There is a really fascinating exhibition currently on display at the National Gallery in London:Painters' Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck. The seed for this show was apparently the donation to the National Gallery of Lucien Freud's Italian Woman by way of the Acceptance-in-Lieu programme after Freud's death. Its arrival prompted the Gallery to investigate how many artworks in its possession had belonged to artists down the ages. The result of this inventory is this wonderful, interesting exhibition.Read More
There has been a small but fascinating exhibition tucked into the National Gallery rooms in London. "Forest, Rocks, Torrents. Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings from the Lunde Collection" had just opened when I saw it in late June but it runs until the 18th September.
Two rooms, but expansive views of Norwegian and Swiss mountains, rivers and dramatic natural scenery that take one far away from the tourist-filled Trafalgar Square outside. It was a collection of small and beautiful paintings assembled by Asbjorn Lunde, a major art collector/lawyer from New York. Not only did this exhibition of art delight and inform, but it made me think about the role of landscape painting in national politics and national identity. This was mainly because of a fascinating and informative piece, "Two Traditions", in the catalogue written by Christopher Riopelle. Curator of post-1800 Painting at the National Gallery.
Ancient Rome celebrated its landscapes in frescoes, such as those which survived from Pompeii. However, in the Western art tradition, basically relgious motifs and classical narratives provided the major impetus for painting themes and subjects until the 17th century. At that time, the Dutch begain to celebrate their flat, luminous countryside, where the northern light and ever-present sea predominated. They had regained control of their land (and church) from the Spanish and by the 17th century, Holland was linking political identity with the Dutch landscape. In fact, the very word landscape, used in relationto painting, comes from the Dutch language, where landschap first meant a cultivated patch of land and then an image.
Jacob van Ruisdael was a major protagonist of Holland's land and wide skies in his art in the 17th century, as one can judge in this "View of Harlem", above. Much of this landscape art was produced in studio after plein air studies had first been done.
Salomon van Ruysdael specialised more in maritime scenes, but he too represented the Dutch landscape in remarkable fashion.
These and many other artists were projecting the new self-confidence of a successful maritime nation whose trading stretched across the globe and brought home great wealth. These relatively small landscape paintings were bought by the affluent burghers as part of this new national celebration.
The same phenomenon occurred in Britain in the 18th century as the landed gentry and newly-affluent townspeople started to identify with their green, gentle island whose power was spreading far abroad. There were many great landscape artists working then, and even those more famous for portraiture, such as Thomas Gainsborough, were meeting this demand for landscapes. His 1748 "Landscape in Suffolk" is one such example. In subsequent decades, John Constable and J.M.W.Turner, amongst other artists, also allowed the English to be proud of their island, its landscapes, people and history, through their paintings.
Constable painted this canvas of "Harwich Lighthouse" about 1820. His renditions of skies and clouds show the results of his many, many wonderful cloud studies and knowledge of Britain's climatic conditions.
Turner was equally attentive to light and climate as he painted, as can be judged by this astonishing canvas from 1816, "Chichester Canal". Apparently, the Indonesian volcano, Mt. Tambora, had erupted very violently in 1815, and the ash travelled around the world, causing dramatic atmospheric conditions. The 3rd Earl of Egremont commissioned the painting.
While the British, the Russians, the Swiss, the Norwegians and other Europeans were identifying increasingly with their nations, thanks in large part to artists' depictions of the natural wonders and characteristics, the Americans were doing the same. As the Hudson River School, the Romantic and Luminist schools of landscape painters developed in the United States, the paintings of the country's natural splendours helped fuel the sense of nationhood and drive towards development of the West. Even the eventual creation of National Parks was made easier by the depictions of the marvels of Yosemite and Yellowstone. Manifest destiny was implicit in much of the 19th century landscape painting in America, where discovery, exploration and settlement were all driving forces in society.
British-born American artist Thomas Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School; he introduced the beauties of the Hudson River Valley, the Catskill Mountains and upper New York/New England to an audience of appreciative fellow Americans. Second generation American landscape painters who continued to shape the political framework of America included such artists as Luminist John Frederick Kennsett. His work centered on the North East, but included work depicting the Mississippi and further afield.
Thomas Moran, meanwhile, was celebrating the wonders of the West. His depictions of Yellowstone were hugely instrumental in the National Park being created. His dramatic canvases were complemented by watercolours of many natural phenonmena, such as this 1873-74 watercolour of the "Shoshone Falls, Idaho" (image courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art).
