Landscape – it’s a word we use almost daily in a thousand ways, something so familiar as to require little or no thought. Taking the contemporary way, a quick Google search comes up with more than 2 billion hits in less than a second, so ingrained into the language the word has become. Most of course are sponsored advertisements for landscape supplies, landscape contractors, landscape designers and the odd landscape architect. There will be thousands of promotions for paintings, holiday resorts and window treatments. But the word is loaded and overlaid with its origins in art, a form of elevated discourse that moves us above a mere thought of ‘the land’.
In its original form and as understood in the dictionary sense, landscape refers to the visible aspect of the surface of the earth and all those things upon it, whether natural or manmade. With that understanding came the idea that various qualities could be ascribed to that view of the world, a sense of grandeur, nobility and eternity, but equally those of poverty, squalor and degradation. The first depictions of landscape, dating back to prehistoric times, gave meaning to the visual world. It could be argued that the cave paintings of Lascaux are a form of landscape depiction, for by rendering recognisable animals in different sizes infers an understanding of space and distance, creating an impression of the reality of the world beyond the cave. Those making and viewing the drawings understood full well that their cattle and horses had a mass and form that was measured against other natural elements of their experience. Concepts of big and small, far and near could be made visible by the hand of the artist. The Greeks and Romans enlivened their simple built forms with marvellously rendered depictions of the world outside, both recognisable and imaginary. The inclusion of a building or figure in a landscape meant that a sense of scale could be quickly determined – the concepts of distance, relationship and proximity, of great and small were visible and understandable. Even in classical times the value of an image in proving status and power was well understood. The depiction of recognisable places and buildings implanted the clear understanding that ‘these things are mine’.
The idea of landscape painting, as we understand it today, reached its maturity in the seventeenth century, especially with the Dutch predilection for land and seascape paintings for the homes of the new merchant class. The form, however, had gradually come into being more than a thousand years before. From medieval times the landscape became a support and a framing device for religious imagery. The bleak hill of Calvary, the lush arbours of the Garden of Eden and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon contained lessons for the faithful that could be made real by the artist’s imagination and technical skill. The fact that such renditions could only be seen in the largest of churches and luxurious of palaces meant there was an aura and status attached to such creations, as there was to all works of art. While in today’s world the idea of art is universal, it is easy to forget just how rare and special a painting or work of art could be. Prior to the invention of the printing press, only the rich and privileged came into regular contact with the graven image. For the average rural peasant or town dweller, probably the only images they would ever have seen would be the hanging pictorial signs outside an inn, placed so the illiterate would know if they were meeting their chums at the King’s Head or the Old Fox. The Reformation meant that images were no longer in churches and places of worship, further restricting their ownership and understanding to the upper classes.
The rise of the Netherlands as a world power was based purely on their maritime prowess and creation of trading networks. A tiny country with few natural resources, the industrious Dutch carved out a substantial empire and became the trading hub of Europe. That success brought power and wealth to a growing middle class who lived in the rapidly developing urban centres, built alongside the canals, the arteries serving their businesses. Their teetering townhouses were often restricted in outlook, so what better way to create a feeling of openness and freedom than a series of bright and lively renditions of the land around them and the ships that brought them wealth and power? Instead of being confined to religious subjects, the artists of Amsterdam and Rotterdam began to paint the world around them, the towns along the canals and the ships on the high seas. Those images were full of the human qualities aspired to by the new merchants – daring, courage and risk, the power and imagination to overcome danger and the rewards for those who persevered against the odds. Remandt Van Rijn, considered by many the greatest artist not only of his own time, but of all time, ventured into the world of landscape on at least six occasions. As was often the case in such works, the idea of the ‘pure’ landscape was legitimised by the inclusion of a figure whose presence is made clear in the title. Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan could be depicting any time and place, with two random figures meeting on a lonely country road, but the title imbues it with a meaning and higher message for those contemplating the scene. This is now a magic place, the very spot where the Good Samaritan paused to undertake his good works and enter the lexicon for all things noble, humane and caring. It is in works such as this that the idea of a vision of the landscape carrying more than a bland statement of time and place comes into being. The artist plays with his knowledge and observation of the natural world to further add gravity and meaning. The dark lowering sky is a message of warning, but relieved by the glimmer of light and hope in the far heavens to the left of the composition. Over time this symbolic language has become so ingrained into the collective consciousness that we automatically sense its meaning with no further prompts.
