Saturday 24 December 2011

What's in a landscape?

In a previous post some time ago I mentioned G.K. Chesterton's aversion to impressionism, with which I did not quite agree. I want to look now at some landscape art that I find particularly inspiring, both to recommend it to your attention and to investigate a little for my own sake why I find it so appealing. I begin with a group of artists known as THE GROUP OF SEVEN or Algonquin School, whose work is being exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 January. Unfortunately I will miss the exhibition, but do go if you can. The artists in this group were born or lived in Canada from the end of the
nineteenth century, and they all tended to work outdoors. They loved the forests, the plains, the rivers, the mountains of Canada, and would take off into the wilderness with a sketchbook small enough to carry in a canoe or a backpack, capturing what they could usually as far from human habitation as possible. As a formal group they exhibited between 1920 and the year they disbanded, 1933.

What is it that is so attractive about their work? It is sensitive to place, indeed it celebrates particular features of the Canadian landscape, but quite stylized and intense, almost as if  they were trying to capture some ideal version of each scene, an Edenic vision of it in bright colours and bold shapes. Unlike the impressionists, they don't particularly try to capture the weather or the passing moods of the light. In fact mostly the pictures seem not even to contain shadows: each neatly framed scene glows with an interior light. Or else the shadows are just there to accentuate form. They include human habitations in the landscape, but were sometimes accused of overlooking the effects of humanity on the landscapes they portrayed – it wasn't what primarily interested them. Browse the "Gallery" in the link provided above and make up your own mind what you think.

Next: Nicholas Roerich.

Pictures: Tom Thomson, "Autumn's Garland"; Lawren Harris, "Mount Lefroy"

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