Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Research Point : Different Artists' Depiction of Landscape (Part 1)

By reading Malcolm Andrews' book "Landscape and Western Art" and visiting several galleries over recent weeks I've been exposed to a variety or artists and their approach to Landscapes. A detailed account of all of these is beyond the scope of this research point but I have picked out a few examples of different approaches to Landscape depiction. Even doing so this has become rather cumbersome so I've chosen to divide it into two sections.

Depiction of landscape as an independent genre started to develop during the Renaissance in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Before this, tracts of landscape were the scenery surrounding the human or divine protagonists of the painting. They were either included for the symbolic value of certain landscape features or were just a good setting for the action. (A Parergon to the Argument). 

The paintings of  Albrecht Altdorfer (c.1480 - 1538) are recognised as being some of the first independent European landscapes. 

Fig.1 Albrecht Altdorfer : Landscape with a
Footbridge c. 1516
Source: Google Art Project

In the years preceding this, Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach had also produced what appeared to be independent landscapes - but the motifs from these were later used to produce woodcuts. However Durer painted numerous landscape watercolours during his first trip to Italy and became the first artist to use watercolours as a medium in its own right for landscapes rather than as a preparation sketch for an oil painting. 

Fig 2: Albrecht Durer : Little Pond House, Watercolour

The motif of the little house from this watercolour can be seen repeated in the Woodcut "The Virgin and Child with a Long-Tailed Monkey" Seen here reproduced on the British Museum's Website. Painters in the renaissance therefore would use their landscape paintings  to inform their representation of scenery in their religious/devotional paintings. Over time, however certain artists became known as specialists in Landscape and the balance of order of importance of subjects started to be upset such that landscape dominated the painting and the human or saintly subjects started to be relegated to being a smaller part of a large scene. One example of this is Joachim Patinir's 'Landscape with St Jerome' (C. 1515-1519_ (Note that Landscape becomes before St. Jerome in the title).

Fig 3: Joachim Patinir : Landscape with Saint Jerome

Patinir has created a painting of a huge tract of landscape. However, the picture still functions as a devotional painting as it does contain a narrative. There are episodes from the Saint's life story in the middle ground of the painting as well as the image of the saint in the foreground. But why are the religious figures reduced to a smaller proportion of the canvas and therefore of less relative importance during this phase in history? One theory is that as with the humanist study of science of nature and with travel expanding man's knowledge of the world that artists' sense of the size of the world and therefore their sense of the relative importance of their individual subjects was changing.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the fashion for landscape painting may have been driven by the rapid expansion in cities and the rise of commerce. City dwellers were more disconnected from the natural world and this led to the rise of 'Villa life' in Italy. The rich were purchasing country property on which to site their villas and they were after a beautiful view (as well as a refuge from episodes of plague in the city). For the first time in history, how aesthetically pleasing a tract of land was became of greater importance than its economic value as agricultural land. Villas were sited on hill tops with loggias on the  first floor to allow guests to wander around the outside (but still under cover of a roof) and admire the scenery. This change in culture such that admiring the aesthetic properties of the natural world became a more common activity allowed landscape painting to flourish. It, however, developed in different directions. In the Netherlands, the fashion was for mapping and  accurate topographical recordings of local scenery. In Southern Europe the fashion became more for idealised version of nature such as the Heroic landscapes of Nicholas Poussin and the Pastoral Landscapes of Claude Lorrain. 

Fig 3: Claes Jansz. Visscher : Plaisante Plaetsen 1608

Fig 4: Jacob van Ruisdael:
The Windmill st Wijk bij Duurstede c1670

Fig 5: Jacob van Ruisdael: View of Haarlem with
Bleaching Grounds c 1670

Fig 6: Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Man Killed by Snake

Fig 7: Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe
1650 - 1651

Fig 8: Claude Lorrain: Landscape with Hagar
and the Angel 1646-47

Fig 9: Claude Lorrain: Landscape with the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah

Comparing the above works by Dutch landscape artists with those by Lorrain and Poussin there are certain obvious differences. The two paintings by Van Ruisdael refer to specific (and real) places whereas Lorrain and Poussin's works are entitled 'Landscape with....' - they are imaginary and constructed. In fact with Poussin and Lorrain the construction of the landscapes is very similar in each picture here, with trees in the foreground and middle distance framing the 'action' in the foreground like a stage set. I will return to the construction of Lorrain's paintings in a later research point. In the Dutch paintings there are no such concessions to the construction of the compositions, they are apparently true to life. Given that the Netherlands are very flat with large tracts of open Landscape there was not much opportunity to construct pictures with framing devices in the foreground. 

The three genres above have different cultural functions. The Dutch paintings are the product of a burgeoning economy and massive expansion of the land through land reclamation. These pictures are part of the establishment of the new national identity. They proudly display the activities of commerce and land reclamation with the bleaching fields and windmills as a prominent feature. As topographical records, these paintings are like and extension of cartography. In fact, at this time in the Netherlands it would be common for maps to be displayed on walls, and these maps often had scenes from the areas they represented depicted round their perimeters. In their day, they were criticised by some as being only of interest to local inhabitants whereas the Lorrain and Poussin were lauded for their mastery.

In contrast, the Heroic and Pastoral landscapes are about escape from the city and commerce. Cities where depicted are in the far distance. These pictures tell stories and they are about escapism. Poussin's heroic landscapes are meant to create certain sensations in the viewer. They depict dramatic events and so are supposed to evoke fear or terror. They show people reacting to the apparent death of a character in the foreground and the ripples of that fear as it passes from the foreground to the middle distance. Despite Poussin's masterful painting and the fact that in 'Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe' he incorporates a thunderstorm to set the scene, I find there is something peculiarly static about these images of action. Even the thunderstorm doesn't seem to do much to disturb the landscape. Maybe that is because these days with television and films we see much more terrifying moving images from everyday life on the news?

The pastoral scenes of Claude, reflect the continued popularity of poetry such as Sannazaro's 'Arcadia' (1504) which talk of the difference between rural and urban ways of living. As Andrews describes it ' Pastoral's enduring illusion of the natural grace and innocence of rural folk'. Again to my 21st century sensibilities there is something simplistic and a bit saccharin sweet about this approach. I feel like I should prefer the veracity of the Dutch painting. The construction of Claude's scenes by comparison seems formulaic. However, there is a great sense of tranquility about these paintings and I particularly like the landscapes in which the scenes are bathed in a golden evening light. They are restful. Claude's ability to depict the effects of the light on the landscape does come from studies produced outdoors which he would have used to inform the paintings.

I've touched on paintings of Landscape and issues of National Identity with the Dutch painters of the 17th century. Now I'm going to look at Constable's 'The Hay Wain' (Landscape Noon) 1821. This is a very familiar British icon evoking the green and pleasant nature of Southern England. It depicts a rural idyll but which is a real place not an imaginary landscape. It also depicts man in  harmony with nature in this beautiful and fertile land. It depicts real people at work, not gods or players in a drama.

Fig 10: John Constable: The Hay Wain 1820

This seems straightforward enough until you realise that at the time when Constable painted this, England was in the grips of agricultural depression. Life was very hard for agricultural labourers as there was little work. This resulted in riots. In constable's painting the labourers are part of the landscape - you cannot see their facial expressions as they work.  The artist is harking back to the East Anglia he remembers from childhood and how he wants it to be again. It's a bit like propaganda for the English countryside. I've learnt a lot from my reading - previously I only saw this picture as a 'chocolate-box' image of pretty countryside.

Reference Material Used:

Lanscape and Western Art.:Oxford History of Art.  Malcolm Andrews. Oxford University Press   1999. 

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