For the next two hundred years the landscape in art gradually became the dominant form, alongside the portrait and the allegorical figure painting. The European aristocracy marked their lands in grand vistas, making it clear the extent of their dominions, as did the new middle class, out to prove that lands acquired through purchase could be just as grand as those acquired though inheritance. Whether it was Thomas Gainsborough artfully placing Mr and Mrs Andrews into their lush farmstead or William Marlow romanticising the manicured fields of Chatsworth, the use of landscape painting as a statement of power and influence was clearly understood. The Chatsworth case was especially potent, as the Dukes of Derbyshire had created the actual landscape to maximise its charm and visual appeal, moving whole villages and displacing hundreds of tenants simply to improve their view of the ‘natural world’. If the landscape does not fulfil your desires and reflect your authority, force it into submission as a display of power and will.
The Enlightenment brought with it the desire to explore and make known every corner of the world, both familiar and yet to be discovered. And once discovered, the landscape artist would be deployed to bring home the vistas of far-flung lands and the people they happened to meet along the way. The topographical landscape became an art form in its own right, the desire to depict accurately all the natural beauties and terrors of the new worlds, all to be perused and enjoyed in the comfort of home or one’s London Club. The European settlement of Australia brought with it the desire to make known the forms and qualities of this new land. That brought about a new purpose for art and the rendition of landscape. When the convict artist Joseph Lycett ventured up the coast from Sydney Town to work around the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie, he saw a land of great beauty and promise. The lush grasslands created through Aboriginal burning, the great stands of cedar and the waters alive with fish and game seemed like an earthly paradise ready for the taking, which of course is exactly how his works were seen and exploited. Lycett’s images were reproduced in substantial numbers back home in England and became a useful promotional tool for the new Australian Agricultural Company. The AA Co had been granted an astounding one million acres of prime land, encompassing much of the Hunter Valley and the surrounding areas to the North. Its shareholders were the great and the good of English society who were happy to exploit the riches of the new land. What better lure to prospective shareholders than the charming landscape renditions created by a skilled artist, however humble his circumstances and doubtful his criminal record might have been.
As the 19th century moved on, artists from around the world arrived in the country, eager to depict its wonders and spread its story, while also building their own reputations and income. There was Eugene Von Guerard, touring the southern colonies, recording for posterity the impressive homesteads and selections of the wealthy squatters, who were eager to stamp ownership upon the lands so recently taken from the local Indigenous people, who occasionally appear as a picturesque addendum in the corner of a work. Landscape painting again used as a clear expression of power and control.
For the next hundred years we have seen the growth of dozens of styles and means to depict the land around us, at times simply for pleasure and comfort, at others with political intent as a warning of environmental degradation and cultural loss. And whether it was Drysdale, Nolan or Williams helping us gain a properly ‘Australian’ view of the land, all the time there was a yearning for some ‘authentic’ rendition of the landscape. In school we were taught that the first artists didn’t understand the land, naively rendering it through European eyes, and that one had to be ‘properly Australian’ to see its true values. The Heidelberg school artists were lauded as the first to achieve this, despite the fact that Tom Roberts had been born in England and, as soon as they achieved sufficient notice, they all decamped ‘home’ to London to seek fame and fortune. We were blind to the fact that the Indigenous people of Australia had been ‘depicting’ the land in their own way for thousands of years. It was not until they were ‘taught’ to use western media in a commercially exploitable fashion to depict their images that we suddenly realised their powers of understanding.
In the second half of the twentieth century we have seen a myriad of forms and styles emerge, each an attempt to find an authenticity and true relationship with ‘our’ land. Whether utterly conventional or cutting edge, each artist tries to bring their own vision as to what they understand as ‘landscape’, its meaning and purpose as an art form. It might be a conventional rendering of a town or city, as with the popular landscapist Kenneth Jack, the bold mark making of Fred Williams, the tangled mysteries of William Robinson or the deeply symbolic totems of John Coburn.
At the end of the second decade of the 21st Century it seems every possible avenue for expression has been exhausted within the all-encompassing mantle of Landscape. In photography, painting, printmaking and sculpture, artists have pushed and prodded, reached out and revisited every point of difference and interpretation. Bill Henson’s dark renderings of the urban night, Tim Storrier’s stage managed clay pans and burning logs and Rick Amor’s windy beaches have all found special corners in our consciousness, just as Emily Kngwarreye’s majestic patterns and Tracey Moffatt’s small town dramas bring us a new understanding of human relationships and our place in their land.
