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A future for landscape? - Part 1

Continued in Part 2

Brian Ashbee

Art Review, Sept 1999


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Are landscape painters condemned to repeat clapped out formulae? In the first of a two-part investigation, Brian Ashbee examines how we have looked at and depicted British landscape and proposes a way forward.

It's not an easy time to paint landscape. Perhaps it's just not an easy time to paint. But the combination of those two words, landscape and painting, seems to imply a particularly conservative activity, remote from the 'cutting edge' of contemporary practice. This is hardly new. Indeed, it might be argued that landscape in this century has usually constituted a rear-guard action in the face of the pressures of modernism. Landscape painting today is, according to Charles Harrison, a marginal practice "in so far as landscape painting has been involved in the debate about modernism and post-modernism, it has not been landscape as a form of contemporary practice that has been the subject of debate but the question of how to interpret 18th and 19th century landscape painting. The landscape painting of the 20th century, in contrast, has generally been regarded as too marginal to be worth contesting, except by those concerned to reassert traditional - which is to say provincial - values."

'Provincial' in that last sentence seems like a put-down; 'provincial values' may well be worth defending, and that's a topic to which I'll return. But first, we need to define the forces which have undermined the claims to seriousness of landscape painting in our century.

First is the commodification of landscape, a consequence of the very success in the 19th century of landscape as a popular form. By the last quarter of the century, chromolithography made possible the widespread diffusion of colour prints of mediocre landscape paintings, while photography offered its own increasingly authoritative and cheaply available account of landscape. By the middle of our century, traditional 18th and 19th century landscape conventions had become part of an ever-expanding repertory of kitsch, recycled by amateur painters, postcards, and advertising.

Secondly, the commodification of landscape calls into question the sincerity and depth of any emotion experienced in front of it. In the words of W.J.T. Mitchell: "Landscape is a marketable commodity to be presented and re-presented in 'packaged tours', an object to be purchased, consumed and even brought home in the form of souvenirs such as postcards and photo albums. In its double role as commodity and potent cultural symbol, landscape is the object of fetishistic practices involving the limitless repetition of identical photographs taken on identical spots by tourists with interchangeable emotions."

Mitchell assumes that emotions inspired by commodified landscape are degraded and trivial. There is perhaps a hint of snobbery here; are we really to assume 'interchangeable emotions' in the millions of people who, at one extreme, may be content with a quick snapshot of the Grand Canyon but, at the other extreme, may search out wilderness areas or country parks for recreation and exercise? John Barrell, one of the Marxist art historians favoured by Mitchell, also addresses this point, explaining how landscape has become a repository of value in popular culture but there is a sting in the tail: "[B]y the end of Constable's time, the countryside takes on the negative virtue of not being the city. It is no longer a place of tension, but one defined as empty of tension; a place of refreshment and recreation, where we may discover a sense of our potential as sensitive individuals which is lost in the urban life of affairs - a sentence full of clichés, but so is the sense it describes."

The feelings which animated Wordsworth, Thoreau, Emerson, Jefferies and countless others are dismissed as 'clichés'. Why are these Marxist art historians so disdainful of the contemplation of natural beauty? The answer lies in the third and decisive factor: the re-reading of the 18th and 19th century landscape tradition undertaken by these same Marxist historians. Building on earlier work by Raymond Williams and John Berger, recent studies by John Barrell and Ann Bermingham have, in the words of Mitchell, "decisively overturned the idealising and aestheticizing account of British landscape bequeathed to us by Kenneth Clark in favour of a much more detailed and historically nuanced political and ideological critique."

At the risk of oversimplifying, one might say that for Clark the development of landscape was a search for 'pure form' the emancipation of landscape painting from its earlier beginnings in the backgrounds of religious and history painting, towards an enjoyment of nature for its own sake; a development inseparable from the emancipation of painting from the process of representation. Landscape, in other words, leads to abstraction. It has been the project of Marxist art historians to drag landscape painting back into the socio-political arena from which the painters of the 19th century had so painstakingly abstracted it. Landscape, these writers have insisted, is a means of naturalising cultural codes, inscribing cultural meanings into the land, and hiding the traces of this inscription in order to present the ideology as if it is just 'nature'.

