John Marin

More on John Marin's "bow" to landscapes by Jeannine Cook

I alluded in a previous entry to John Marin bowing to the landscape, and if it bowed back to him, he would then feel permitted and able to paint it.

John Marin, Hurricane, 1944. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

John Marin, Hurricane, 1944. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

I was reminded of this again while reading a fascinating book, "Beauty", by Roger Scruton which was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. Professor Scruton meticulously examines the aspects and characteristics of beauty, point by counterpoint. At one point, he writes, "My pleasure in beauty is therefore, like a gift offered to the object, which in turn is a gift offered to me... the pleasure in beauty is curious, it aims to understand its object and to value what it finds."

That is exactly the way I find myself approaching and reacting to the beautiful landscapes I see here in coastal Georgia, or in Mallorca, for instance Not only does one savour of their beauty per se, but then, as one draws or paints, it is first a quest to see carefully and understand better what one is experiencing. Somehow, one needs to "process" all this information internally, almost intuitively, and then try to transmit the results of this wordless dialogue to paper, in one's own style and idiom. Scruton goes on to talk of the fact that only humans can look at - say - a landscape in an alert, disinterested way, "so as to seize on the presented object, and take pleasure in it".

Perhaps that is one of our privileges as humans. But it is also much easier to talk or write about apprehending the gift of beauty in landscapes than actually "bowing" back to the landscape as an artist and producing a decent work of art!

More on Landscapes - Canadian Style by Jeannine Cook

A group of artists who exchanged the most wonderful John Marin-like "bows" with landscapes in the early part of the 20th century was Canada's Group of Seven. Every time I see any of their work, I am captivated all over again, because I find in these paintings a directness, an elegant truthfulness and such a celebration of Canada's natural scenery. The Seven are Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Francis Johnson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley and Arthur Lismer. Others who were associated with them but not officially of the Seven were Tom Thomson and Emily Carr.

F.H. Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921

F.H. Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921

All of them began to go out into the Canadian provinces and explore the wilderness at a time, in the very early 1900s, when artists had considered that Canadian landscapes were in essence unpaintable. Yet, they started to travel and paint, encouraging each other to do more. By 1920, they were ready to exhibit their first collective body of work under the label of the Group of Seven, and show the world just how wonderful the dialogue between artist and landscape could be in the dramatic landscapes of Canada.

 In the Northland,  Tom Thomson (Image courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

 In the Northland,  Tom Thomson (Image courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

When you see collections of these landscape artists' work, at The National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery (where there is currently a special exhibition of their work entitled "Dawn"), every landscape artist will find delight and inspiration. Many of their oil sketches are the typical small format plein air boards. A big display of these at the National Gallery is like a breath of fresh air in their directness and sensitive use of colour and form. If anyone ever doubted the importance of working plein air, time spent studying these studies/sketches would soon banish those reservations. The later, larger-format paintings are more considered and highly finished, more studied in composition and thus they lose a fraction of that headlong breathless excitement of the plein air work. But that is really cavilling... they are still wonderful, in my opinion. It is nonetheless very interesting to be able to compare outdoor sketch and finished studio painting.

Lawren Harris: Maligne Lake, Jasper Park, Oil on canvas. (Collection of the National Gallery of Canada).

Lawren Harris: Maligne Lake, Jasper Park, Oil on canvas. (Collection of the National Gallery of Canada).

These early 20th century painters embraced and understood the landscapes in which they worked - it shows. They sing easily - at least apparently - of their sense of place, and we share their celebration of the seasons and grandeur of Canadian landscapes, both intimate and majestic.

Landscapes and John Marin by Jeannine Cook

After I had been writing about the evolution of landscape painting and the attitudes towards it, I was fascinated to stumble on the following quote : "How to paint the landscape: First you make your bow to the landscape. Then you wait and if the landscape bows to you, then, and only then, can you paint the landscape." That was John Marin's observation.

From very early on, he believed in the importance and power of the visible, the need actually to see himself what he was seeking to portray as a landscape. His landscapes were amazingly individualistic and memorable. His "bows" to and from the landscape meant that he truly understood that scene and had processed it through eyes, brain and hand so that it became his own, his own version of it.

Franconia Range, White Mountains, No. 1, 1927, watercolor, graphite pencil, black chalk, John Marin (Image courtesy of the Phillipes Collection)

Franconia Range, White Mountains, No. 1, 1927, watercolor, graphite pencil, black chalk, John Marin (Image courtesy of the Phillipes Collection)

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Vincent Van Gogh talked in a similar vein about the importance of the artist knowing the landscape well enough to create art about it. He said, "One can never study nature too much and too hard." Like John Marin, his landscapes can never be confused with anyone else's - he distilled what he saw and experienced in a totally individualistic fashion to create marvels.