All these landscape artists, European, Russian, American... were part of an ever-swelling political discourse about national identity and aspirations. The 18th and 19th centuries were era of great social upheavals and changes, with the Industrial Revolution shaping new societies. With increasing urbanisation, the role of landscape underwent a subtle change: it was no longer such an important defining factor in perception of nation. Artists themselves were often urban dwellers who had to make trips to the countryside to paint landscapes. The French Impressionists built on this tendancy that the previous generation of artists had begun - from Daubigny to Millet and Rousseau. Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and their companions all made trips out from Paris in their early times as artists. But they also found increasing inspiration in urban scenes - railway stations, the French boulevards, the Seine river. As the artistic trends evolved, Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Matisse and countless others began to turn away from landscape painting. There were, of course, others - Cezanne, the Fauves, Miró - who still used the vocabulary of landscape to explore the role of man in society.
Nonetheless, I can't help wondering how much the influence of urban landscapes - concrete and stone boxes and towers, streets vanishing in distant perspectives, the geometry of man's creations - overwhelmed the artistic eye as the trend accelerated towards abstraction and away from organic natural shapes and scenes. With such a different artistic vocabulary, has our societal identification of land and nation altered? Even though today's world is saturated with high definition images of amazing landscapes, do we identify with our lands in the same way as people did in previous centuries with their artists' depictions of land/nation? Do we find it easier to airbursh/Photoshop ourselves out of involvement with the landscapes we are filling up and polluting and exhausting today? Easier than when we were being shown the beauties of our lands by artists who were, in essence, pictoral ambassadors for those splendors? Indeed, basically, the majority of today's populations live in some form of urban setting, where concrete obliterates the natural world and where political perceptions have been altered by those surroundings.
Today's landscape artists have a very different role, I suspect, from the nation-building one of the Dutch artists onwards. Now, perhaps, it is almost a rearguard action or one of recording natural beauties before they disappear. However, I have grave doubts as to whether any of today's landscape artists, seldom ones who make the headlines in the art world, have much sway amongst our politicians. Perhaps it would make society better if they did?
As the years pass and an artist continues to work and create art, it is often interesting to follow the evolution of what the artist creates. Sometimes an artist is "cursed with success" at an early age and is tempted to continue producing art in the winning formula, without much incentive to try new things and push for growth.
Every great artist shows change and development during his or her career - one only has to remember Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso, to name some artists rather at random. It should be axiomatic that artists evolve in their art for as human beings, we all change and develop as the years pass. Nonetheless, some artists are more dramatic in their evolution than others.
I was reminded about these potential huge leaps and changes that artists can make when I was reading about an exhibition running until 20th March at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Entitled Bridget Riley: From Life, it is a selection of the drawings that Riley did as a student at Goldsmiths College, London, in 1949-52. Most people think of Bridget Riley's work as the vibrant, brilliantly coloured, rhythmic compositions that dance and swoop in patterns in almost strobe-like fashion. An exhibition of such paintings, energetic and elegant, is also on view until May 22nd at the National Gallery, London.
Nonetheless, the drawings shown at the Portrait Gallery remind us that she started out very much involved and passionate about drawing from life, as well as closely studying the works of great artists - Raphael, Rembrandt, Ingres, Seurat, etc. - in the print room at the British Museum. Her drawings, such as Older Woman looking down, 1950, underscore the value she places on keen observation. She catches the sense of the body in space, how the head feels as the woman tilts her head reflectively, the resigned expression in the eyes. Riley's drawing practice helped her refine her immaculate sense of structure and taught her that there is a continuity in art's concerns down the ages. Her own drawing and her study of the Old Masters, she explains, "gave me the means to embark on my own work with confidence, and to this day this particular knowledge forms the basis of everything I do in the studio." As Andrew Lambirth also remarks in an article in the 5th February edition of The Spectator, "drawing gave her the necessary exercise in looking and organising information, and the means of bringing eye, hand and mind into fruitful relationship."
It is inspiring to measure the trajectory of such an artist: the serious art student carefully observing her portrait model at Goldsmiths evolves into a richly inventive, energetically wonderful painter, creating memorable abstract art, yet still closely linked to the great painters of the past.