What does this mean, in practice? In the 18th century, the English discovered their landscape as a cultural and aesthetic object, just at the time when that landscape was undergoing unprecedented social transformation. Precisely at the moment when the countryside was becoming unrecognisable, painters offered images of a landscape that was homely and stable. In doing so, they were not acting for purely aesthetic reasons, but responding to complex socio-economic pressures. A typical Constable image of wheatfields, cart tracks, towpaths, stiles and hedgerows seems to the innocent eye the very image of untroubled continuity and tradition. It says 'Heritage.' But even the most superficial examination of the historical background shows that the very forms of the landscape, far from naturally 'given', were for their public at the time the vehicles of unstable and contested meanings - were, in other words, ideological.

The field system, the patchwork quilt which is such a comfortable image of heritage England, is the result of the enclosure movement, which suddenly accelerated in the second half of the 18th century. This movement was inspired by landowners seeking to maximise the productivity of their land, to dispossess small-holders and re-engage them as tenant farmers or landless labourers. The movement vastly increased productivity, making England's the most productive agriculture in the world.

Enclosing the common land meant parcelling it out into rectangles divided by hedges; enclosed land at first looked smaller and artificial compared with the more open common lands that preceded it. At the same time as the open commons were being enclosed, the landscape gardening movement was putting the same process into reverse: the enclosed, formal structure of traditional gardens gave way to the more 'natural'-looking landscape parks of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton: "[A]s the real landscape began to look increasingly artificial, like a garden, the garden began to look increasingly natural, like the pre-enclosed landscape. Thus a 'natural' landscape became the prerogative of the estate... so that nature was the sign of property and property the sign of nature." (Arm Bermingham)

Most contested of all is the role in art of the working men and women who laboured in this landscape. How, as John Barrell has asked, could these be an acceptable part of the decorations of the drawing rooms of polite society, when in their own persons they would not be admitted even to the kitchens? The 18th century begins with images of Arcadian shepherds in dalliance and repose, proceeds through intermediate stages showing a contented but recognisably English poor, at first cheerful, sober and industrious, then ragged and inspiring of pity, ending with Romantic images of the poor whisked away from uncomfortable proximity and safely absorbed into Nature. By the time of Constable, they work in the distance because "the resentments of the poor are now known to us all, and ... could not be concealed in any credible image - except by hiding them in the middleground where we can see their labour but not their expressions." (John Barrell)

A century and a half later, we may prefer to read Constable's images as innocent transcriptions of 'Nature' but in doing so, asks Barrell, do we not "identify with the interest of Gainsborough's and Constable's customers, and against the poor they portray?"

In order not to see the social and economic problems of which the landscape is evidence, we can only look at it as a repository of painterly effects. This was the strategy of Constable and later painters down to and including our own century, for whom landscape has largely been a stimulus to purely format effects and abstraction.

Whatever the merits of this Marxist perspective on landscape, its effect on the possibilities of contemporary landscape practice has hardly been enabling. This approach contests the legitimacy of any approach to landscape which does not include its economic and political aspects. The artist's gaze is characterised, in typically reductive terms, either as that of the owner (in which case the representation expresses class ownership of the landscape), or conversely that of a tourist (in which case it expresses a desire to appropriate it). Viewing landscape as a category of ideological control negates any possibility of the artist's relating to the landscape as a source of individual, spiritual or religious value - indeed, these very terms provoke Marxists to reveal themselves at their most scathing and self-righteous (as witness the exchanges between the late Peter Fuller and Terry Eagleton.) Rather than attempt to continue that unproductive debate, I would simply observe, of Mitchell and his school, that (in the words of Richard Wollheim) "many art historians, in their scholarly work, make do with a psychology that, if they tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day without lovers, friends or any insight into how this had come about."

