Exhibition booklet showing a detail from
Adam Pynacker, Landscape with Sportsmen and Game, 1665
The Mall Galleries have a new exhibition, 'Memory & Imagination', that brings together contemporary art works with Dutch Italianate landscape paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The term Dutch Italianate immediately makes you wonder what memories of their northern landscape Dutch artists brought with them to Rome, or what dreams of Italy permeated the work they painted back in Holland. Eventually, as Brian Sewell writes in his introduction to the show, there developed a 'nowhere landscape to be found in neither north nor south, ideal and decorative, serene and perfect; in these, that which might be northern is warmed by a southern sun and that which might be southern cools in a northern dusk or dawn'. Adam Pynacker's Landscape with Sportsmen and Game is an example of this fusion, with its silver birch trees and golden sunlight, although most people these days remember it for those extraordinary blue leaves in the foreground (an unintentionally surreal effect caused by chemical changes in the paint).
When I was asked last year whether I had any suggestions for contemporary artists whose work might be justaposed with Dutch landscapes, I immediately thought of Martin Greenland, whose Before Vermeer's Clouds I mentioned here a few years ago. I was therefore pleased to see his oil painting Even Over Eden (2004-11) hanging among the Cuyps, Wijnants and Wouwermans and to have a chat with him at the this week's private view. He was explaining that his compositions are imaginary, painted in the studio, with no use of photographs, and yet at the same time deeply inspired by the Lake District where he walks and sketches. Here is what he says on his blog about another of these recent pictures, National Park: 'I set off in this work to produce a winter painting which was ABOUT my home landscape rather than of it. I have begun to realise that what is seen in my paintings is what I KNOW, which is as a result of what I have seen. The mountains have hints at and are the essence of the south-west Cumbrian mountains but as usual I had to invent them and to delight in exploring the landscape through the paint, to explore in the paint and to be enlivened by the success of the invention.'
Further down the same wall you come upon John Stark's Aurora (Goddess of Dawn) (2007) which on inspection turns out to be a kind of Et in Arcadia Ego Faecem - the goddess is, as the Mall Gallery delicately puts it, 'emptying her bowels in an Italianate landscape.' I'm not normally that keen on finding turds in landscape art and managed to write a whole post recently about Paul Noble's drawings without referring to that aspect of them that led The Sun to dub his work 'plop art' (admittedly this was like visiting a Chris Ofili show and not mentioning the elephant dung in the room). Nevertheless, as Brian Sewell says, the Dutch artists in Rome did not avoid indelicate subject matter: some of them all but forgot the ancient monuments, using them 'as background and setting for their preferred human subjects whom Salvador Rosa dubbed the flea-ridden scum of society, those who shit, piss and pick their noses without embarrassment or shame'. Defecation was apparently 'a recurring motif for the Dutch Italianates and several of the paintings in this exhibition include defecating dogs'.
It would not have been surprised to spot such earthy details somewhere in Emily Allchurch's photographic collage Worldscape (after Patinir) (2008), with its wind farm, digger and protest signs visible among green hills and mountains. I shouldn't think her work is Brian Sewell's cup of tea, but then he expresses little admiration for the original formula of the worldscape - 'everything a traveller has ever seen, piled Pelion on Ossa in immeasurable distances and perhaps framed by a proscenium arch, the viewer's eye compelled to leap from repoussoir to repoussoir across clear bands of brown and green and blue that have scant reference to reality.' Tom Hunter's poetic Swan Song (2002) is composed almost as if he wants it to have no reference to reality. In fact it is a photograph of a river near where I live. I was just reading the gallery notes ('Hunter depicts the deprived inner-city borough of Hackney as a rural idyll') when Michael Portillo interrupted proceedings to make a speech and welcome the City accountants whose company is sponsoring the exhibition. Returning to Memory and Imagination I became absorbed in the final contemporary work on display, Jeffrey Blondes' time-lapse landscape film Length of Days (2011) (similar in conception to a film I mentioned here last year, Jem Finer's Still). I stood for a while in front of this, but the changes were barely perceptible (the clip below is a speeded-up version). It seemed to be frozen at an appropriately timeless moment, with an Italianate light glowing behind the wintry trees.