For many people the best British landscape painter working today is Kurt Jackson. Certainly the combination of critical acclaim and commercial success he has received points to an appreciation that is widespread and deep. It’s not hard to understand his appeal: looking at his striking panoramas of the Cornwall he calls home, especially where the land meets the sea, you can see he has done something new.
It wouldn’t be true to say he has reinvented landscape painting but he has certainly reimagined it very cleverly on his own terms. He has veered towards the abstract, which has made the paintings fit into what serious art criticism today regards as serious art, while staying just this side of the line between the abstract and the naturalistic: his seascapes and landscapes always remain recognisable as such. Yet his semi-abstract treatment often lends them a fresh and striking power all their own, as if he has eschewed detail to get straight to the heart of things.
Would Constable and Turner have approved? Maybe not the Constable of The Hay Wain but the Constable of the late, dashed-off oil sketches would, as would the Turner of the astounding, semi-impressionistic canvases such as Rain, Steam and Speed. Jackson’s achievement is to fit into a great tradition – the tradition of English landscape painting – and take it forward in a new way. And now he has turned his attention to animals.
Constable and Turner didn’t do that. They left the animals to George Stubbs. But Jackson comes from a different background to the painters of 200 years ago: he read zoology rather than fine art at university and he is concerned with all of the natural world. He has produced a new book of paintings, A Kurt Jackson Bestiary (Lund Humphries, £35), celebrating the animal world of Cornwall. It is his own version of one of those medieval compilations of beasts, imaginary as well as real, which readers in the Middle Ages brooded on for their religious and symbolic significance.
There are no unicorns or griffins here. Jackson’s beasts are all real, although his treatment of them is not always conventionally realistic. One of the most magnificent is The Big Basker, depicting a basking shark, the world’s second-largest fish and a regular visitor to the Cornish coast in summer. It is a large canvas – in life, it is four feet square – showing an immense blue-grey sea, flat and empty except that, in the far distance, a tiny black triangle breaks the surface. It is, of course, you realise with a shock, the basking shark’s enormous dorsal fin.
The shark is one of many fishes, insects, birds, mammals and other creatures that have been reimagined, as Jackson seeks out their essence. There is the vivid orange-yellow, the flesh of a pair of mussels or the gawky black tumbling of a pair of choughs riding the thermals of the cliffs above Kynance Cove or the olive-green and pink smudges that suddenly resolve themselves into elephant hawk moths.
Personally, I love it. His bestiary is another way of looking at the world and this is an ideal moment to consider it and, indeed, to contrast it; for this week the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of The Year Exhibition opens at the Natural History Museum in London, an event that, in its picturing of nature, could not be more different from Jackson’s vision.
WPY, as it is known in the jargon, takes realism to the extreme. It shows (as its own blurb justifiably claims) “the natural world’s most astonishing and challenging sights” and last year’s exhibition was, indeed, wonderful; I will never forget the hummingbirds fighting.
And if you wanted to make direct comparison between art and photography, and how each discipline captures nature in its own way, many of the pictures featured in Kurt Jackson’s book are on display until the end of this week at the Redfern Gallery in London’s Cork Street, so you can take in both. And if you miss that, the annual exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists – minus Kurt Jackson – opens at the Mall Galleries on 29 October.
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