Thursday, 15 October 2015

Landscape - research point

Landscape is such a huge subject for artists. It's natural to want to depict the parts of the world that we live and move in. The exercise is to research artists from different eras who use landscape as their main subject, and some suggestions ahve been made - Albrecht Durer, Claude Lorrain, LS Lowry, George Shaw, and Sarah Woodfine. I'm going to have a look at those, and follow my preferences to see what else I can find.

Albrecht Durer 15th century
Albrecht Durer, Landscape with Cannon
I know and admire his drawing and woodcut work for its detail. Feeling awed at the time and focus it must have taken him to just sit and get it all down.

This one, of landscape with canon, gives me this feeling. There's a quality of messiness in the landscape which reflects what it is like to try to take in all the detail, and makes the viewer feel all business. Theres a feeling of space in the valley, probably due to the contrast of it being much less detailed, and then the detailed village cutting across in the middle background. The size and detail of the tree and the stones on the foreground ground give something of a frame to it, and emphasise the perspective. The presence of a cannon and soldiers in this rural scene must have some meaning, but not sure what 600 years later.

However, what I found on further exploration of his landscapes, was that many of them are obviously sketches, and that he was probably the first artist to use watercolour for landscapes.

Landscape near Segonzano in the Cembra Valley
Albrecht Durer

This one is an example - I was in doubt as to whether it was by Durer until I spotted the detail on the furthest hill, which is very much like the other works I am familiar with. (And the signature!) What I see here is:
Composition - that furthest, most detailed and dark hill at a sweet spot in the composition;
Colour - subtle variations in the watercolour across it, with the most colour contrast at the horizon
Tone - sketched in to suggest shapes in the foreground, detailed and more intense on the hill to focus attention
Unfinished - some filling in of intermediate levels of tone and detail on the hill to the right, suggesting that this was a sketch he never finished. This and the use of watercolour makes it feel remarkably contemporary.

Albrecht Durer Landscape with a Woodland Pool
From British Museum online collection

This is another of his watercolour landscapes - BM says 'This is one of his most sensitive and atmospheric portrayals of nature'  - thought to be outside Nuremberg.

Again, it has the look of a sketch done on site, with no particular meaning other than to show what he sees. There is an apparently unfinished part in the bottom right. I find this one a little unsettling, presumably this being what 'atmospheric' means.

Tone: There seems to be more light in the background than the foreground, with the areas of lightest tone being just underneath the strong clouds, and in the untouched white paper on the 'beach' on the right, and the strongest tone being in the nearest parts of the pool and the detail of the clouds and pine tree tops across the painting 2/5 or a third down.

Composition: The most intense parts are the foreground of the pool, and the clouds above at the golden mean reflecting this and intensifying the heaviness of it close to us. There are green pines in top right and green grass bottom and bottom left giving a sort of diagonal band of detail. Opposite this are two areas of bleakness in the truncated trees middle left and empty ground bottom right.

Detail of poolside grasses from Landscape with a Woodland Pool (britishmuseum)
Colour: The colours are apparently natural colours, with not much in the way of blueing or greying due to distance. One of the things that make it look like a sketch is that it looks like he was using a limited palate of colours and not mixing much. The grasses in the foreground are suggested by the brushstrokes and addition of a bit of blue.

Albrecht Durer Quarry
copied from

 This one is more comfortable to look at, with the familiar awed feeling regarding the detail and accuracy of his drawing. Obviously a sketch as it stops completely outside the areas of interest to him.
Composition is therefore less of an issue, but there is lots of interest here which keeps your eyes moving round. This is provided by the areas of deeper tone (middle, top left and bottom left), and one of greater  tonal contrast at the 2/5 line vertically; by the areas of detail which correspond broadly to the tone areas; and by the colour contrasts at bottom left, and the higher horizontal lines of bluegrey in the orange.

There is a feeling of hugeness which can only be because of the tiny spindly trees.
And of the warmth of the orange/ sepia colour, again presumably because of the contrasting grey-blue colour. This one has a lot more evidence of mixing colours to get them right.

Durer The Trefileria on Peignitz
again copied from

Looking it up online, trefileria appears to mean wire factory. Can this be right? Is this the 15th century equivalent of that? With a millstone in the middle! Not sure. The composition, with the buildings so close they crowd into the space, makes this landscape more of a study of the angles of the buildings and their relationships to each other. Durer has used tone to make them three dimensional, and this and colour to show that the landscape behind is receding into the distance. The detail is in the bottom left building, and the more intensely dark doorway in the front mid-right, and there is again a contrasting diagonal from left back to front right. There is an obvious area of vagueness in the middle ground. I'm not sure I understand the message or meaning of this painting. And there is something a bit blocky about it that I don't 'get'.

Durer Antwerp Harbour
This ink line drawing is refreshingly 'simple' after the watercolour paintings. No tone, other than that given by greater concentration of detail. There are large blank areas and a dramatic diagonal line in the composition which is satisfying as well as illuminating the perspective. Again the detail is in the further parts of the harbour rather than, as one might expect, the nearer boats, drawing the eye into it.

Claude Lorrain 17th Century

'Designed landscapes based on classical proportions'.

Claude: Landscape with Country Dance 1640-1
from Liber Veritas at British Museum
This detailed sketch in ink and wash in 2 colours is part of his liber veritas (book of truth) which he used as a sketchbook and also to record his paintings so people couldn't copy them. It is of an actual country dance at Malvern Castle, but the composition is carefully contructed according to classical rules. The zigzag of the cows, dancers and castle is pleasing, and the looming trees frame it off centre in a typical way. The two colours of wash (brown and grey) are used to provide a range of tone, with the deepest tone being at bottom left and in the trees to provide the classical framing. The lightest tone in the sky next to the darkest tree, and in reflection at a classical section point in the middle of the dance. It is very romanticised rather than realistic, suggesting that it is intended to be taken as a rural ideal to entertain and delight rather than a document of record.

A Spectator article by Michael Proger (22 October 2011) says:

'despite turning his attentions from pies and patisserie to painting he never lost his love for confection'

Claude: View of Tivoli
Taken from, at the 

This is a more natural looking landscape - a sketch done during Claude Lorrain's visit to Rome. Again composition is very important, and indicated by tone, but in this one it is simpler and less mannered, giving the drawing a more spontaneous look to it. Done in ink, wash and chalk.

Here are some of his more familiar 'ideal' landscapes, which he did for aristocratic patrons - apparently he was shrewd and died wealthy. He was friends with Poussin, also known for ideal landscapes.

Claude - View of La Crescenza - oil on canvas

Claude: The Ford
oil on canvas
from metmuseum. org

Claude: Queen Esther approaching the palace of Ahasuerus
pen and brown ink, brown wash over black chalk, heightened with white 

Meaning: These landscapes are deliberately constructed for entertainment and to allow his patrons to show off. Claude landscape paintings were important to my mother and therefore part of my fine art education and development. To me they represent elitism and the appropriation of art by the aristocracy (and the plutocracy) deliberately separating themselves from the other people of the world. We are so rich/ educated/ refined, that you couldn't possibly appreciate fully/ deserve what we have. Perhaps this is envy speaking, but I like to think it's because I enjoy my more visceral response to nature, and to landscapes which capture the combination of unpredictability and complex repetitiveness in nature. Even his trees look as though they were made by skilled craftsmen rather than by the tree tapping the sunlight. I obviously feel strongly about this but don't quite know where to go with it. Perhaps I will work this out a bit more while I'm doing this module!

L.S.Lowry and the others will have to wait for another day.

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