Is Landscape Painting History?

Alexandra Sasse landscape painting in North Melbourne Australai

Seeing the world as more than a backdrop or stage-set for unfolding narratives is the basic premise of landscape painting. It requires sensation rather than symbol to be the dominant motive. This is at odds with the corrosive didacticism of much academic art which looks for the obvious moral in every artwork. The recently set up Hadley’s Art Prize – a $100,000 prize for an Australian landscape painting, is a case in point.  It has been called a landscape prize when what they really require is history painting, and a certain kind of history at that.

Hobart hotel owner Don Neil has launched one of Australia’s richest art prizes, with an annual $100,000 award for landscapes…. and this year invites artists to address the theme “history and place”.

Artist and curator Julie Gough, who is one of the judges, says the award encourages artists to think beyond European concepts of landscape as depictions of sublime nature. “History is about story, and the entrants have to consider that as much as things such as vegetation and landforms,” says Gough. “It will be interesting to see how people push that theme.”

The Australian 27th Jan 2017

And here is Ben Quilty, judging the 2017 Glover Prize for Australian landscape painting and commenting:

“And I think the three of us wanted to pick a work that wasn’t just a celebration of the aesthetics, the pretty landscape, but to engage more with those contested histories – what happened, not only here in Tasmania, but right across this country.

“For me, it’s impossible to engage with ideas of landscapers and artists in this country without acknowledging all those histories and some of them are pretty gruesome and grotesque and people shy away from that, but it’s for the arts community to step up and engage with it.”

Ben Quilty March 10th 2017 ABC News website

Look deep into my eyes and tell me that you know they are talking nonsense. Do they really not know the difference between history painting and landscape? Are they seriously prepared to write off pretty much the entire 17th century and a lot of its progeny (basically right up to Seurat) and instead re- instate 18th and 19th century history painting – much of it the stultifying stuff against which modernism rebelled – as the one true artistic calling? Do the benefactors of these prizes feel robbed? This is genre reassignment by stealth.

For a Gordian knot of reasons, the 18th century is a lot more appealing to our current culturati. And it of course goes without saying that Rembrandt, Van Ruisdael, Lorraine, Corot, Turner and Constable did not spend their lives’ energies and talents on sentimental prettiness. It’s not Constable’s fault that having forged an entirely new vision of landscape – the actual landscape with all the detritus of industry – that he was put on thousands of greeting cards. Not a fate likely to befall ascetics who prefer ideas to things.

But Constable’s work should make it blindingly obvious that aesthetic aims are not divorced from either social commentary or profoundly revealing insights into the outlook of an epoch. Aesthetic aims are as much about the search for meaning as the most carefully constructed argument. This is because aesthetics are very closely related to value. It is a truism that we tend to think that what is beautiful is both good and true; this unlocks the values of previous ages to us in a way no illustration of dogma ever could.

The wilful ignorance about painting genres suits the aims of the current arts establishment which are much better served by history painting than landscape. The former is perfectly matched to the motives of the discourse people and when mixed with a little Duchampian fizz gives us badly painted sermons. Having decided both myth and religion are off limits, contemporary history painting is doomed to recycle post colonialism, globalisation, climate change and identity politics as subject matter.

The landscape painter essentially deals with space not narrative. Space is a metaphor, (as is light) a psychological force and a physical fact. Architects and emperors know how it works on our minds. Stand in Tien’Anmen square and feel the oppressive monumental symmetry of those rectilinear monoliths looming on every side. Or wander through the Sagrada Familia and let your thoughts unravel and entwine with the sinuous organic forms reaching up through a vast volume to the intricate ceiling. Pictorial space is equally eloquent.

Against the odds perhaps, we currently have a very exciting crop of landscape painters working and exhibiting in Australia. It’s a travesty that you won’t see their work in a hijacked landscape award. Although they work under the duress of a system that often denigrates their entire genre (never mind their actual work) very high quality pictures are being made. They continue within a vein of history that is vibrantly alive. Despite the marginalisation of landscape painting in the context of twentieth century abstraction and certain narrow readings of modernism, it has always remained a vital resource and practice for artists. Some of the most memorable Australian artworks from the height of modernism are landscape paintings such as Drysdale’s Sofala  (1948), Williams’ Upwey Landscape (1966),  Herman’s Near The Docks (1949) and Smart’s Cahill Expressway(1962).

Today landscape painting is widely practiced around the globe. It takes dedicated blindness to ignore highly acclaimed contemporary painters as diverse in their approaches as William Robinson (AUS), David Hockney (UK), Antonio Lopez Garcia (ESP) and Wayne Thiebaud (USA). Ranging from a high degree of urban realism (Lopez Garcia) to gothic-inspired forests and mountains (Robinson), massive installation paintings (Hockney) and stylised flattened forms that recall both mid century modernism and pop (Thiebaud) contemporary landscape painting is richly diverse.

 I hope for a more inclusive approach to appear in the rather stifled environment of contemporary art in Australia.  One in which landscape painting is not cannibalised by history painting or denigrated as sentimental stodge.  And in which contemporary history painting stops serving up the thin gruel of discourse strained through disdain and instead grapples imaginatively with both painting as a medium with all its possibilities, and our diverse stories.

My own work has a very simple premise. It comes out of my interest in looking at things in the world around me and making pictures. My paintings come not from an analysis, but from an encounter. The work is not a proposition but a set of objects. On the other hand you will encounter recurring themes – I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of urban and natural forms, and the ongoing attempts to reconcile our lives with our places. I feel very passionately about the particularities of the volumes of space that are uniquely Australian. And I am very grateful for the vast resource of paintings made across history upon which we can draw, and without which, my work could not exist.

Alexandra Sasse