PRINT November 1968

The Future of Landscape Painting

SURELY THE CLIMAX OF landscape painting occurred during the 19th century. It had a long preparation, going back at least as far as the landscapes of Polidoro da Caravaggio, Schiavone, Niccolo dell’Abate, Breughel and the Bassani. The neo classic landscape painters of the 17th century, including the dionysiacs Gaspar Dughet and Salva tor Rosa, had enormous influence during the 18th century, as their works were reinterpreted by the picturesque theorists. Edmund Burke, together with the picturesque theorists, established the philosophical foundation for landscape painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. In their writings, for the first time in the history of art, different kinds of compositions or arrangements of forms on the surface of the canvas and different kinds of forms in nature were associated with specific emotional states and philosophies.

Knight and Allison began the study of the associative character of our thought and experience of images which, as far as art is concerned, culminated in the painting and writing of Klee, Kandinsky and Malevich. Knight actually postulated that the only portion of our vision which was not learned and associative was the perception of color and, describing paintings based on this inherent sensation, seems to presage the most radical works of Turner and even the theoretic “realist” basis for Impressionism. The basis for new compositions in landscape painting and new pictorial attitudes and procedures developed during the 19th century was thus established in the 18th century. Burke’s “sublime,” one of the most influential ideas, was described in part as painting which continued beyond the bounds of the canvas, gave a sense of an awesome space, out of scale to the viewer, which after a momentary fright is seen as a painted illusion, allowing the viewer to identify with, rather than be in awe of, its immense scale. In this description is seen the germ of radical pictorial solutions and of the romantic emotional stance which justified them. The picturesque painters, also, and for the first time, in the works of Gilpin and Cozens, placed primary importance on the first statement of the artist; Gilpin, for the first time in the history of art, values the artist’s sketches over the finished work, and Cozens, in his drawing book on the Blottesque Method of landscape painting, suggests the development of finished, complex landscape paintings from accidental or very quick and abbreviated jottings, so that the artist’s first, best, and therefore most complete, response to the act of painting or the landscape will be reflected in the final work. In the 18th century, for the first time, landscape drawing books for the amateur and the young were produced in quantity. These, together with Gilpin’s picturesque travel series, told the young and the educated public what to look for in landscape and how to paint. Tonality,light, color and composition, change of color with distance were all discussed at length—changing the emphasis in such books from the drawing of individual forms to the pictorial context.

The emergence in the 19th century in England, France and Germany of a whole group of landscape painters who believed in the sketch, worked directly from nature, composed emphasizing the enormous scale of landscape and had a particular interest in the peasant in his setting, seen in all his irregularity and complexity, was a clear consequence of 18th century thought and practice. The culmination of landscape painting in the 19th century included an immense increase in the valuation of the artist’s brushstroke, personality, his idiosyncratic reaction to the act of painting, to nature and to his social setting. The new kinds of painting developed under new banners: naturalism, realism, plein-air painting and even social realism were all avant-garde ideas, but in all of these the experience of the artist himself and symbols for his presence became a deciding factor in the work. These included, for example, a brushstroke too large for representational utility or a figure in the foreground looking at and instructing us in how to look at the scene. In fact, the whole character of the compositional procedure, which depended on large clear shapes dividing the picture space into bands, Xs or crosses, also profoundly involved the artist’s presence, symbolizing his communion with nature.

The clearest written description of this involvement is to be found in the essay on “Parallelism,” written by Ferdinand Hodler (circa 1900) in which he describes the artist’s role as the expression of pantheistic communion with nature, an attempt to express the whole of nature as experienced through the simplest pictorial means. Thus the single tree, the single vertical, is to express the whole of the forest, and consequently the single horizontal is to express the wide stretch of the land. This spirit, that of the artist abstracting the essential form through his associative experience and direct perception of nature, was basic to the landscape painting of many earlier 19th century artists, Courbet, Caspar David Friedrich, the Macchiaioli, Corot, Rousseau and Dupre, for example. It arose among plein-air painters who we tend to think of as extreme naturalists, uninvolved in conceptualization or illustration. However, it is particularly important to realize of plein-air painting, that the idea of painting directly from nature implies a supreme valuation on the artist’s first response, and, emphasizing the importance of direct perception provides the theater within which the drama of pantheistic simplification can take place. Perceptual painting is, paradoxically, both time-bound and conceptual.

One consequence of direct perceptual painting as seen in the works of the Post-Impressionists was the elevation of the artist to the role of poet-philosopher whose every brushstroke, as well as his compositional choices, expressed an implicit world view. Particularly in Cézanne, the object loses its individual axial and volumetric integrity to take part in the newly constructed pictorial and axial integrity of the picture plane itself. It was this characteristic of Cézanne’s work which presaged the Cubist revolution. Cubism, together with the attitudes exemplified in Hodler’s essay, enabled artists to express ideas through the compositions themselves, without any literature or subject matter.

Where did these developments leave landscape painting? The best 20th-century landscape painters, Matisse, Marquet, Derain, Utrillo, Morandi, Vlaminck, Dufy, Bonnard, continued the tradition of 19th-century landscape painting, in some measure bypassing the implications of Cézanne and exaggerating the pictorial practices of Gauguin, Renoir, the late Sisley, Corot and the Impressionists. Landscape painting in their hands became, for the most part, a relatively conservative statement. Part of the justification for their work was the further reach or intensification of plastic sensibility, in most cases in relation to the perception of nature: reading a dark shadow as a bright purple, a highlight as an intense yellow or red, simplifying a shape leaving out all of the detail in order to produce a clearer, simpler pictorial structure based on the feeling and response of the artist to the canvas and to the scene he is observing. Essentially the philosophy these artists espoused can be termed Expressionist. Their sensibilities, honed to a fine edge, respond unpredictably and intensely. They become arbiters for a new and surprising experience of the painting and of nature. In their work it is impossible to forget the presence of the artist. He is the medium through which the experience comes. The painting is always a painting, no matter how convincing spatially, in terms of light, color and air. Although they are direct descendants of the 19th century landscape painters, their work is different almost in kind, in that in the 19th century it was still possible to say of a painting, “This is what nature is like,” whereas in the new artist’s work it is always evident that nature is not really being called into question; we are experiencing the artist’s nature.

The romantic personality of the artist, the artist as an arbiter of values, of taste, of social and political life, has not changed. We still need to think of ourselves as making personal, radical gestures. But the tradition which specified that this was to be found in the untrammeled exercise of the sensibility is, or will soon be, moribund. If landscape painting is to continue not as a sentimental attachment to ideas and practices of the recent past but as “painting” full-fledged, the romantic personality notwithstanding, some basic changes in attitude must occur. To begin with, the artist can remove himself one step back from the painting and paint so that the picture is legible as a world which has its own logic and in which his presence is not inescapable, a world which presents a challenge to that which we commonly hold to be around us. This requires a restudying of the earlier practices of landscape painting, conventions of perspective and atmosphere, color and light, volume and detail, all of which must not only be relearned but reformed by each artist. Within this framework distortions of the forms based on invented geometries and spatial systems, analyses of the inferred structure of objects, color seen as light of a particular character, will appear as part of the world rather than as the artist’s arbitrary statement. The paintings which result from this might be connected with metaphysical painting or Surrealism, but they will carry meaning as the kernel of landscape painting, not in the approach through the sensibility towards abstraction.

