Landscape Painting as a
us begin by asking a question. What landscapes - or, more generally, what
representations of natural objects - are most transporting, most intrinsically
vision inducing? In the light of my own experience and of what I have heard
other people say about their reactions to works of art, I will risk an answer.
Other things being equal (for nothing can make up for lack of talent), the most
transporting landscapes are, first, those which represent natural objects a
very long way off, and, second, those which represent them at close range.
lends enchantment to the view; but so does propinquity. A Sung painting of
faraway mountains, clouds and torrents is transporting; but so are the closeups
of tropical leaves in the Douanier Rousseau's jungles. When I look at the Sung
landscape, I am reminded of the crags, the boundless expanses of plain, the
luminous skies and seas of that Other World which lies at the self-conscious
mind's antipodes. And those disappearances into mist and cloud, those sudden
emergences of some strange, intensely definite form, a weathered rock, for
example, an ancient pine tree twisted by years of struggle with the wind -
these too, are transporting. For they remind me, consciously or unconsciously,
of the Other World's essential alienness and unaccountability.
the same with the close-up. I look at those leaves with their architecture of
veins, their stripes and mottlings, I peer into the depths of interlacing
greenery, and something in me is reminded of those living patterns, so
characteristic of the visionary world, of those endless births and
proliferations of geometrical forms that turn into objects, of things that are
forever being transmuted into other things.
painted close-up of a jungle is what, in one of its aspects, the Other World is
like, and so it transports me, it makes me see with eyes that transfigure a
work of art into something else, something beyond art.
remember - very vividly, though it took place many years ago - a conversation
with Roger Fry. We were talking about Monet's "Water Lilies." They
had no right, Roger kept insisting, to be so shockingly unorganized, so totally
without a proper compositional skeleton. They were all wrong, artistically
speaking. And yet, he had to admit, and yet. . . And yet, as I should now say,
they were transporting. An artist of astounding virtuosity had chosen to paint
a close-up of natural objects seen in their own context and without reference
to merely human notions of what's what, or what ought to be what. Man, we like
to say, is the measure of all things. For Monet, on this occasion, water lilies
were the measure of water lilies; and so he painted them.
same non-human point of view must be adopted by any artist who tries to render
the distant scene. How tiny, in the Chinese painting, are the travelers who
make their way along the valley! How frail the bamboo hut on the slope above
them! And all the rest of the vast landscape is emptiness and silence. This
revelation of the wilderness, living its own life according to the laws of its
own being, transports the mind toward its antipodes; for primeval Nature bears
a strange resemblance to that inner world where no account is taken of our
personal wishes or even of the enduring concerns of man in general.
the middle distance and what may be called the remoter foreground are strictly
human. When we look very near or very far, man either vanishes altogether or
loses his primacy. The astronomer looks even further afield than the Sung
painter and sees even less of human life. At the other end of the scale the
physicist, the chemist, the physiologist pursue the close-up - the cellular
close-up, the molecular, the atomic and sub-atomic. Of that which, at twenty
feet, even at arm's length, looked and sounded like a human being no trace
analogous happens to the myopic artist and the happy lover. In the nuptial
embrace personality is melted down; the individual (it is the recurrent theme
of Lawrence's poems and novels) ceases to be himself and becomes a part of the
vast impersonal universe.
so it is with the artist who chooses to use his eyes at the near point. In his
work humanity loses its importance, even disappears completely. Instead of men
and women playing their fantastic tricks before high heaven, we are asked to
consider the lilies, to meditate on the unearthly beauty of "mere
things," when isolated from their utilitarian context and rendered as they
are, in and for themselves. Alternatively, (or, at an earlier stage of artistic
development, exclusively) the non-human world of the near point is rendered in
patterns. These patterns are abstracted for the most part from leaves and
flowers - the rose, the lotus, the acanthus, palm, papyrus - and are
elaborated, with recurrences and variations, into something transportingly
reminiscent of the living geometries of the Other World.
and more realistic treatments of Nature at the near point make their appearance
at a relatively recent date - but far earlier than those treatments of the
distant scene, to which alone (and mistakenly) we give the name of landscape
painting. Rome, for example, had its close-up landscapes. The fresco of a
garden, which once adorned a room in Livia's villa, is a magnificent example of
this form of art.
theological reasons, Islam had to be content, for the most part, with
"arabesques" - luxuriant and (as in visions) continually varying
patterns, based upon natural objects seen at the near point. But even in Islam
the genuine close-up landscape was not unknown. Nothing can exceed in beauty
and in vision-inducing power the mosaics of gardens and buildings in the great
Omayyad mosque at Damascus.
medieval Europe, despite the prevailing mania for turning every datum into a
concept, every immediate experience into a mere symbol of something in a book,
realistic close-ups of foliage and flowers were fairly common. We find them
carved on the capitals of Gothic pillars, as in the Chapter House of Southwell
Cathedral. We find them in paintings of the chase - paintings whose subject was
that ever-present fact of medieval life, the forest, seen as the hunter or the
strayed traveler sees it, in all its bewildering intricacy of leafy detail.
frescoes in the papal palace at Avignon are almost the sole survivors of what,
even in the time of Chaucer, was a widely practiced form of secular art. A
century later this art of the forest close-up came to its self-conscious
perfection in such magnificent and magical works as Pisanello's "St.
