Friday, August 01, 2008

Landscape 154

I’ve been looking back at some early editions of Modern Painters - this posting is essentially a continuation of my earlier one describing the way Peter Fuller promoted landscape painting in the late eighties through this magazine. In a spring 1990 editorial, Fuller praised the new Tate Gallery re-hang which gave prominence to British painters like Stanley Spencer. But he was predictably disappointed that an ‘exemplary’ room dedicated to The School of London was followed by the ‘numbing, post-modern anaesthesia’ of Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys ‘and that frightfully boring woman, Agnes Martin.’ If only Fuller could have hung the final room instead with recent landscape paintings it would be possible to ‘prove that landscape painting in the 1970s and 1980s was at least comparable to that of the 1930s and 1940s.’ He doesn’t discuss this in detail but the article is illustrated with a couple of examples: Keith Grant’s Ice-Fjord, Evening, Jacobshavn (1989) and David Leverett’s Thumb Suite.
Here is a list of some of the (then) contemporary landscape painters covered by Modern Painters in its first five years or so and who might have featured in Peter Fuller’s room: Ray Atkins, David Blackburn, Maurice Cockrill, Peter Doig, Vanessa Gardiner, Ardyn Halter, Derek Hirst, Derek Hyatt, Merlin James, Alex Katz, Peter Prendergast, Len Tabner, William Tillyer, David Tress and John Virtue. Some of them have fared better than others. Anthony O’Hear wrote a review article ‘Towards a New Landscape’ in Modern Painters (Autumn 1993) which picked out Virtue and Wendy Connelly as promising younger contemporaries. A search on Wendy Connelly doesn’t turn up much, but John Virtue continues to have a high profile (his most recent London exhibition was earlier this year). An encomium by Simon Schama in 2005 strikes a slightly Fuller-ish tone: “Virtue's paintings have been made as if much of contemporary art, or rather the fashion of contemporary installation art, had never happened, or at best is a facile distraction from more solidly enduring things.”
There is some footage of John Virtue at the Artists on Film site and quite a few pieces on-line about the London paintings he made whilst at the National Gallery. However, a 1993 Modern Painters Adam Nicholson article interviewed him while he was still living and working in the village of South Tawton, Devon. The village is dominated by a church (for Virtue, ‘a giant stake with which the forms of the landscape are pinned in place’) and it is the church tower which recurs in his ongoing sequence of monochrome landscapes at that time: e.g. Landscape 154 (1993), Landscape 184 (1993) and Landscape 192 (1992-3). The Landscape sequence began in 1978 when, influenced by the drawings and etchings of Rembrandt, Samuel Palmer, Van Gogh and Seurat, Virtue abandoned colour and began drawing the Lancashire countryside. His 1980s works were relatively intricate, assembling fragments of landscape in grids. In 1991 he started painting more expansively on canvas, using shellac-thickened ink and not minding much if the work in progress incorporated some actual rain or soil. This evolution to a less detailed style feels like a familiar trajectory (evident for example in recent Tate exhibitions of Howard Hodgkin and Peter Doig). The Modern Painters article ends by stating what Virtue thinks his paintings are not: topographical, nostalgic, literary. He wants to convey a visceral, visionary, visual response to landscape.

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