The hypnotic allure of landscape
Wednesday 09 February 2005
At the time I scoffed. I was really into Picasso, and Braque and all those guys, and had no time for trad artists like Constable. I felt sorry for the limited horizons of the woman, even if she was obviously a complete philistine and deserved to be exposed.
And now? Well, now, I think things must have come full circle, because when I look deep into my soul I see that it is years since I thought much about Picasso and that the exhibitions I have most enjoyed in the last couple of years have both been, not of Constable, but certainly of landscape painting from the 19th century.
One, in 2003, was America Sublime, at the Tate. This was a stunning display of huge landscapes of the newly discovered American landmass, by artists quite unknown to the British, like Bierstadt and Cropsey, Cole and Gifford. The other, in 2004, at the National, was Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy. This was a stunning display of huge landscapes of the Russian landmass, by artists quite unknown to us, like Shishkin and Levitan and Kuindzhi (this last man is quite wonderful).
And yet, for all the similarities, there were huge differences. For one thing, it was all new to the Americans. It was as if they were discovering the Garden of Eden, an unknown paradise. For the Russians, the land was just as vast, but well-known. It was Mother Russia, already populated, however sparsely. There were peasants in the fields, churches in the distance, steam boats on the misty rivers.
One painting caught my imagination. It showed a horse-drawn coach setting off down a track. Ahead is a vast wood, and the eye stretches beyond the wood to what looks like the whole of Russia in the distance, through which the coach must go before it reaches anywhere, but the driver knows exactly where he is going. It's all home territory.
In the American paintings, it's the excitement of the new that comes at you. The styles are far more melodramatic; there's lighting, storms, rainbows, sunsets,railway viaducts looking like Roman aqueducts. And suddenly it hits you. This is Hollywood on canvas! These guys are in showbiz! It is no suprise to learn that some of them took their huge canvases back to New York and displayed them like movies, behind curtains which were drawn when the audience paid and entered. Even looking at the tiny reproductions of the Niagara paintings in the catalogue, you can sense the excitement that must have seized the viewers 150 years ago.
In the Russian paintings there was no excitement, a quiet celebration at most. The more common mood was of resignation. There is a painting by Isaak Levitan called The Vladimirka Road, which shows just a dirt track ambling off into the woods, but which would have been well-known to viewers as the road down which political prisoners trudged on the start of their weary way to Siberia. In Russia there was already a history of repression of dissidence. In America that was all still to come.
Well, there you have it. I have been raving about two landscape shows which are long over. I suppose I should now be raving about the Monet, Whistler and Turner show just hitting town. Oddly enough, I have already seen it. I saw it by accident in Toronto last year, on a family visit. I even dragged my 17-year-old son to see it. He was bored stiff. All that old hat landscape stuff, Dad! It's so old-fashioned! Get modern!
One day I'll put you under hypnosis and ask you a few questions, I told him, but I don't think he caught my drift.
Life & Style blogs
Jennifer Lawrence nude pictures leaked: Reddit removes 'The Fappening' board dedicated to sharing naked pictures of celebrities
iPhone 'Wave': iOS 8 hoax claims you can charge your iPhone in the microwave - you can't
London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015: Distraction could not disguise a distinct lack of focus
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
iOS 8 HealthKit catches a major bug, forcing Apple's fitness apps to lie down and take it easy
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God
- 1 Rihanna 'nude photos' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Frank Lampard equalises for Manchester City against Chelsea: how the internet reacted
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
£24000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: 2nd line IT Support Techn...
£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...
£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...
£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a qualified science t...