Great Landscapes: Grant Wood

Everyone knows American Gothic, which, great though it is, is in some ways slightly unrepresentative of Wood’s work, although it absolutely captures a certain Midwest ambience – Wood was basically an Iowan to the end of his days (1942, aged 51, pancreatic cancer), although he had a most eclectic approach to art – visiting Europe and soaking up Northern Renaissance masterpieces, amongst others.

In landscape terms though I present three. Two had the ‘wow’ factor when I first saw them, but the first is a deceptively simple pastorale which is almost abstract in what it depicts, Spring Turning:

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Spring Turning, 1936. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, North Carolina

Completely original and in its own way, very influential.

The next is a dark fable neatly trapped in the confines of a rectangular frame, Death on the Ridge Road. You could view this simply as an almost cartoonish reflection on the burgeoning spate of motor vehicle deaths as America industrialised and became richer, or just as easily you can turn it in on itself, like this author did: To deepen and nuance the scholarly understanding of this painting, depictions of automobiles and nature within the image are closely considered, focusing on the metaphorical content they express.  This analysis regards questions about what cars and nature meant to Americans at this time.  How might cars represent manhood in Wood’s painting?  If they are a vehicle for gender identity, might their placement and movement in the image suggest the struggle for acceptance that homosexuals faced generally, and Wood may have faced specifically?

You decide. It is a brilliant composition, delivered with great technical assurance.

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Death on the Ridge Road, 1935. Williams College Museum of Art, Massachusetts

Lastly, the earliest of the three, an epic, cinematic snapshot of a key moment in American history – Wood is one of the most instinctively American of painters. I still marvel at the perspective – a precursor of drone photography – the New England neatness, the perfect evocation of night, and the arcadian landscape disappearing behind the buildings, those perfect trees. Paul Revere himself is almost incidental – shades there of Bruegel’s Icarus, a feature not lost on WH Auden.

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The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
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Great landscapes: Albrecht Dürer

I’d always thought of Dürer** as more of a portraitist, miniaturist and woodcut person – yet here he is with a landscape in watercolours. Dürer’s career was astonishingly early on in the development of technically advanced and accurate art – he died in 1528, so 78 years before a fellow Northern master, Rembrandt was born. One gets the impression that he was pretty confident in his skills, and probably a touch egotistical – his self consciously Christ-like and brilliantly executed self portrait tends to hint at that. Fame and riches came rapidly.

Early in his career he did the obligatory travels, including Italy, though much of his itinerary is surmise and shrouded in uncertainty. Prior to that he did quite a few watercolours, including the justly celebrated Willow Mill. The latter is a good example of the difficulty in reproducing art both in books and online. Here are two online versions of the same painting. Pretty different:

 

For what it’s worth, I think the second is the right one, though the first one is maybe more appealing.

In any event, the subject of this blog is Dürer’s simple landscape of the river Pegnitz, by Nuremberg, his hometown. He was about 20 when he did it. In fact, although it’s a pretty accomplished piece, it isn’t necessarily anything special in terms of technique or subject, but it has, to my subjective eye, something. Which is a hallmark of art which you actually like, rather than art which you’re virtually obliged to praise (numerous examples, from the Mona Lisa downwards). I particularly like its evocation of a sort of prelapsarian rural age of tranquility and bucolic comfort – a far cry from the Jeremy Kyle peasants of Bruegel, 60 years later.

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Albrecht Dürer, Wire drawing mill on the Pegnitz, near Nuremberg. Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, 1490-1494

In fact the closest works that create a similar ambience for me are, perhaps bizarrely, the Nutwood landscapes created by the great Alfred Bestall for the endpapers of the long series of Rupert the Bear annuals (seriously). See what I mean?

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Four hundred years after Dürer’s  youthful gem, here’s what the Pegnitz looked like in Nuremberg itself. Also vaguely prelapsarian and idyllic, given the intrinsic joys of Bavaria, and the fact that World War 1 was still 15 years off:

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…that’s a large synagogue on the skyline. A different Germany then

 

** if you’re interested in Dürer, then this monograph by Norbert Wolff is one of the best art books that I’ve read. Outstanding.

