What is Landscape – a final thought.

A trip to the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern last week triggered one more thought on the topic of what is landscape. It relates to the issue of whether images with a social or political message can be defined as landscape or should they be labelled social documentary or political images.

I have argued before that I think that such images should still be defined as landscape although there may be a case for labelling them as social or political landscape.

Seeing two particular images at the Bonnard exhibition last week at Tate Modern made me think more deeply about the issue.

The two images are A Village in Ruins Near Ham and Summer. Both were painted in 1917 during the First World War.


A Village in Ruins Near Ham by Pierre Bonnard, 1917, oil on canvas, 630 x 860 mm, Centre national des arts plastiques (France)

The painting A Village in Ruins depicts a war ravaged scene of a settlement on the River Somme. The Tate Modern display notes state that “the destruction makes the location unrecognisable”. The question this painting raises to me is whether it should be classified as landscape. Surely it must, but is it just a painter’s representation of a scene he visited, or is there a social or political message within the image? Is it even possible to say that there is no political or social message in the painting when most people’s reaction to it would be one of horror or thoughts that such destruction should never be allowed to happen again. Should images that cause such a reaction in the viewer be called social or political when they are reactions to an image displaying a landscape?

Summer by Pierre Bonnard, 1917, oil on canvas, 2600 x 3400mm, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul – France

To complicate the matter further, the image that Bonnard painted straight after A Village in Ruins was Summer. This painting couldn’t seem more different with its depiction of a lush, peaceful scene with bright light and strong colours. Most people would have little doubt in classifying it as a landscape image. But it was hung alongside A Village in Ruins for a reason, as it was the very next image to be painted after the war scene, the Tate Modern gallery notes speculate that Summer “may express a longing for peace to replace the destruction of war”. So does Summer also have a political sub-text?

Does this mean that we need to know the intention of the artist before deciding whether to classify an image as landscape or political? We cannot say for sure whether Bonnard painted A Village in Ruins as a social/political comment or whether he simply painted what he saw. How does this affect its classification as a landscape image or not. Equally would Summer be classified differently if we thought that Bonnard definitely painted it as an allegory for peace or if we viewed it as such?

Thinking through these issues has confirmed in my mind that the classification of landscape images must be very broad and incorporate those that may include social, political, environmental or other messages. Such images could also be classified as political, social etc. AS WELL as being a landscape image, but those other criteria should not stop them being called landscape. Otherwise we might have to start defining landscape by considering the intentions of the artist or the interpretations of the viewer and I think that would be likely to satisfy no one.