Years ago while studying in Italy I had an assignment to paint a landscape over the course of a week. I dutifully packed my equipment and took a bus to some random hilly spot in Sienna. I remember sitting on the hillside, earnestly attempting an al fresco painting that lay before me. I spent hours at that spot, attempting to address and define the rows of olive trees, the variations of green and the utter beauty of it all. At the end of that day, before piling back onto a random bus to take me home to Florence, I held a confused canvas that looked neither like a landscape, nor an attempt at one – it was a giant pile of variations on the color green. And I was flummoxed.
This experience for me caused a great deal of respect for the landscape artist, or any artist who chooses even momentarily to consider the landscape. I later studied ancient Chinese art, and there the landscape painting was one of the most prestigious art forms one could do. Somehow in the West landscape was relegated to a lesser form. Which is odd considering the monumental role of landscape in the history of western art.
Readers digest version: While there was evidence of “landscape” painting in frescoes from Minoen Greece in 1500 BC, it was usually hunting scenes and river belts that were depicted. For years Jesus and all of his friends were depicted in blank spaces (usually gold), with no perspective. Enter the landscape in 1425: Masacciao’s “The Tribute Money” literally brought Jesus to earth by depicting a landscape in the background, and then offering a gorgeous perspective to then blossom in the Renaissance. Landscape painting was seminal in our western art history too – it was the foundation on which perspective would fall upon.
Pan to my office, summer 2016. Summer is a time for sitting on the grass whenever one can, staying outdoors as much as possible, swimming in the water and especially in the Pacific Northwest soaking in the greens, the blues and the beauty of it all. Hence my overview of some landscape artists. Noted I am forcing these artists into a category here, though they clearly blow it out of the water in terms of execution:
I’ve just completed Rebecca Solnit’s book on the photographer “River of Shadows”, and while it’s an evolutionary tale of how he became the seminal figure in movement studies and film, he was also an accomplished landscape photographer. Before hooking up with Leland Stanford on the horse moving studies, he had a successful career of selling photos from Yosemite and other areas in the “wild” west.
My take from these photographs is less that they are masterful and nice to look at, and more the fact of when they were taken, how they were taken and why they omitted some important details in the landscape. He made a big name for himself taking pictures of Yosemite, pictures that were specifically absent of humans. At the time Muybridge snapped his Yosemite pictures, nearby though just shy of the camera frame were a gathering of indigenous peoples looking for shelter and a stake in the land grab game going on with the US government. And yet we look upon the virgin landscape in Muybridge’s photos as if no one had ever set foot, no one had taken hundreds of years to consider and interpret the land, and no one was there dying over a misguided land tour of potential railroad sites.
So while Muybridge’s technology pushed us forward, the actual photographic residue keeps us locked in an untrue past – we see the photograph and have nostalgia, yet the image is as contrived as the latest celebrity photoshop scandal. There is less truth in those images than we care to uncover.
In 2010 David Hockney visited the Yosemite Valley with his iPad and supposedly sketched with his iPad while in situ at Yosemite. I’ve seen the images, and I’ve been to Yosemite, and I’m assuming he had a ranger take him off path, otherwise I can’t imagine he was “sketching” on his iPad with the throngs of visitors there. If he was, bravo!
With David Hockney and landscape, it’s less about accuracy and more about how we see it – how we are looking at the landscape, looking with a capital “L”. Hence his embracing the iPad as a medium. It’s less about how we make the image, and more about how we are seeing it. I think he likely took a photo with the iPad and painted over it. All of the prints on display have Hockney’esque colors (the Lilly Pulizer of the palettes, and I mean that in the most happy and complimentary way).
I had the pleasure of meeting Dan in his studio recently, he lives a short distance from me and we are surrounded by beautiful mountains, rivers and ocean. While we are surrounded by a landscape that can blow your socks off, and I would never attempt to paint it, Dan creates landscapes that are a combination of his own mind/man/scapes and the very real beauty that is outside his studio walls.
His work reminds me of a combination of Francesco Clemente – an artist seeking symbols in most of their work with a tendency for the surreal in a somewhat self serving way (again with the best intentions here – Dan’s work is admittedly self reflective), and Joachim Patinir of the “world landscape” school where an element of fantasy and the imaginary were married with panoramic landscapes seen from elevated viewpoints. The viewpoint is always telling.
Besides Anna Mendieta who truly threw herself into the landscape with her “Siluetas”, I’ve found it hard to uncover a female landscape artist. While Julie Mehretu would likely not call herself this, I would venture to say that her paintings are a landscape of material information used in the service of her own mind. Basically an inside-out landscape, a mind map of sorts, or the most anti-Cartesian map ever. It’s a landscape precisely because she starts with things that exist in the landscape (architecture), then she explodes the architecture and layers it with all of the non-sequitor marks which we love and know as abstract art.
Tilda Swinton and John Berger
Lastly and not least – Tilda Swinton has recently released a project she did with John Berger and filmmakers, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth. The video is a documentary of John Berger that shows the seasons of Quincy, a town which Berger moved to after his iconoclastic rise to fame in the 70’s. Basically Berger, who taught us how to see again, moved from the hyper landscape of downtown dizzy art fun to a shockingly quiet rhythm of a town called Quincy. The film is in seasons, and each season is framed beautifully by the stunning landscape.
So the next time you are sitting on the beach, on that hike, in that field, or in the ocean, please attempt to bottle that experience, and without your iPhone I dare you to go home and replicate that gorgeous moment. Send me a picture if you do!
peace & landscapes – CTagged: Dan Attoe, David Hockney, Eadward Muybridge, John Berger, Julie Mehretu, Landscape Painting, Masaccio, MET, Metropolitan Museum of Art, painting, Peres Projects, Rebecca Solnit, Tilda Swinton, Yosemite