Sunday 5 February 2012

Ruralist art

An important part of education is learning to look at the world around us, and artists teach us to do this. I have posted several times on landscape artists in particular. Whether it is the Group of Seven venturing out into the Canadian wilderness, or the Impressionists following in Turner's footsteps as they try to capture the flickering moods of light and atmosphere (perhaps even travelling "inside light" the way Tolkien travelled "inside language"), or Samuel Palmer crafting natural landscapes into symbolic idylls intense with yearning, or Nicholas Roerich doing the same with the mountains of Tibet, the landscape artist allows us to see the "scenery" of our lives through new eyes. Recently David Hockney has startled many of his admirers by turning
to landscape, and a recent exhibition of his paintings of Yorkshire called "A Bigger Picture" has perhaps opened a new chapter in modern British art. Some have called his landscapes regressive. And yet every new departure in art looks backwards as well as forwards. With his new exhibition Hockney seems to have joined the Brotherhood of Ruralists. What underlies these paintings is an interest in what the camera cannot capture. What is revealed is not just what the scene looks like at a given moment and from a given angle, but what it looks like to this particular person, viewed through his unique imagination. Art always depends on the love of the artist for his subject. Even if the subject is "ugly", the artist would hardly lavish time and attention on it if not motivated to do so. And the love of Hockney for these particular landscapes is evident in every line. It doesn't seem to be the atmosphere, or the play of light, that particularly interests him, but the forms and shapes that reveal themselves to someone who, at least briefly, inhabits the landscape – shapes often made of colour. People who visit the places he painted report that they are often strewn with rubbish thrown from passing cars. Is it "untruthful" to leave out the rubbish when painting the scene? Isn't it more important to rekindle our love for the places around us, through which we walk and drive with so little attention?

Illustration: Samuel Palmer, "Garden in Shoreham", c. 1830

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