Sunday/triduum

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Fra Angelico, Noli me Tangere, 1440, San Marco, Florence.

 

Fra Angelico was one of the very earliest truly great painters. For a discussion of this masterly and blissful gem, see here and here. His genius transcends both the centuries and the artistic niches: “the great American artist Mark Rothko had been struck by the incredible light in Angelico’s works: an “inner” light that is stronger than the opacity that is intrinsic in the fresco technique.” And Rothko – talented though he was – was a very different sort of artist. He nevertheless identified something both real, and rare.

Saturday/interlude

This is a blog favourite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), albeit regarding a very enigmatic subject

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Jacob Isaaczs van Swanenburg (who taught Rembrandt) – The Harrowing of Hell, early 17th century. Look at the bottom left

….if you want to know more about this most mysterious day in the calendar, go here, and here

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. 

 

Ash Wednesday

I usually blog on this with a painting – Goya, Bruegel, Spitzweg (genius) and more. I was prompted today to look at Rembrandt’s** late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which, if you know the parable, is highly apposite for Lent. Wikipedia is good on this. Kenneth Clark called it “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” –  a fairly high bar, I’d say.

Henri Nouwen had a more overtly human and religious take on it, expressed very poetically: “Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”

We’ve all been there, and we will be again.

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Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668. The Hermitage, St Petersburg

 

**The Knife is in awe of a few painters, Rembrandt is one of them: 1, 2, 3, 4

Great Landscapes: when near Rome..

Thomas Cole was an American painter of the famous Hudson River School, though slightly bizarrely, he was actually born in Bolton, Lancashire. Famous and successful in his day, he did the obligatory Grand Tour to Italy in 1842, six years before he died at the age of 47. He had the requisite technical skills, certainly, but if you had to pin down what made him special, it was, I think, a sense of grandeur and otherworldly numinosity. A kind of large scale American version of Caspar David Friedrich, with a touch of the classicism and ethereal light that Turner and Claude Lorrain had mastered.

To a degree he is the victim of the kind of snobbery that relegates him to second tier status in the art world. If you were to dilute him down to the most basic elements, you might end up with someone like the gifted commercial sentimentalist, Thomas Kinkade.

In any event his Italian paintings are terrific, and here’s one of them:

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Thomas Cole, Ruins of Aqueducts in the Roman Campagna, 1843. The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Connecticut

Which came to mind when I stumbled upon a magnificent landscape by Edward Lear, ‘nonsense author’, of the pyramids at Giza. I had no idea what a great artist he was. Having explored his stuff a bit, I found this:

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Edward Lear, In the Campagna Near Rome, 1844

I’m not sure where it’s held these days, but note that it’s almost contemporaneous with Cole’s work. Lear had a long life and spent about 5 decades travelling on and off, mainly in Europe, at a time when that was obviously a bit more arduous than today. Both paintings are magnificent.

Before them both though, in 1826, was Camille Corot, with a much simpler style, but the same magical effect:

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Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot, The Roman Campagna with the Claudian Aqueduct, 1826. The National Gallery, London

 

You can of course still see this scene, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, only a few miles from the city centre. The Roman engineering of the Aqua Claudia and associated structures is astonishing, but the photographs can’t compete with painters.

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The statue of Christ being transported in the opening scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita
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The Porta Maggiore in 1896, the Aqua Claudia is the upper channel
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The Aqua Claudia in the Campagna

 

Great Landscapes: Bruegel, again

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Pieter Bruegel the elder, The Return of the Herd, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1565

To be honest, Bruegel turned out great landscape after great landscape. Coming as he did, from the Low Countries, one suspects that if he hadn’t made a long and arduous trip to Italy and back, over Alpine passes, from 1551 to 1555, then it might be that we’d still have lots of quirky peasants and scary devils, but zilch in the way of towering crags, dark forests and Alpine meadows. It would have been our loss.

