When I am far away from Mallorca, remembering the brilliant sunshine and azure skies, one of the subjects that I always think of as "my next project" is the olive trees. Their feather-like silver leaves and gnarled trunks talk of endurance, elegance, lightness and in truth, the essence of the Mediterranean.
The olive, Olea europaea, is now widespread around the world as an important crop for olive fruit and olive oil, but its origins go back to some 20-40 million years ago when it was growing in what is now Italy and the eastern Mediterranean area. We know that man has been actively cultivating these trees for roughly 6000 years, because they are mentioned on ancient tablets and their pits have been found even in tombs. Olive oil is mentioned in very early cook books, particularly in Crete, where olive cultivation probably contributed hugely to the wealth of the 300 BC Minoan civilisation. Fossilised olive leaves from about the same time have also been found on nearby Thera/Santorini. No wonder the ancient Greeks used olive oil on their bodies. Olive trees have long been considered sacred, symbols of wisdom and power.
It is hardly surprising that artists have long been fascinated by olive trees. I know that personally, I keep returning to these trees, whenever I can, because their power and endurance are inspiring. Many artists have painted them, especially at the end of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, when the plein air movement was fully established and artists were frequently inspired by mighty trees. Interestingly, one of the most famed plein air artists of the late nineteenth century, Paul Cézanne , seemed to respond far more to pines and other trees, rather than olives, which he must have seen in the south of France in his area. Nonetheless, looking closely at one of his most revered landscapes, there is most likely an olive tree in the middle distance, towards the left of the painting, by the building.
Claude Monet explored olive trees' possibilities in 1884 when he spent time in the south of France at Bordighera, a pretty little town on the Italian Riviera.
Very soon afterwards, another visitor to the south was Vincent Van Gogh, and in 1888-89, he painted some fourteen canvases of these gnarled and twisted trees which perhaps echoed his state of mind while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.
Van Gogh also did at least one wonderful drawing of olive trees while he was at Saint-Rémy.
After Van Gogh came any number of artists. Even visiting American artists like Theodore Robinson fell under their charm.
Henri Matisse returned to this subject many times, trreating the trees in interestingly different fashion as time passed.
John Singer Sargent visited Corfu in 1909 and got all excited about the olive trees there, something I can readily understand as they are magnificent. The trees are allowed to grow to their natural height without pruning and the olives are allowed to drop naturally (as opposed to be harvested actively, and now, of course, mechanically) as the island's patron saint, St. Spryidon, purportedly told the islanders not to brutalise the trees in any way.
Mediterranean islands in particular seem to attract twentieth century artists. Mallorca is a case in point. There have been a number of visiting artists who have celebrated the olive trees of Mallorca.
One of the most famed artists in Mallorca was Anglada Camarassa, who settled in Pollensa and painted so many vigorous, lyrical island landscapes. The silvery olives stand out, even in his general landscapes.
And my love of olive trees? Well, when I started drawing "en serio", as the Spanish say, drawing seriously, I turned frequently to these undulating, contorted, imposing yet often squat trees that seemed so ancient. Those drawings were done in times of 35 mm. Kodachrome slides, which I have never digitised.
Now I find it equally fascinating to look far more closely and intimately at these trees, their bark, their essence their sinews.
I must admit, I am really eager to return to those wonderful Mallorcan olive trees and see how they dictate to me a drawing this time around.