zedscape: Modern Landscape Art (con'd)

The painting thought to be closest to a photograph is A View of Delft by Jan Vermeer (1635-75), except the design is too calculated, the elements are too consistent and the colours are brighter than real life. Albert Cuyp (1620-91) painted The Maas at Dordrecht by the reddish light of a setting sun. Painting light had become a trick but, according to Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) at London’s Royal Academy, 17th century Dutch landscapes were ‘the last branch of uninteresting subjects’.


Where Clark calls his chapter, ‘Landscape of Fantasy’, Andrews calls his, ‘Astonished beyond Expression’, and it is a challenging area to classify. Awe-inspiring is a cliché today, but the image ‘takes your breath away’. El Greco’s View of Toledo (1597) is a cityscape. Fires, thunderstorms on land and sea, dark forests, waterfalls, treacherous skies with craggy mountains and precipices were all game subjects for Salvatore Rosa (1615-73) as well. ‘The experience of the Sublime is, almost by definition, one that subverts order, coherence, a structured organisation’ (Andrews). If sublime is masculine then its antithesis, picturesque, must be feminine: curved and soft rolling hills, swirling mist, passive, slow moving water, low contrast, aerial perspective, pastel shades, ‘soft’ focus. A much later example is Degas’ Landscape (c.1892).

‘Ideal’ landscapes by Claude Lorraine (1600-82) and Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) combined images that make up classical landscapes inspired by the Virgilian Golden Age, when mankind lived without effort and fear, before Pandora’s Box. In Claude’s case, there is a corridor on one side, a middle plane with a large central feature, followed by two more distant planes, the whole being interconnected by bridges and other devices. While Claude used receding planes, Poussin was more geometrical: since landscapes do not have natural verticals, he introduced classical buildings and repeated non-vertical diagonals to give depth.

The art world finds it difficult to place Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840): his ‘frigid’ technique has not been extended. These landscapes were painted when chiefdoms were developing in Zambia, and two of them, Kazembe and Lozi, became kingdoms with imperial tendencies. In many ways, some landscape photography is reminiscent of Friedrich’s style: there are plenty of trees like that in the Tree of Crows (c.1822) on the way to Western Province.

Perhaps the master of chiaroscuro in landscape was John Constable (1776-1837). Chiaroscuro is reflected light in shadows: in the case of landscape, this is often the blue of the sky. Constable painted his themes as small oil paintings and sketched his forms with pencil. He then made large oil sketches, which remain most admired, before painting an even larger finished canvas. Constable is recognised as having an impact on the Barbizon school, exemplified by Delacroix, and having the essential qualities of impressionists to spontaneously transcribe a landscape to a sketch.

That Constable constructed a painting made him very different to Gustave Courbet (1819-77) who painted grass too green, sunsets too pink, like a colour-embellished postcard, a style that can be understood without education or knowledge. He is considered one of the first realist painters, who captured the image that is there rather than the conception of what is there, rather like photography; the result is popular but non-ideal art.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the last great painter before the advent of photography, and no comparison can be made between his paintings and anything that could be made with a daguerreotype, and the same is true for later great painters, like Claude Monet (1840-1926) Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) George Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

34-second slideshow

Cover of Photobook zedscape Burning Water Leaning tree Track Maize and cassava Rattooned Power Game and cattle Duality Farm Clouds with tree Long road Dragon fly Evening Prison Church

Peter Langmead,

Lusaka, 2014.

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