zedscape: Modern Landscape Art

Since the term landscape can be all-encompassing, it is defined to some extent by what it is not. It is not a portrait, even though the background in a portrait may contain landscape-like elements, like Jan van Eyke’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1433/4) or his and Hubert’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) where distance is becoming realistic. And it is not a still-life.

Old man treeOld man tree

Nature had a poor start: it was dangerous, and Petrarch, for example, was reportedly the first man of letters to climb a mountain. Nevertheless, landscape has very much been in the human psyche. The earliest existent modern landscape is probably Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Peace (1339) in Siena. The role of this painting was entirely political; its importance is that it shows an appreciation of beauty for its own sake without religious motivation, which is the definition of modern landscape art. Still, at that time, the Persian concept of paradise being a walled garden still prevailed, as it still does today to some extent, as evidenced by a history of walled-city States and artistically minded tyrants.

So, there was an area outside Eden that was seen as dangerous, because of animals and alleged criminals, a belief that continues to be driven by xenophobes, but ranging from magnificent beauty to awe-inspiring creation.

It was not until the 14th century that medieval man went hunting in those dark and dangerous forests, for sport, first seen in de Limbourg brothers’ calendar pages in Très Riches Hours du duc de Berry (1413-16). Again, while these paintings are part of a prayer book, the images do not refer to religion; as a result, these small paintings are thought to be examples of early modern landscapes, and they achieve a sense and saturation of light through colour that is not matched again until the 19th century.

Linear perspective, which is the concept of a vanishing point, was first found in a painting by Filippo Brunelleschi (c. 1415) and explained in a treatise by architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). The next great landscapes were the Venetian landscapes of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), who added the emotive power of morning and evening light so popular with landscape photographers today. Interestingly, he reverted to midday light later. Aerial perspective was used by Leonardo da Vinci in the Virgin and Child with St Anne (1508-10), where distance is realised by degrading tones and reducing contrast.

Clark’s factual landscapes disappear from both sides of the Alps, after Bellini and Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516), until the 17th century, except for Pieter Brueghel (1525/30-69), whose unique landscapes marry humanity and weather. Both Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt (1606-69) sketched factually but their paintings departed from reality.

Dutch landscapes in the 17th century extended from nowhere and, after years of suffering, the market was for pragmatic views of what they had died for: the wars of religion were over; mannerist art was finished; and mediocre art was as fashionable as it is today! Meanwhile, in Zambia, tribes and cultural myths were evolving, often through adventurers from the north. Most of the languages spoken today were essentially in place at that time.

If anyone defined genres, it was the Dutch. Although landscape paintings already existed, the Dutch specialised and moralised: Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) painted landscapes - 1,200 still exist - selling to town-dwelling merchants, professional classes, tradesmen and better-off artisans. A feature of his pictures was low horizons, showing lots of sky. Exaggerating the importance of windmills by size and river palings by light is evident in Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk, (c. 1665); Meindert Hobbema’s (1638-1709) The Avenue, Middelharnis, (1689) suggests the viewer should stay on the ‘straight and narrow’.

32-second slideshow

Cover of Photobook zedscape Drama Impala Sunrise Livingstone's dense white cloud Rain Rights Sublime Kigelia Zambian Canal Mankind Tractor Fake The road to the sunset Speeding cattle Long drop

Peter Langmead,

Lusaka, 2014.

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