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Living Landscape

Who are the artists that will be the Claudes and Constables of tomorrow?

Laura Stewart chooses three contemporary landscape painters to treasure for the 21st century

Laura Stewart

Art Quarterly, Summer 2000

In art, obsession with politics, sex, the neurotic psyche, industry, technology, and ecology has rendered pure landscape art a quaint tradition. Correct? Not when one looks at the work of three of the most interesting landscape painters on the international scene today. Alan Rankle's work is reminiscent of Ruisdael and Constable, and Ørnulf Opdahl's of Munch and Strindberg, while Mikoto Fujimura's landscapes marry the medieval Japanese Ni-honga tradition with Rothko's Abstract Expressionism. All three artists are brilliant reworkers of the classical landscape genre and each in his own way is fresh and relevant, transforming paint on canvas into poetry rather than just filling his work with 'concept'.


Alan Rankle became passionate about landscape painting while studying at Goldsmiths' College in the 1970s. Today, he is still working and reworking a theme which melds classical, Claude-style Arcadianism with a Dutch restraint and a meditative quality drawn from his studies of Classical Chinese Chu'an Buddhism. He paints subjects in series - for example, Riverfall and Terre Verte - constantly revisiting a theme based on a specific well-loved place of inspiration. His works have a reflective, shimmering quality in which glimpses of trees, ponds, rivers, skies, and other natural imagery seem to come into focus and then disappear as one gazes at his work. His landscapes are not about simple melodies; they become, like a successful jazz session, infused with spiritual energy and a barely restrained sexuality.

Sometimes, Rankle's devotion to capturing transcendent fleeting moments in nature can become chaotic, and his colours can turn acidic and jarring. Yet his efforts achieve what many great landscape painters seek - the ability to capture emotion and filter it through the natural world to bring the viewer moments of longed for peace.


Makoto Fujimura was born in Boston, and educated in the United States and Japan. He is both a boldly abstract and a conceptual painter, yet makes his own paints according to medieval Japanese methods. He mixes vermilion, malachite, cinnabar, gold, silver, and oyster shells with animal-skin glue in order to create a palette that is quietly luminous and closer to nature than those created using commercially available paints. He then applies colour to mulberry gampi paper which floats over a canvas stretched across large wooden frames. The result is delicacy on a monumental scale. Fujimura at first glance looks like a Colour Field painter, yet when one peers more closely, fleeting lines from the Bible, fruits (especially quince), cherry blossoms, and rivers of pigment softly wash across the canvases.

Fujimura is a committed Christian and a theologian - an anomaly in today's secular art world. As one New York critic wrote, 'It is mildly startling to find someone today referring to Isaiah's "crown of beauty ... and garment of praise" and meaning it.' Examples of Fujimura's work have been installed in St John the Divine Cathedral on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the largest Protestant cathedral in the world. Now that New Yorkers have a chance to see this contemplative painter's work in the sacred hush of this neo-Gothic monument, it will certainly become highly sought after.


The Norwegian painter Ørnulf Opdahl does not attempt to provide relief from the harsh, dark, Nordic light. On the contrary, he celebrates it. Opdahl delivers extraordinarily complex surfaces with a limited palette of greys, creams, silvers, and golds. His works are deceptively simple, with straightforward titles like Grey, Light Over the Mountain, Winter, and Hunter in the Snow. Their power is to pull the viewer in to examine the detail of his masterly application of many layers of paint and glazes, then to step back and become awed by the majesty of his quietly forbidding landscapes. Opdahl paints with an expressionistic force far removed from the Mediterranean - which is not surprising, as he has always lived and worked in Godoy on the northern coast of Norway. As one critic noted, 'Opdahl is not a Sunshine and Sunday painter', but his luminist visions of eerie northern light give one a visceral tug towards a place in the world where wind tears rooftops away and the sea is an unfathomable black.

What unites these three artists is their grounding in long-standing traditions and the way in which they deconstruct and reinvent those traditions. Yet none of the trio is merely a pastiche painter or derivative; their sources are as varied as their backgrounds and their current work is entirely new.

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