Hubert" and Paolo Uccello's "Hunt in a Wood," now in the
Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Closely related to the wall paintings of forest
close-ups were the tapestries, with which the rich men of northern Europe
adorned their houses. The best of these are vision-inducing works of the
highest order. In their own way they are as heavenly, as powerfully reminiscent
of what goes on at the mind's antipodes, as are the great masterpieces of
landscape painting at the farthest point - Sung mountains in their enormous
solitude, Ming rivers interminably lovely, the blue sub-Alpine world of
Titian's distances, the England of Constable; the Italics of Turner and Corot;
the Provences of Cézanne and Van Gogh; the Île
de France of Sisley and the Île de France of
incidentally, was a supreme master both of the transporting close-up and of the
transporting distant view. His bourgeois interiors are masterpieces of
vision-inducing art, compared with which the works of such conscious and so to
say professional visionaries as Blake and Odilon Redon seem feeble in the
extreme. . .
the near point Vuillard painted interiors for the most part, but sometimes also
gardens. In a few compositions he managed to combine the magic of propinquity
with the magic of remoteness by representing a corner of a room in which there
stands or hangs one of his own, or someone else's, representations of a distant
view of trees, hills and sky. It is an invitation to make the best of both
worlds, the telescopic and the microscopic, at a single glance.
the rest, I can think of only a very few close-up landscapes by modern European
artists. There is a strange "Thicket" by Van Gogh at the
Metropolitan. There is Constable's wonderful "Dell in Helmington
Park" at the Tate. There is a bad picture, Millais's "Ophelia,"
made magical, in spite of everything, by its intricacies of summer greenery
seen from the point of view, very nearly, of a water rat. And I remember a
Delacroix, glimpsed long ago at some loan exhibition, of bark and leaves and
blossom at the closest range. There must, of course, be others; but either I
have forgotten, or have never seen them. In any case there is nothing in the
West comparable to the Chinese and Japanese renderings of nature at the near
point. A spray of blossoming plum, eighteen inches of a bamboo stem with its
leaves, tits or finches seen at hardly more than arm's length among the bushes,
all kinds of flowers and foliage, of birds and fish and small mammals. Each
tiny life is represented as the center of its own universe, the purpose, in its
own estimation, for which this world and all that is in it were created; each
issues its own specific and individual declaration of independence from human
imperialism; each, by ironic implication, derides our absurd pretensions to lay
down merely human rules for the conduct of the cosmic game; each mutely repeats
the divine tautology: I am that I am.
at the middle distance is familiar - so familiar that we are deluded into
believing that we really know what it is all about. Seen very close at hand, or
at a great distance, or from an odd angle, it seems disquietingly strange,
wonderful beyond all comprehension. The closeup landscapes of China and Japan
are so many illustrations of the theme that samsara and nirvana are one, that
the Absolute is manifest in every appearance. These great metaphysical, and yet
pragmatic, truths were rendered by the Zen-inspired artists of the Far East in
yet another way. All the objects of their near-point scrutiny were represented
in a state of unrelatedness against a blank of virgin silk or paper. Thus
isolated, these transient appearances take on a kind of absolute
Thing-in-Itselfhood. Western artists have used this device when painting sacred
figures, portraits and, sometimes, natural objects at a distance. Rembrandt's
"Mill" and Van Gogh's "Cypresses" are examples of
long-range landscapes in which a single feature has been absolutized by
isolation. The magical power of many of Goya's etchings, drawings and paintings
can be accounted for by the fact that his compositions almost always take the
form of a few silhouettes, or even a single silhouette, seen against a blank.
These silhouetted shapes possess the visionary quality of intrinsic
significance, heightened by isolation and unrelatedness to preternatural
intensity. In nature, as in a work of art, the isolation of an object tends to
invest it with absoluteness, to endow it with that more-than-symbolic meaning
which is identical with being.
- But there's a Tree - of many, one,
A single Field which I have
Both of them speak of something that
The something which Wordsworth could no longer see was
the "visionary gleam." That gleam, I remember, and that intrinsic
significance were the properties of a solitary oak that could be seen from the
train, between Reading and Oxford, growing from the summit of a little knoll in
a wide expanse of plowland, and silhouetted against the pale northern sky.
effects of isolation combined with proximity may be studied, in all their
magical strangeness, in an extraordinary painting by a seventeenth-century
Japanese artist, who was also a famous swordsman and a student of Zen. It
represents a butcherbird, perched on the very tip of a naked branch,
"waiting without purpose, but in the state of highest tension."
Beneath, above and all around is nothing. The bird emerges from the Void, from
that eternal namelessness and formlessness, which is yet the very substance of
the manifold, concrete and transient universe. That shrike on its bare branch
is first cousin to Hardy's wintry thrush. But whereas the thrush insists on
teaching us some kind of a lesson, the Far Eastern butcherbird is content
simply to exist, to be intensely and absolutely there.
(From Heaven and Hell)