In a recent radio interview, painter and writer Koen Broucke made it clear that you can only experience a landscape in a scattered way. “Analysis destroys the landscape,” he argued.
On the one hand, there is something to be said for this conception and approach to the landscape: that the contemplation or artistic creation of a landscape requires a kind of contemplative and holistic attitude, in which the viewer does not concentrate on one or another element or aspect, but allows what presents itself to appear as a whole and generality. In his Philosophy of the Landscape, Georg Simmel argues that a landscape appears thanks to its specious mood: “We said that the landscape comes into being at the moment when a special unity begins to group together the natural phenomena that are found side by side on the earth’s surface. It differs from the unity that the scholar’s causal thought, the nature lover’s religious feeling, the farmer’s or strategist’s purposive view embrace in their field of vision. The main carrier of content is undoubtedly the mood of the landscape. With a human being, by that word we mean the entity that constantly or currently gives colour to the totality of his psychic contents. (…) The same applies to the mood of the landscape: it penetrates all its details, and yet it is impossible to hold a single detail responsible for it, because in a way that is difficult to define, all the details participate in the mood – but apart from these contributions, it exists no more than it is composed of their sum. (…) Even if we assume that mood can be summed up in the feeling that the landscape arouses in the viewer, the essential determination of that feeling remains exclusively linked to that particular landscape and no exchange is possible. (…) Mood signifies the generality of a given landscape, independent of any specific element, but is not the generality found in many landscapes.”
On the other hand, I believe that in the quoted statement Broucke reduces too much the possible path to the experience or creation of a landscape, that he presents it too one-sidedly, too black and white. We find two of the oldest landscape paintings in Western culture in the Palazzo Communale in Sienna: murals by, respectively, Simone Martini from 1302 and the Lorenzetti brothers from 1337. In the latter, we see a walled city depicted on a hill, and it is from this height, as it were, that we look at the landscape bounded by a horizon in the distance. The appearance of the landscape in our regions runs parallel to the birth of the early modern individual and the rise of an urban culture. The landscape is not a universal phenomenon. A farming community or an Indian community, for example, are too much a part of their environment to possess the need or ability to capture it in an image. The appearance of the landscape thus requires a certain, mental and aesthetic distance between the subject and the object of the gaze. The development of the western landscape is closely related to that of cartography and perspective. In turn, these both flow from, and give powerful impulses to, the mathematisation of natural philosophy, from which modern natural science emerges in the 17th century. From this we can, I think, infer that the landscape possesses not only a holistic but also an analytical side. A certain degree of analysis then – far from ‘destroying’ the landscape – is even a necessary condition for the appearance, creation or experience of a landscape.
Last year, Museum Arnhem hosted a group exhibition entitled Tenminste houdbaar tot, on the depiction of our dealings with nature since the 17th century. The introductory text read, “There are works of art that denounce the exploitation of land and people living on it, past and present. Others depict a sustainable future for all life on earth.” Among other things, the exhibition worked out a contrast between 18th- and 19th-century landscapes and still lifes, which, according to the accompanying explanation, reduce nature to an objectified and dead image, and the way some contemporary artists – in each case in photography and video – depict a connecting, holistic relationship with their environment. Only the latter works lacked any reflection on how to deal with their own high-tech medium, which is itself pre-eminently the result of that detested modernity. The complete lack of awareness that in the use of a contemporary camera, by definition, lies a great abstraction, leads here to a false sentimentality and moralism. The same phenomenon manifested itself in the expo Réclamer la terre, which took place simultaneously at the Palais de Tokyo.
Awareness of the landscape as an image is emphatically thematised in the picturesque aesthetic from the late 18th century onwards. This manifests itself, among other things, in the English landscape garden and in an emerging landscape tourism. What emerges here is an intermediate position, which I believe is characteristic of the modern landscape. On the one hand, the tourist, the landscape architect or the artist tries to capture the environment in one or more images. But this need for images arises from the realisation that one can never fully survey or make transparent that environment in a planned way. A landscape then results from an interplay of distancing and being part of an environment, analysis and synthesis, acting and letting happen. She is that interaction.
In another way, we find this interaction today in the generative nature of digital media. On the one hand, there is the profound abstraction brought about by digital technology. On the other hand, this massive interaction of noughts and ones makes it possible to generate an image, process-wise and in that sense from the inside out, and make it appear. In a 2001 publication on Marcel Berlanger’s work, which relates to a digital world of images in the time-honoured discipline of painting, I penned the artist’s words as follows: “You cannot touch reality, but you can approach it. And all the more so the more distant means you use. The more you show a system of representation, the more strongly it erases itself at the same time. (…) You get closer to nature when you distance yourself from it than when you stay as close to it as possible. Because that way you almost manage to imitate nature’s creativity. You find processes.”
The programme will bring together a selection of artists including:
Marcel Berlanger; Dirk Braeckman; Stijn Cole; Dieter Daemen; Marc De Blieck; Goele Dewanckel; Pierre-Philippe Hofmann; Jan Kempenaers; Emi Kodama & Elias Heuninck; Hanne Lamon; Martine Laquiere; Mira Sanders; Philippe Van Isacker; Laura Viale
Opening Sunday 29.10.23
From Saturdays to Sunday, 2pm > 6pm
During school holidays from Fridays to Sundays, 2pm > 6pm
Until Sunday 7.01.24
Grote Markt 26
8630 Veurne (BE)
Read more about Stijn Cole