Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Research Point: Different Artists' Depiction of Landscape (Part2)

In the early 18th century the public's taste for the picturesque was dictated by models of idealised landscapes from 17th century painters (see part 1 of this research point). As the 18th century wore on, before the invention of the portable camera, it became common for tourists to carry a 'claude glass' which was a small mirrored device which allowed the carrier to select a view and see a flattened image.

In the later eighteenth century, tastes began to change. The previously favoured 'ideal landscape' started to look boring and staid. The landscape had been tamed and view of different places started to look very similar to one another. This took landscape art in two different directions in search of novelty. Firstly, artists went to more wild and remote places in search of sensation and wilderness. Secondly artists sought out new ways of representing familiar landscapes.

The 17th century artist Salvator Rosa was the forerunner of the 18th century artists' preoccupation with the sublime. His landscapes were wild with dramatic scenery and weather conditions.(1)

Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness and Magic

Salvator Rosa: Landscape with a Huntsman and Warriors

Edmund Burke's "Enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful" had a profound influence on artists in Europe and North America and was a stimulus for many artists' enquiries into the sublime.

What is the sublime? its true definition is the subject of debate and it is a word which is overused in everyday vernacular to mean something fabulous or wonderful which dilutes its true meaning somewhat. Originally it was intended ti mean something of such greatness as to be overwhelming to the senses and the rational mind.  Burke says "The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other; nor by consequence, reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings and hurries us on by an irresistible force" 
Burke talks about , obscurity, darkness, vastness, magnificence and suddenness. Many of these terms are almost diametrically opposed to the qualities values in the structure and taming of landscapes by Claude and Poussin. 

Our reaction to the sublime has been described as a 'sort of delightful terror' (like a reaction to a horror film or a ride on a roller coaster). The sublime itself is actually defined as being un-representable (by Kant) but landscape artists seeking to represent the sublime have sought to do so by means of storms, avalanches, chasms and volcanic eruptions - high drama in other words.

Here are some examples of works seeking to represent the sublime:

J.M.W. Turner: The Shipwreck 1805

Phillipe Jacques de Loutherbourg: An Avalanche in the Alps 1803

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Mist 1818

Caspar David Friedrich: The Monk by the Sea 1809

The spectator in the above paintings was not involved in the action but an onlooker to the peril of others or the overwhelming of others by the vastness of the space they behold (Friedrichs' the Monk- I particularly like this painting the spareness of it and the smallness of the monk contrasted against the vastness of the sea and sky) . In Turner's later work he would also try to give the impression of the spectator's involvement in the action by altering the composition such that the viewpoint seemed to be within the action (2)(3) (See the research point on Claude Lorrain and Turner for an example of this).

A passage which I particularly like in "landscape and Western Art' by Malcolm Andrews which articulates the difference between the picturesque and the sublime is as follows:
"The Picturesque had employed a vocabulary of appropriation and transformation in negotiating its relationship with the natural world: natural materials were processed into aesthetic commodities -'landscapes'. The Sublime eludes the impulse to consume in the sense just described: it is pictorially unframeable, and it cannot be framed in words. The Sublime is that which we cannot appropriate, if only because we cannot discern any boundaries. If anything, it appropriates us. The vocabulary associated with the experience is one of surrender to a superior power- the very reverse of the Picturesque. In the act of surrender we acknowledge the feebleness of our powers of articulate expression and representation. We surrender ourselves, or at least the self that is constituted by language is dissolved."

Another way that artists tried to overwhelm the senses was to surround the viewer with the image. The artist had control over the viewer's environment by completely enclosing them in a diorama or a panorama. An example of this was Louis Daguerre's diorama of Mont St Gothard which was exhibited in 1830 which included a real Chalet and live goat. 

A further development  in landscape painting may also have developed as a result of the Kantian description of the sublime as something which cannot be represented. Jean-Francois Lyotard talked about this in relation to the avant grade art of the 20th century. (1) If something cannot be represented by the current visual language then it requires a new vocabulary. Cezanne agreed with this:

"the Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go forth to study beautiful nature. Let is try to free our minds from them. Let us strive to express ourselves according to our own personal temperaments" (1)

According to Lyotard, the work of the avant garde was associated with an aesthetic disturbance in the viewer such that even the familiar could provide an experience of the sublime:

" The art lover does not expect a simple pleasure, or derive some ethical benefit from his contact with art, but expects some intensification of his conceptual and emotional capacity, an ambivalent enjoyment. Intensity is associated with an ontological dislocation. The art-object no longer bends itself to models, but tries to present the fact that there is an unrepresentable" (1)

Among other artists, Lyotard wrote about the work of Cezanne. Cezanne is thought of as the father of modernism and was concerned with developing a new language or vocabulary of art as he indicated in the quote above. He wanted to convey sensations in paint. These could not adequately be described using traditional methods. This was a common aim with that of the impressionists (and in fact in his early days he exhibited with the impressionists). They were all concerned with representing the familiar in a different way from their predecessors. This follows from the notion that 'the sublime happens anywhere, once the film of familiarity is lifted or pierced' (1) I realise that my understanding of this is very rudimentary and this is much more complicated in terms of philosophical argument but greater depth is beyond the scope of this research point.

So in the late 1800s the work of the impressionists tended to concentrate on scenes from everyday life which included townscapes and landscapes. Their treatment of these scenes was aimed at capturing their momentary impression and being 'true to nature'. I will talk more about this in the research point about artists who worked in series with the landscape. 

Pierre Auguste Renoir : Oarsmen at Chatou 1879

Gustave Caillebotte : Paris Street Rainy Day 1877

Cezanne was even more ambitious. He wanted to convey his sensations when observing nature directly but he also wanted to turn 'Impressionism into something more solid and enduring, like  the art of the museums' (4)This is a difficult contradiction to balance and caused him some difficulty in his quest. I will return to Cezanne in the research pointy about artists who worked in series with the landscape.

My next research point however moves to a British artist who was influenced by the Impressionists in his desire to paint scenes of modern life. Namely L.S. Lowry.


(1) Landscape and Western Art. Malcolm Andrews. Oxford History of Western Art. Oxford University Press 1999

(2) Turner, Monet, Twombly Later Paintings (Exhibition Catalogue). Jeremy Lewison. Tate Publishing 2012

(3) J.M.W. Turner Sam Smiles. Tate Publishing (British Artists Series) 2000

(4)The Story of Art. E.H. Gombrich. Phaidon (reprinted 2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment