Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Strange ridges and shadowy craters

In 1973 Gerhard Richter made a series of paintings based on close-up photographs of oil paintings.  According to Mark Godfrey in 'Damaged Landscapes' (an essay I've referred to before) Richter 'chose images where the swirls of paint seemed to recede from the plane of the painting.  These Details therefore appear like fictitious landscapes with strange ridges and shadowy craters.'  Leonardo da Vinci famously suggested in his Notebooks that 'when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement.'  In an earlier post I wondered whether Thomas Jones' A Wall in Naples could be considered a landscape painting, but perhaps I wasn't looking closely enough.  As you can see from the detail below (another sketch made from the roof terrace above the rooms he rented in Naples), the crumbling masonry painted by Jones starts to assume the semblance of a landscape.  But Richter's Details provoke the thought that landscapes might be discerned at some level of magnification in the folds of a velvet dress, the shadow beneath a bowl of fruit or an angel's wing. And I can almost imagine a kind of fractal landscape painting that would depict a view simultaneously at the level of the canvas, the brush stroke and the pigment (which would then need to be exhibited outside, in front of the landscape itself).

Thomas Jones, Rooftops in Naples (detail), 1782

Thomas Girtin, The White House at Chelsea (raking light detail), 1800

The terrain of the paper underneath Thomas Girtin's The White House at Chelsea becomes visible at close range, in raking light (see Peter Bower's essay 'Tone, Texture and Strength: Girtin's Use of Paper' in the Tate's 2002 Girtin retrospective catalogue).  Curators often show us explanatory photographs that resemble geological sections through the paint layers of old masterpieces.  Microscopic images of pigment return us to the basic stuff of landscape - ochre, sienna, umber. Of course this 'thingly substructure', as Heidegger called it in 'The Origin of the Work of Art', should not be confused with the the actuality of the art work.  The quality of the paper in Girtin's painting need not especially interest us (although it is less easy to argue that appreciation of an actual landscape requires no interest in its natural history, an issue I've discussed here before).  Nevertheless, the scrutiny of both detail and overall effect has always been one of the pleasures of landscape art.  In the paintings of Girtin's friend, Turner, the image always seems to be both abstract and naturalistic, however you crop it.  His View of the Arsenal (below) is a vivid reminder of how artists release colour from pigment, so that it comes, in Heidegger's phrase, to shine forth. It is through this process that an art work 'lets the earth be the earth.'
J. M. W. Turner, View of the Arsenal (detail), c1840

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