In place of this narrowly focused but ultimately reductive approach, I wish to offer an alternative. Instead of the visions and revisions of art historians, it is based upon recent work in the natural and cognitive sciences, and it suggests a theoretical perspective within which the work of landscape artists can be seen in a new and much more positive light. It draws heavily on the work of a French geographer, Augustin Berque, whose work is not available in English but which deserves to be much better known in what the French charmingly call the Anglo Saxon world.

On one substantive point, both Berque and Mitchell agree: landscape is not just a genre of art but a medium. This is at first a puzzling claim. It maintains that the common-sense notion that the artist looks at the objects in the environment and transforms them into a work of art is simply mistaken. The landscape is itself already structured and layered by cultural symbolism. Mitchell explains it like this: "[L]andscape is itself a physical and multisensory medium (earth, stone, vegetation, water, sky, sound and silence, light and darkness, etc.) in which cultural meanings and values are encoded, whether they are put there by the physical transformation of a place in landscape gardening and architecture, or found in a place formed, as we say, 'by nature'. The simplest way to summarise this point is to note that it makes Clark's title, Landscape into Art, quite redundant: landscape is already artifice in the moment of its beholding, long before it becomes the subject of pictorial representation." This formulation of Mitchell's, produced as it is with something of a magician's flourish, remains unconvincing. just how is a natural landscape, untouched by man, already a representation even before the artist makes his own representation of it?

Berque traces the roots of this paradox to the cognitive sciences. He finds the answer apparent even in the word 'landscape' itself, which in European and Oriental languages refers both to the thing itself and its representation. This oddity of language cannot be just an accident; in fact it is telling us that the landscape we perceive cannot be divorced from the way we represent it: both are in a crucial sense mental constructs.

Landscape is not an object. To understand it, we need to do more than study scientifically the forms of the environment, though we must do that. We must do more than study the psychology of perception, though that too is important. We must also study the cultural, social and historical determinants of our perception - those elements that constitute human subjectivity. Landscape is the medium in which the objective reality of the environment combines with human subjectivity.

This way of thinking is not at all self-evident. It does not fit easily with the positivism that dominates the natural sciences, especially those disciplines which study the objective forms of the environment, such as classical geography and ecology. These study the environment as a thing-in-itself, independent of the observer. What Berque - and indeed Mitchell - insist on is the fact that the landscape is as much in our minds (the subject) as it is in the environment (the object). We recognise objects by inference, referring the optical information they give us to a stock of schema, or templates, which are located in our personal and cultural memories. Our gaze is not just on the landscape, to an extent it is the landscape. This approach has been advanced by Gibson in his Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, of which a central thesis is that our visual system evolved to make us fit for a particular environment; as a result, the subject and object of vision must be treated as part of the same system.

Gestalt psychology and Gibson's ecological approach both suggest that learning about the environment proceeds from an ongoing interaction between subject and object: knowledge proceeds from perception, but perception then proceeds in terms of knowledge. To take a simple example. Our perceptual apparatus naturally favours regular, simple forms. A circle, for example, is inherently more recognisable than an irregular polygon. Once the schema, or mental template, of the circle is learned, we will notice that the environment contains many forms which approximate to the circle, and which can then be represented by it. As Terry Wright has noted, the environmental features identified by Gibson, which he calls affordances, and upon which our perception depends, are those commonly found in Australian Aboriginal painting: "Things that are or can be classified as roundish or enclosed, for example, waterholes, fruit or campfires, can be represented by circles; things that can be classified as elongated, such as rivers, paths, spears and animals lying outstretched, will be represented by a straight line."

Whatever the merits of the Marxist perspective on landscape, its effect on the possibilities of contemporary landscape practice has hardly been enabling.

To be continued... Oct 1999

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