until – what? – they’re all dead? As John Keegan pointed out in The Face of Battle, even military historians can have an unrealistic grasp of battle experience. Their bias is different. They make it much too methodical. They say this kind of thing: “The French reserve, mixing with the struggling multitude, endeavoured to restore the fight, but only augmented the irremediable disorder, and the mighty mass, giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the steep…”
Keegan calls this kind of writing the Battle Piece. Abstract forces contend. Uniform bodies of men, all apparently behaving as one man, impact on one another. Fighting is a matter of these masses advancing, colliding, barging, shaking, penetrating, overwhelming, mixing, scattering’ processes that are almost dreamlike in their lack of substantiated causation. The Battle Piece has its main eye on outcomes, who wins, who loses. It uses, Keegan observes, the abstract terms in which a commander – not the fighting man -might visualise things: “Large, intellectually manageable blocks of human beings going here or there and doing so, or failing to do so, as he directs. The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment… it will centre on the issue of personal survival, to which the commander’s win/lose system of values may be irrelevant or directly hostile.” Most battle paintings turn out to be Battle Pieces. Or you could say that the Battle Piece is itself a pictorial version of events. It views a battle as essentially a composition, albeit a mobile one, a matter of shapes and their interplay. It arranges things as a painter might do. It shows the big canvas, the overview, the grand design, the strategic picture, a symphonic sense of events unfolding. No picture does it more so than Albrecht Altdorfer’s Alexander’s Victory. It is history. The battle in question is the Battle of Issus, fought in 333BC, in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia, near what is now Isk enderun in Turkey. It was predominantly a cavalry battle, with about 20,000 mounted troops on each side. Darius had chosen a battle- field between mountain and sea that left him not enough room. The day was filled with multiple changes of manoeuvre. General rout followed.
Altdorfer does the scene modern and Alpine, not ancient and Asian. These are 15th-century armoured cavalry. But updating doesn’t mean realism. The whole fight is presented as a mass jousting pageant, but much too packed for jousting, a tournament of impossible density, in which it is hard to see how any lancing actually gets done. The picture has its eye on other things – on a sense of enormous numbers, for example. Picking out every single fighting man in the foreground, it makes you feel that this individuation continues even into the blurred crowds of the far distance’ each brigade is packed close with infinite ant-like men. And it is not Harris’s constant rolling chaos of “blood, smoke, and disorder”. It has a sense of manoeuvres, of this engagement and that engagement, of different parts of the battle, troops close-fighting, wheeling, charging. These episodes are not meant to be simultaneous, even though their sequence isn’t obvious. The picture has a sense of the whole battle, the whole day. Space signifies time. The massive vista gives you a comprehensive vision of it, all its events together which – though not meant as simultaneous – can’t help looking as if they were. It’s an all-day sky, too. It stretches between moon and sun. The sky takes up the battle. The arrayed and turbulent cloud formations are forces fighting it out. The heavens join in. It makes the battle look legendary, of historical or cosmic significance, a last battle, a battle for civilisation or the fate of the universe.
The perspective gets more and more historical. And when you get to the great placard hanging over it all, high in the sky, with its flying banners and dangling tassel, you have risen centuries above the fray. You are looking back down on it with the transcending eye of posterity, and the involvement you might have felt when paying attention to its details is now a distant memory, all a long time ago. The placard’s Latin inscription is a tally: it records the enormous numbers of dead on either side. The conflict is fought under the serene sign of history, the outcome known and announced, even as it rages. By Keegan’s standards this is far from an accurate portrait of battle. But no other picture gives such a breathtaking sense of the pathos of historical distance – the historian’s “survivor guilt”, of looking back, fascinated but uninvolved, on the furious irrecoverable battles of the past.