For John Hart, growing up in, and later returning to, the outback town of Broken Hill, it has been an especially challenging road to find his own interpretation of the land that is such a powerful presence in his part of the world. The temptation to simply drive out of town and paint the tough and gritty desert landscape is an obvious choice, almost too easy to resist. But John has had the benefit of art school training, far away from the scrubby bush and quaint old ruins, gaining an understanding of both the theory and the practice of art on a broader scale. He has a thoroughly modern view of the creative process, bringing together a wide range of techniques including photography and digital manipulation. John has combined the hand wrought nature of painting with a brush with the digitally created image, creating carefully rendered paintings in a contemporary form of pointillism. These were followed by a powerful series of still life paintings using a simple piece of folded cloth as the only motif. They extended his technical prowess to the point where he was ready to expand the form onto another, higher level. The weightless flow of his monochrome studies has been transformed into a series of images that he references as landscapes, rather than still life.
In creating this colourful set of landscape paintings, the fundamental question is posed – just how much, or how little, does an artist have to do to invoke the concept of landscape, over and above a purely abstract composition where the paint on canvas is the subject itself? Over the decades we have seen many artists push the limits as to what might be considered landscape. A spreading canvas by Peter Booth can be, if titled that way, be seen simply as a black square, an abstract composition. But if the same pictrure is called ‘Doorway’, it becomes a subject painting, posing the question as to whether one is inside looking out at the land, albeit in the dark of night, or on the outside looking into a darkened room. Either way, a sense of place is imposed, and therefore the assumption that the work is a form of landscape. Similarly a blank canvas on which a handful of random brush marks appears in the lower half is treasured as a ‘Minimalist Landscape’ by Fred Williams. The placement of the marks below an imaginary line creates the horizon, the fundamental defining element of the landscape. Be it the point where the sea becomes the sky or the sky meets the land, that mark of the horizon is all that is needed to invoke meaning and orientation.
John Hart has decided to push the boundaries even further, avoiding the defining horizon line and yet presenting a coherent and thorough understanding of the fundamentals of the land, but in a bright and challenging form. To create these images John has invented a technique that is both controlled and random at the same moment. He takes pieces of paper, cardboard and metal foil, twisting and crushing them into random shapes, which are then photographed and the resulting images processed on a computer to imbue them with colour and texture. These images then become the studies on which the paintings are based, the brushwork carefully applied to mimic the surfaces and textures of the original forms. There is a clear parallel between the man-made elements and the landscape the artist wishes to express, for the folds and creases of the paper forms are a metaphor for the great folds and fractures of the earth’s crust, no better expressed than in the bare rocks and gullies of Broken Hill. When travelling through that country, at first we see the trees and grasses, the dust and dirt of the outback, yet we know that just below the surface, and often breaking through it, are the elemental forms that speak of the great forces of creation. The artist uses what might be seen as simple man-made contemporary materials, but even they have parallels in nature – the basic elements of metallurgy, biology, earth and water. The crushed cardboard that so eloquently echoes the folded outback rock is simply the product of wood fibre and water, brought together under great heat and pressure, just as the rocks themselves were as they were thrust up from the earth’s core. The glint of light on the aluminium foil reflects the great charges of electricity used to turn the grainy sands of orange bauxite into the slick sheen of polished metal.
In using the manipulated photograph as the ‘sketch’ on which the paintings are based, John Hart is using a tried and true technique in capturing an image, albeit with a modern twist. We know that from the impressionists onward, artists have used photography as a way a capturing an image, for recording detail and allowing quiet contemplation back in the studio. There is nothing inherently more authentic about recording an image ‘on the spot’ rather than one created back in the studio. Certainly the sense of wind in the hair and sun on the brow can add to a feeling of time and place for an artist, but the work has no more inherent meaning because of that fact. These works are wholly products of the artist’s imagination, jumping off from a known base into a new and wondrous place. Rather than the viewer musing that ‘I know that place’ or ‘let’s go there on our next holiday’, we are invited to imagine a dazzling dreamscape, still recognisable as a view of the land, a landscape in its fundamentals, but not one defined by experience, sentiment, nostalgia or longing.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA, MPhil