Over the weekend, my wife and I went down to Canberra to see an exhibition of landscapes at the National Art Gallery. The exhibition was called “From Turner to Monet”. I was kind of surprised to see that an exhibition of landscapes would draw such a large crowd. Not only were there tourist coaches outside the art gallery, the whole parking lot was completely full.
My wife and I made the mistake of hiring those audio commentary machines in the hope of gaining some better understanding of the historical context that the paintings were created in. Alas, the only commentary we had was describing the bleeding obvious of what we were looking at. As an example, the commentary for Turner’s “Crossing the Brook” expounded on such inanities as ” the girl about to cross the brook is taking off her shoes”. A word of advice if you are going to that exhibition don’t bother with the audio commentary as it is a waste of the money that they ask.
Hermann Hesse in one of his short essays, had mentioned that once he had gone up into the mountains to paint what he thought would be the perfect landscape. In this perfect landscape, he was going to put the perfect sky; the perfect mountains; the perfect chalet; the perfect foreground etc. The result was the sort of thing that one would see on the top of a box of cheap assorted chocolates. I’m not really a fan of romantic landscapes, as I find them overly sentimental and tacky. To my taste, landscapes from the late 1700s and early 1800s are to painting what sunsets are to photography, nowadays.
On reflection I think that many of those romantic landscapes were included in the exhibition to show what a genius Turner really was and how far ahead he was of his contemporaries. When one looks at Turner’s work in the context of other people’s work from the same era it’s quite startling to see how different he was. It’s almost like Turner came from another planet. The same can be said of the Van Gogh.
We don’t get very many significant works from the Masters here in Australia. We just don’t have the population to support the acquisition of such great works. Van Gogh is such a giant, and his work commands such large amounts of money, that is quite rare to see one of his originals here, never mind a significant work of his. The same could be said for this exhibition in that it had only a small minor work by Van Gogh, called “Trees in the grass“. Although it wasn’t one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings, it shone like a jewel amongst all the other drab grey little efforts. Even Monet’s giant picture of lilies just looked like a messy little smudge in comparison. Vincent’s colour was so vibrant and lush. It was as though each colour was fresh from the tube and it hadn’t been mixed with another at all. It’s hard to believe that Gauguin saw himself as Van Gogh’s mentor, when it seems so obvious that Vincent was the one who had the real genius.
It was interesting to see that an Australian painter from the Heidelberg group called Arthur Streeton, stood up very well among some of the giants from the Impressionist era. Streeton’s painting “Fires on” yodelled in a room full of insipid whispers. Pissarro’s bleak little daubs and Georges-Pierre Seurat’s intellectual exercises looked dry and all shrivelled up in a room with a giant Streeton, gleaming with bright Australian light.
What surprised me about some of the salon style, come ‘chocolate box top” type of landscape painting, was the fact that they were idealised notions of nature, and as such, they tended to be painted without any sign of human life. An Arcadian vision, if you will. There were some paintings of Yosemite that looked like they could have been painted yesterday. When I saw the paintings of Yosemite, I found myself thinking about how there was no indicator, other than the romantic style of the painting, when it was painted. This got me thinking about people and human artefacts within a landscape and how they can give a sense of a historical context.
As I was thinking about people within landscapes and historical contexts, I began to examine mine own tastes in regard to landscapes and I came to a couple of conclusions.
- The first was I don’t like to see realistic landscapes painted in an almost photographic way, unless there are people in the landscape that can give me a feeling that I’m looking at a slice of life from a far gone time, such as Tom Robert’s “Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west“. When I looked at Tom Roberts work I just loved the way how it captured a major street in Melbourne in the late 1800s. It made me feel as though I was there, observing the scene through a high hotel window.
- The second was if a landscape doesn’t have people in it and it therefore isn’t referencing a historical time, I would much prefer that it was more expressive and abstract.
After seeing the exhibition I felt particularly pleased with the landscape oil paintings that I have at home.
Looking at all the landscapes got me thinking about my own photography, and in particular, the shots I took in the early 70s, I was in Cambodia. I only took about four rolls of film in the six months that I lived in Cambodia during a very significant time of that country’s history. I could really kick myself that I didn’t take more photographs of people within the landscape. The pictures that I took of people in Cambodia have travelled much better into the future than photographs I took without people in them. Like many people who are just starting out in photography I was very keen to take shots of interesting textures and shapes, and as a result, half the photographs that I took in Cambodia could have been taken anywhere in the world as they give no idea of where they are from.
Now when I take photographs, I try to make a point of trying to capture some sense of time, historically, when the photograph was taken. I’m not suggesting that all people should take photographs within some kind of historical context (we all do anyhow), but I am saying that I think that people in the future, who will inherit the images that we produce will appreciate captured slices of life from our time, more than some textural tone poem.
By the way I was at my in-law’s holiday home this weekend and saw this texture and couldn’t help myself.