Friday, July 21, 2006

Before Storm

The approach taken in paintings like Ying Yu-Chien’s ‘A Mountain Village in Clearing Mist’ has sometimes been compared to the method proposed by Alexander Cozens in A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785). Cozens showed how, for example, an almost random collection of marks could be converted into a mountain landscape composition. There is no need to posit a connection between Cozens and Chinese art (Cozens did grow up in Russia, where his father worked for Peter the Great, but eighteenth century Russia was hardly Song dynasty China). The idea that random blots might resemble landscapes had, after all, already occurred to Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote ‘you should look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety…’ (quoted from Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion).

In a 1997 article in ‘Art Bulletin’ (which can be found on-line) Charles A. Cramer notes how the temptation to view the blots as proto-Romantic or proto-Expressionist makes it hard to locate Cozens in the world he actually inhabited, the world of Reynolds and the Royal Academy. However, Cramer argues that the main aims of Cozens’ technique are rooted in eighteenth century classical landscape ideas. Rather than naturalistic description or artistic expression, the painter uses the blots to suggest new ways of designing landscapes that convey the general principles of nature. The blot is only the starting point and requires "embellishment and consolidation". Far from being a window to the unconscious, the blots were, for Cozens, a means of training the eye to see the general rather than the particular. This can be seen in some of Cozens’ paintings, like Tate’s Before Storm (c1770-80), which does not show any particular landscape. And yet, it has to be said, a painting like this is still very easy to see as an early work of Romanticism.

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