For the artist, the landscape painters of the past from Polidoro da Caravaggio through Niccolo dell’Abate to Claude Lorrain and Rosa remain to be experienced in terms quite different from those invented by the Picturesque theorists or 19th-century artists. Their choices of composition, light, spatial structure and subject matter coalesce into world views which can not only give examples for the productions of new world views but also serve as touchstones for the character of the new landscape painting. The “expressionism” of the Dionysiac, classicizing Salvator Rosa and Gaspar Dughet are of a totally different order from the Expressionism of Soutine and Schmidt-Rotluff, and hit our eyes today with a surprising freshness. The monumental classicism of Polidoro da Caravaggio, heavy yet Virgilian, similarly seems to carry poetic possibilities. The primitive literalness and clarity of the landscapes in 14th-century Italian painting, Giotto, Duccio and the later masters of the International Gothic style, betray an attitude of acceptance and delight in the objects of the external world. The detail of each leaf is valued for itself yet placed within the volume of the tree and the context of the pictorial space. These artists and the naifs, Henri Rousseau, Louis Eilshemius and Maurice Utrillo, point towards poetry in the experience of the object not as paint but as complex form.

Generations of pictorial solutions are available to us; we are not stuck with the final development of the most recent, most radical landscape painters, with its flat color and shapes related directly to the picture plane. We have Patinir’s high horizon line, the repoussoir with bands of light and dark of Claude Lorrain, the deep penetrations of space of Rubens, which move as well complexly over the surface of the painting, and many more. The artist must not only bathe himself in experience and perception of nature, he must decide for himself verbally or non-verbally both through the act of painting and through a priori ideological decisions exactly what it is he wishes to express and go about learning how to paint, color and compose so that his concept becomes a convincing sensuous experience.

The landscape painter must realize (as must the representational painter in general) that his actions and choices imply a rejection of Dialectical and Determinist art-historical theorizing: He neither joins nor denies the acknowledged mainstream, but goes about the business of gaining pictorial knowledge and expressing his experience and conception. He should recognize that there are no viable rules and boundaries to his activity, and proclaim his freedom by discovering and inventing the ones he needs to make a viable poetic statement.

In order for landscape painting to exist as an independently valid form an ambience, a conceptual framework, a philosophy or distinct social need must be present. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Picturesque theorizing, the interest in landscape architecture and the philosophies of Allison and Kant all tended to support landscape painting. In China from the time of Wang Wei through Sung and beyond, Taoist and Confucian ideals performed a similar function. It is difficult to say exactly what the current landscape painter will draw on from among recent cultural and social developments. To some degree he must act as any modern artist, choosing out of his own interests eclectically among ideas, paintings and attitudes, both ancient and recent, those which are esthetically and pictorially useful. But nothing comes from nothing. The artist who wants to paint landscape new but does not trouble himself with the meaning of landscape painting in this new context, in general and in each of its facets, and who does not re-form his painting on the basis of his thought as well as his perception, may find himself repeating an ever more and more stereotyped formula which continues but does not expand the vision of some artist or group of artists in the distant, or not so distant, past. The greatest danger here is perhaps the production of ignoble pastiches of realistic styles which were hard-won and thoughtfully achieved in their own time.

In times of strife, disorder and confusion, painting can provide, with its images and its forms, a world which holds up a mirror to this one, which is then needed even more than in times of calm and peace. The Sung landscape painter, Kuo Hsi, writing in the 11th century, began his essay, “Comments on Landscapes” as follows: “Why does a virtuous man take delight in landscapes? It is for these reasons: that in a rustic retreat he may nourish his nature; that amid the carefree play of streams and rocks he may take delight; that he may constantly meet in the country fishermen, woodcutters and hermits and see the crying of the monkeys. The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; while, on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains is what human nature seeks and yet can rarely find.” Then follows a discussion of the plight of the scholar who must leave the countryside behind, and following the call of duty become an official in the capital: “Having no access to the landscapes, the lover of forest and stream, the friend of mist and haze, enjoys them only in his dreams. How delightful then to have a landscape painted by a skilled hand! Without leaving the room, at once, he finds himself among the streams and ravines; the cries of the birds and monkeys are faintly audible to his senses; light on the hills and reflection on the water, glittering, dazzle his eyes. Does not such a scene satisfy his mind and captivate his heart? That is why the world values the true significance of the painting of mountains. If this is not recognized, and the landscapes are roughly and carelessly approached, then is it not like spoiling a magnificent view and polluting the pure wind?”

Gabriel Laderman