Rupturing the Surfaces of the Given
"But, for all these artists [the Neo-Romantic painters of the 1930's], the pursuit of landscape was always something more than the quest for phenomena, or the appearances of natural and human forms. They were intent upon a transfiguration of what they saw: often, they laid claim to a religious or spiritual vision; always, they wanted to rupture the surfaces of the given with imaginative transformations. Landscape, for them, was an arena in which the subjective and the objective, the deeply personal and the richly traditional, could be mingled in new and previously unseen ways."
Peter Fuller, Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions
The quote is in respect of a very particular group of British painters, however it seems to me to also apply equally well to freer landscape painting of this or any age, and in considering it I was reminded of Constable’s oil sketches. There is a often forgotten room of them at the V&A.
Constable's oil sketches seem to me to be closer to the actuality of life, closer to the real; than his finished paintings; there is something in the movement of the paint, the unfinished quality, the flux of it, that brings one nearer to an approximation of the experience of real landscape and real weather; yet they are packed with unreal actions and inventions. Perhaps a looming cloud that’s oddly coloured or, as in the picture here, a dark streaking of black, which we know doesn’t appear in the real view and was never before the artist’s eyes in this way, yet it brings us closer to an approximation of the experience of being in landscape than a photorealist view might.
Freely approximating the landscape, in not striving for a photorealist view, brings us closer to it; it assists us in understanding the effect of place: how a landscape can disturb and encroach. But I am also interested in how, in landscape painting, the picture plane has the potential to behave in front of the viewer. I am interested in the insertion of a device, or an area, that throws the real off course; this can perhaps be considered in a similar way to Barthes' punctum: the wound in the smooth plain. This device, or wilful guidance of the viewers eye, can be deliberate. It is possible to welcome the viewer into a painted picture plane and control, to some degree, where they go within it and where they experience shock; such unsettlement can, I believe, lead the viewer to consider the landscape on a far broader basis than would be possible otherwise. A broader consideration of their place in the world. For this reason I am interested in making an art that perhaps looks as once like traditional landscape painting but closer in one might experience the uncanny or the unsettling: the unexpected. I am also interested in artists who are unafraid to present a vision of the world where all might not be well. The shift of a balanced focus.
Although because of the nature of paint, and the wish to communicate excitement, the result can not alwyas be exactly foreseen, but it the intention that matters: a gesture of disruption. The slashing of a comfortable view.
Thinking about the notion of guiding the viewer reminded me of Noel Coward’s poem 'The Great Awakening', which I remembered from my childhood as deeply shocking:
The Great Awakening
As I awoke this morning
When all sweet things are born
A robin perched upon my sill
To signal the coming dawn.
The bird was fragile, young and gay
And sweetly did it sing
The thoughts of happiness and joy
Into my heart did bring.
I smiled softly at the cheery song
Then as it paused, a moment’s lull,
I gently closed the window
And crushed its fucking skull.
- It too lulls the reader into a false sense of security before delivering the shock of the poem; which is the crushing of the birds head at the end; which seems at once humorous but also I think illustrates how it is possible to guide or control the viewer, at least in an opening stage.
But in talking about the guiding of the viewer’s consideration we need to consider the imagination; because what we are talking about is the extension of the real by way of an invention.
But the element of imagination - the taking of the landscape beyond the real, the transfiguration of the landscape that Peter Fuller talks about, brings us into the realm of the romantic; the imagined; the hightening of the real experience through invention, and perhaps the expansion of landscape using imagination is more a typically English condition: the landscape traditions of other countries have been perhaps embedded in classicial mythologies and reworking of overplayed legend; the English landscape tradition could be considered to be said to have originated through an engagement with the landscape itself.