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Millais – Autumn Leaves, 1856. Manchester City Art Gallery

So I’m recommending this one for a topical reason: it’s November and it’s deep into autumn. Try as we might in our modern times, unless we have free global travel and lots of time off, we can’t  escape the seasons, for good or bad. Someone could write a modern day Georgics on this. The increasing use of strange devices like SAD lamps tells us that despite Christmas good cheer and all that, going into winter is still tough.

As an aside, on November days like today, with clear skies, skeletal beauty in the garden, and rich twilight, then a painting like Millais’ 1856 classic, Autumn Leaves actually makes the whole thing appealing.

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…live from the Bruegel gallery!

Back to the master though. If you visit Vienna’s amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum, you can enter the Bruegel room and see some of the seasonal paintings (also Prague and New York). Everyone has seen Hunters in the Snow, and the summer ones are charming and fun, but it’s February (The Dark Day) and November (The Return of the Herd), that to me are the most evocative and genuinely powerful. Man toiling against a harsh nature, outwith the relatively settled calm of the snowbound landscape of the depths of winter.

By a strange coincidence, today’s Daily Mail, of all publications, had a fascinating piece on how the shepherds in a remote and very inaccessible part of Georgia, Tusheti, bring their sheep down from the high pastures (10,000 ft!) for the winter, via the thoroughly hair raising Abano Pass.  Which is exactly what Bruegel’s peasants are doing with their cattle in this landscape, and the main reason why the painting has been identified with November. It’s incredible to realise that large swathes of rural Europe are essentially the same, culturally and economically, as they were 400 years ago.

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…from Ken Russell’s The Devils

Looking at the painting, as a study of structure it’s endlessly rewarding, with cunning obliques, horizontals, verticals and blocks of muted colours. As a Bruegel geek though, I have to say it’s in the specifics that I get the most pleasure. Looking at the two details below, there’s a classic barely visible Bruegel village with its identikit church, and buildings so dirty and muddy that they blend into the surroundings. The other shows a couple of late season boats on the river as it expands into the freezing estuary, with in the foreground an absolutely echt Bruegel motif – the gallows and the executed, rotting on the wheels high above the ground.

A stunning painting.

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There’s even a song to go with it – Tom Waits, always reliable

 

 

Great landscapes: Jan van der Heyden

I have an enduring soft spot for Dutch art in general, well beyond the big names. The second tier, like Hobbema, Avercamp and so on are not just technically gifted, but also supremely evocative of real life, only several hundred years ago. Taking your time to closely scrutinise their works is like entering a time machine. One could say the same for the Brabantine twins Bosch and Bruegel, except with those supreme masters their admittedly great landscapes are frequently in the context of the wackier end of the imagination. Not always though, as I detail here.

Back in 2010 there was a terrific exhibition at Holyrood Palace, featuring works from the Royal Collection, called Dutch Landscapes. No-one could even approach the scale and quality of the Royal Collection if starting from scratch today, not even Bill Gates. It is an amazing body of work, technically still in private hands. The original cover of the book that went with the exhibition, was a painting by Jan van der Heyden. He was a bit of a polymath, not least because he seems to have invented the fire engine. This painting of the Vliet, near Delft repays your attention. It is a classic of structure, technique and numerous small details – the flying birds, the bridge, the human activities. As with most of these Dutch Golden Age pictures, it seems like a good time and place to be alive, health/social circumstances permitting (see also 1950s USA, Habsburg Spain etc).

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Jan van der Heyden A Country House on the Vliet near Delft, Royal Collection. 1660

As a comparison, which in terms of the aesthetically pleasing rural idyll shows you what has been lost, here’s an up to date view of a scene from the same vicinity:

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…it lacks a certain something

…and if you didn’t believe the fire engine thing, here’s JVDH’s sketch of his design. Quite an all rounder...

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