Andrews' Chapter 4, 'Topography' and the Beau Ideal', presents two extremes of landscape style. It may be that any given depiction of place can be located on a continuum between these two extremes since in practice, as Andrews acknowledges towards the end of his discussion, 'polarities are not as sharply antithetical as they might seem and... sharp distinctions... seldom exist.' In concluding the chapter with a discussion of a magnificent painting by Rubens, Andrews gives one example of how the tensions between styles may be resolved.
On the continuum, at the extreme left as it were, is the 'mere mechanick' of the faithful presentation of particular places (not unrelated to mapping) exemplified by the Protestant Dutch, and evidenced in a painting by Ruisdael (below) and in unassuming etchings by the splendidly named 'Master of the Small Landscapes'.
I'm reminded of the modest paintings of the Norwich School (John Crome, John Sell Cotman and others) in Norwich Castle which are very much in the same tradition. Also of the minor painter Thomas Churchyard (1798 - 1865), to whom I'm related, a fact in which I take inordinate pleasure given the convoluted (though fully documented) link between us.
In contrast and on the right (as it were) are the works of Franco-Italian painters such as Claud Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Absolutely nothing modest here. Rather, these theatrical effusions, thoroughly divorced from any specific place, are packed with intellectual pretensions, pastoral lushness and overwrought emoting.
These works bear little resemblance to the real world. They're not meant to. They 'represent the poetry of landscape, the elevation of a lowly genre from mere portraiture of place to ideal models of human happiness or heroic dignity'. In this sentence it's the word 'mere' that says it all.
Before pressing into the rest of Andrews' book ('Landscape and Western Art': see previous posts) I'll briefly consider how the themes of chapters 2 and 3 connect with anything I've ever made.
In every case, in marked contrast to chapter 2's Renaissance examples, the things that I've painted present the views that they depict emphatically as 'subject'. Individually each sketch is the setting for nothing. No-one appears and ostensibly nothing is going on. The images appear to have the character of unpeopled snapshots.
However, a moment's consideration reveals that my pictures might be seen to contain subtle narrative features. Firstly, each painting takes at least a couple of hours to produce, during which time things hardly remain static. The view alters with shifting light and changing weather so the finished paintings necessarily hint at the story of their creation, pointing to the choices and selections required for their production. Secondly, when seen as a series, a story of change over time is appparent, principally the story of seasonal change. This feature is reinforced by the knowledge that almost all the images are of the same small patch of countryside. Finally, the collection of paintings as a whole could be understood to contain the story of my involvement with this bit of the world, the bit where I happen to live. The choice to focus on this unexceptional stretch of river, and latterly the estate I walk through to reach it, is not arbitrary. I depict it precisely because it's where my life goes on. I don't think I'm particularly interested in recording attractive views per se, more in trapping the fugitive experience of being here and of making myself look with more than a passing glance at where I happen to be. That intention, I think, has some narrative content, even if the paintings themselves show it only obliquely.
Of course, I have no need to encounter this landscape at all. Involvement with it is a choice. I visit it voluntarily and for a reason, namely - surely the reason why anyone wanders into the countryside from the town - because it is a 'pleasant place'. The theme of Andrews' chapter 3, of seeking refreshment in landscapes, helps explain my presence in, and subsequent depiction of, fields and trees and skies. This motivation less obviously accords with my attempts to record the houses and streets close to home, but even then I believe I'm trying to hold on to the generative experience of being out and not in, of having time to walk and not work.
Malcolm Andrews' second and third chapters (from 'Landscape and Western Art', see previous post) are 'Subject or Setting?' and 'Landscape as Amenity'. The notes I've made lurch from a quote taken from page 10 to another from page 78, missing out both of these chapters completely. I guess I found little to chime with my specific interest. However, that's not to say that I learnt little.
Chapter 2 is subtitled 'Landscape and Renaissance Painting' and provides a description of how landscape elements crept incrementally into pre-existing images of religious, historical or mythological subjects. The answer to the question of the chapter's title ('Subject or Setting?) was for a long time unequivocally 'setting': at this early stage landscape was peripheral, ornamental, a lowly adjunct (parergon) to the principal content of a painting (its 'proper' subject or Argument). Andrews presents an extended study of a single subject, Saint Jerome in the desert, to illustrate how landscape functioned in its subservient role and how, later, it gained a great weight of intricate allegorical symbolism to convey meaning.
Chapter 3 explores how landscape (real and pictorial) came to serve as a 'pleasant place' (locus amoenus) in which to find spiritual refreshment. Links between representations of nature and Renaissance gardens underscore how landscape 'for landscape's sake' came to dominate over a previously narrative function. The chapter ends with a survey of later developments of the Enlightenment thinking born of the Renaissance mixture of 'literary pastoral, landscape painting, gardening, the locus amoenus' etc.
I want to figure out how 'landscape' might find a place in contemporary art practice. That's a bit overblown. More modestly, I'd like to see if what I've done so far (mostly depict places) could develop into something a bit more aware of contemporary work.
To help, I'm reading Malcolm Andrews' 'Landscape and Western Art'. He's not filling me with great confidence, declaring, as he does at the end of his very first chapter: 'As a phase in the cultural life of the West, landscape may already be over.'
Never mind. I'll press on...
Andrews' chapter 1 is 'Land into Landscape'. He's at pains to explain the basic insight that 'landscape' is a culturally-situated, created thing from the very start:
'A 'landscape'... is already 'artifice before it has become the subject of a work of art. Even when we simply look we are already shaping and interpreting...'
'...land rather than landscape is the raw material... The process might... be formulated as twofold: land into landscape; landscape into art.'
'...landscape (is) an idea and... an experience in which we are creatively involved... (It) tells us, or asks us to think about, where we belong.'
'...as a perceived revision of the natural world (it) is reconstructed to correspond to human needs...'
How do these insights square with my several years of naively recording the stretch of countryside on the edge of the town where I live?