What is Landscape?

This seems a very basic question and is something I thought a little about in the first exercise for the course – just what is a landscape?

Researching it a little further, the Encyclopaedia of Art History – http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/genres/landscape-painting.htm – has a concise history of Landscape Art. It states that it was an established genre in Chinese art by the 4th century, but it wasn’t until after the Renaissance era that it became established in the west – prior to that it had just been a background to the main theme of the painting. “In simple terms, until the early/mid-sixteenth century, landscape was included in pictures purely as a setting for human activity”. Hall (2008) comments that “Italian Renaissance painting sometimes uses the landscape background to reinforce a moral allegory – e.g. dark clouds on one side of the painting, clear sky on the other representing good and evil.

Describing how landscape painting developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the  Encyclopaedia of Art History article includes  states “the real distinction between landscape as ornament and landscape as an autonomous genre, is not the presence of absence of human figures, but rather their size and function. When foreground figures take up most of the picture surface the landscape is mere background”. It continues “In true landscape painting, human figures – whether dispersed or foreground – exist merely to indicate scale and evoke the viewers empathy”. It goes on to describe how landscape became popular in the 19th century, becoming “a major pictorial genre for artists, patrons and collectors”. The article continues with descriptions of the Classical and Dutch schools and the influence these had on English Landscape painting. The article contrasts the work of Constable and Turner and describes developments up to the modern day with the work of Ben Nicholson and David Hockney.

Harris (2006 p175) describes how, by the 18th century, Landscape painting had become “elevated into an art form regarded as capable of conveying, symbolically, important religious beliefs, social ideologies and aesthetic values”. It became more idealised making the scene “”fit an idea of what should be shown, and how it should be shown”.

Interestingly he then goes on to describe the changes that occurred in the 20th century when landscape “became conjoined with processes of abstraction and subjective expressiveness”.He cites as an example of this Rothko’s late pink paintings as “suggestive of moonscapes” and that the flat bands of colour have been read as “symbols for Rothko’s interior ‘mental landscape’”. The painting can be seen at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/313985405244660596/

or at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/12/arts/design/in-mark-rothko-from-the-inside-out-a-son-writes-about-his-father.html

Harris (2006 p176) concludes his article with consideration of works by Jeff Wall:

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986 from 1992 and also The Storyteller from 1986.

Dead Troops Talk can be seen at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/jeff-wall/room-guide/jeff-wall-room-8

The Storyteller can be seen at  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2006.91/

Harris considers that Wall splices “a modern form of history painting with representations of ugly landscapes reminiscent of those found, for instance, in contemporary landfill sites or on the dreary suburban fringes of cities”.

My thoughts

The Encyclopaedia of Art History article was interesting and informative on the development of landscape painting. But it was the paragraph in Harris (2008) that gave me most food for thought. Would I describe a Rothko as a landscape painting, probably not (in fact I would likely have dismissed the idea out of hand before reading the article), and what about the concept of it being part of Rothko’s “interior mental landscape”? But what this does is challenge my view of what a landscape is and how it is formed.

I found the comments on Jeff Wall’s images equally stimulating, I think that The Storyteller can easily be placed within a landscape tradition, Dead Troops Talking less easily. But I find the concept of splicing “a modern form of history painting with representations of ugly landscapes” a fascinating one. Does this preclude it being described as a landscape, is it a ‘part-landscape image’, is there even such a thing.

What this has done is broaden my conception of what a landscape image can or should be. In an earlier post I described Hockney’s views on the limitations of photography for landscape work and said that I would be interested in exploring this further. This research has taken my interest in this to a new level.

HALL, J., 2008. Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. 2nd edn. Boulder: Westview Press.

HARRIS, J., 2006. Art history : the key concepts. London: Routledge.

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