Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ditchling Beacon

In Landscape and Western Art, Malcolm Andrews mentions 'The People's Choice' project in which Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar have created the world's 'most wanted' paintings from a set of responses to a questionnaire. Andrews notes that 'of the 15 countries whose results appear on the Internet pages, 11 produce, as their most wanted painting, a landscape. In these 11 landscapes the proportion of water surface to mountainside to trees to level ground is remarkably consistent... Could it be that these results vindicate Kenneth Clark's convictions about the consensus over a good view? They demonstrate a striking consistency, not only in the proportioning of the fundamental landscape components, but also in their disposition.'

This seems a bit of a leap from the results of a simple survey - the artists themselves have, after all, designed the resulting paintings. I've reproduced below (hope this is OK) the image Melamid and Komar came up with for the USA and one of their charts showing responses by Americans to the questions about their preferences for 'outdoor scenes'. It's good fun, but it would be interesting to test aesthetic preferences out a bit more scientifically (focusing just on landscape). You could have more categories of 'outdoor scene' or landscape feature and a range of fuller descriptions. You could also look at the results overall and then control for particular characteristics of the respondents, e.g. whether they live in a city, in suburbia or somewhere amid lakes and mountains.

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, America's Most Wanted Painting, 1994

I was reminded of the Melamid and Komar experiment while looking round the opening exhibition at Eastbourne's newly relocated Towner Gallery, The People's Choice. To celebrate the gallery's relaunch, people were asked to vote on their favourite works from a selection of 200 in the permanent collection, with the winners being displayed. Landscape is 'one of the collection's gretest strengths' and the winner in the landscapes category was Charles Knight's Ditchling Beacon (c1930s), a Cotman-like painting of a local landmark, bringing out in soft sunlight the planes and curves of the South Downs. The Towner has a large collection of Eric Ravilious paintings and I wouldn't disagree with the popular vote for Cuckmere Haven (1939), another famous Sussex view where the natural forms seem well suited to the 1930s modernist style.

Melamid and Komar haven't included the UK in their 'People's Choice' project. However, Radio Four found that Britain's greatest painting (as voted for by their listeners) is Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. It is not a pure landscape, but a work in which the sun setting on the sea is just as much the subject as the old ship being tugged to its berth.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct the first chapter incorporates the Melamid stuff into an argument for evolutionary basis for landscape preferences in art...

Plinius said...

Thanks - no. Sounds interesting.