I was poking about on the Web to learn more about the history of frames, and for anyone who is interested, there is a wonderful website done by Paul Mitchell, an antique and reproduction frame-maker and conservator of paintings in the UK. Entitled "A short history of the Frame", it makes for concise and fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in how a frame can enhance (as well as protect) a work of art, as well as the evolution of frames.
By the same token, the changes in taste that dictate a type of frame on a painting at one point and an entirely different one at another period are wonderfully chronicled by a short paragraph about the framing over time of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece hanging in the Louvre.
It reminds me of a wonderful story told with great glee by my beloved godfather, the late Reverend Richard H. Randolph, SJ. He was standing in front of a painting in London's National Gallery one day, and turning to his companion, he remarked that he felt the frame was entirely wrong for the work of art. He then described how he would re-frame it, and as he was talking, he noticed a distinguished-looking man was standing behind him, listening intently. He thought no more of the incident until, on his next visit to the same Museum gallery, he saw that the picture in question had been re-framed – exactly as he had described! The gentleman behind him turned out to be the then-Director of the National Gallery, an attentive audience!
Not so long ago, I was writing about the different ways art could help heal people. I was therefore fascinated to read in yesterday's ArtDaily.org about a programme at Britain's National Gallery called Ageing Creatively. It is designed to involved people who may be isolated, unable to get out much and generally in need of mental stimulation and companionship, including - at present - people suffering from aphasia, difficulties in communicating in any form, a situation often brought on by suffering a stroke.
By learning ways of painting that, for instance 17th century artists used, the participants are creating art work, and then turning to more modern art to do the same sort of thing. Apparently, all these sorts of activities are hugely helpful and the art is the pathway to a lot of healing.
The National Gallery Outreach Officer, Emma Rehm, describes the many faceted Ageing Creatively programme thus: “Participatory projects which use art as their starting point bring clear benefits for people with disabilities in terms of physical stimulation, sociability, creativity and enjoyment, and this can have a positive effect on health and general well-being. Participants will be able to share their thoughts and use the National Gallery paintings as inspiration for their own work.” Newham Council’s Executive Member for Health, Councillor Clive Furness, said: “When people suffer a serious or debilitating condition, there is the fear that their useful and creative life is at an end. Projects like this enable people to discover and develop new skills, and to do so in the company of a group of friends."
I can't think of a more constructive endorsement for the role of art in daily life for everyone, no matter what the situation.
Defining yourself as an artist is really only one side of the equation in art. The other side is what each viewer brings to your art by way of life experiences which will influence that act of viewing. That mix of experience will complete the dialogue the artist started by creating a piece of art. Viewer and artist, the inseparable pair. And every dialogue will be different, which makes the whole process endlessly fascinating.
Ideally, an artist's vision will afford meanings and evocations of aspects of life far beyond the mere life-like rendering of whatever subject matter. But since each viewer's experience of life is individual, he or she will interpret the artist's work slightly differently. Often, when there is a great enough consensus about a piece of art, then it will be recognised as good art. However, as with everything else, each generation has a somewhat different set of criteria for art, based on that time, and so there are often revisions and fashions in esteem for art. As Sir Michael Levey, the late Director of Britain's National Gallery, was quoted in ArtNews (March 2009) as once remarking about the National Gallery's version of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, "It stands like a beacon of yellow fire, reminding us that outside the museum, art is always evolving – we only have to look" (my italics). Artists and viewers alike have to remember that those vital dialogues are endlessly changing and evolving as the years go by.
On a personal basis, I have found it totally fascinating to work with other artists and see the diversity in the resultant art, even when using the same subject matter. The most obvious example is when a group shares a model for life drawing: each person's drawing will be utterly different. Similar diversities will occur when those drawings are viewed, for each viewer will dialogue with each drawing in an individual fashion. Each viewer may respond to the artist's intensity, vitality and power to evoke beyond the merely descriptive, but there will be a very personal resonance for each person. And yet, even within the narrow confines of life drawing as one aspect of art, there is an implicit message. For any art to endure, it must be true to the spirit of its own age. Today, that art needs to be able to sustain a dialogue with viewers who are saturated with vivid imagery from so many sources, digital or otherwise, and whose life experiences are vastly different from those of even the previous generation. Artists, implicitly, need to dig deeper and work harder than ever before to sustain a rich dialogue with viewers. Quite a challenge!