Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Ruins of Hohenbaden

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15)

Today was the last day to see A Dialogue with Nature, an excellent little exhibition at The Courtauld which included works from New York's Morgan Library & Museum that I'd not seen before, like Carl Philipp Fohr's 'jewel-like watercolour', The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15).  I was particularly fascinated to see German paintings and drawings like this alongside those by familiar British names (Cozens, Girtin, Turner etc.).  Three more examples: Caspar David Friedrich's The Jakobikirche in Greifswald as a Ruin (c. 1817), the kind of nineteenth century 'anticipatory ruin' highlighted in the Tate's current Ruin Lust exhibition; Theodor Rehbenitz's strange little Fantastic Landscape with Monk Crossing a Bridge (c. 1826-30), a throwback to the style of Dürer's woodcuts; and the composer Felix Mendelssohn's sketchbook for 1837-9 open to show that popular Romantic trope, the view from a window.  Although there were few surprised in these British and German artists' subject matter, the exhibition conveyed a wonderful sense of technical creativity in the means used to engage in 'a dialogue with nature'.  I left with a mental list of ways in which an innovative artist of the period might demonstrate a distinctive landscape vision...

  • Use stylised strokes...  I have written here before about the vocabulary of marks used by Chinese landscape painters and named after the natural phenomena they resembled, like tan wo ts’un – 'eddies of a whirlpool'. The Courtauld curator drew attention to the foliage in Johann Georg Wagner's Wooded landscape with stream and oxcart on road (1760s), depicted using 'whirls and coils in a lively, almost calligraphic manner', a device which 'imbues this tranquil scene with vitality and movement.'  Wagner didn't have a chance to develop his style, dying at the age of just twenty-two (the same age at which Carl Philipp Fohr was killed, after an accident swimming in the Tiber). 
  • Use a 'stump'...  This was how Thomas Gainsborough, in Wooded Upland Landscape with Cottage, Figures and Cows (c. 1785), created subtle shades of grey on the road leading into the picture, the walls and the trees beyond and the distant hills and clouds in the background.  By rubbing a tightly rolled stump of leather or paper over the surface he left areas of soft shadow that contrast satisfyingly with the grainy texture of the unsmoothed chalk elsewhere in the landscape. 
  • Add gouache and gum arabic...  Mainly self-taught, Samuel Palmer also used distinctive ways of applying ink and paint, like the stippled trees in The Haunted Stream (c. 1826).  But what's really striking about another experiment, Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828), are the different materials used. The extraordinary fiery evening light in the depths of the trees is 'yellow watercolour over white gouache, to which he applied gum arabic, imparting shine, and occasional dots of red watercolour.'
  • Choose coloured paper... The exhibition included one of Constable's cloud studies in which, it appears, he had insufficient time to record all the gradations of colour.  Nearby is one of the 150 cloud studies made by his German contemporary Johann Georg Dillis, executed with white chalk on blue paper so that he could avoid the issue of colour and concentrate on pure form.  I would love to see a large selection of these all on display together.

  • Leave a hole...  The moon must present a particular challenge for landscape painters and Turner makes it look easy in the Courtauld's On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen (1841).  Hung next to this in the exhibition was Friedrich's Moonlit Landscape (1808) in which he made no attempt to paint the moon itself: instead a circular hole was left so that a blank piece of paper behind shines through. In fact this was originally designed to be illuminated by lamplight and viewed to the accompaniment of music.
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