Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reflections on landscape painting after 1900

Autumn at the Sackler Crossing - a nearly finished 'work in progress
8" x 10", coloured pencils on Arches HP

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Yesterday I completed an exercise involving hours of working my way through the books I own which provide a comprehensive overview of art across the world and across the centuries.

At the end of it - besides having the content for an overview of landscape art for my blog post - I was perplexed.

I really don't understand how the painting of landscapes can be such an enduring form of art across cultures, continents and centuries - until we get to the 20th century. In the last 50+ years, landscape art just doesn't seem to be produced by the sort of contemporary artists who get into major galleries, have exhibitions in the important museums and sell for big sums in the auction houses.

Why is that?

I've been trying to work out why ever since yesterday morning.

Maybe it's a corollary of the way change speeded up in the twentieth century? Just as we went from horse drawn carriages and the telegraph to landing a man on the moon and email in less than a 100 years, maybe leading artists have been working their way through alternative ways of making art - very fast? Maybe painting and landscapes are just so much 'old hat'?

This morning I woke up with a different notion. It's linked to our treatment of the environment and our capacity to travel and the ability to make our own pictures and videos using cameras (and now phones).

It seemed to me that maybe one or more of the following have also had a really significant impact on the status of landscape art
  • photos and film from all over the world are now instantly available - and have devalued landscapes which are drawn or painted
  • increased overseas travel now means that nothing under the sun now has a novelty value - we're no longer interested in paintings of explorations
  • people move around a lot more than they used to and this has led to overall interest in recording - through drawing and painting - the place where they live reducing over time
  • there are lots of claims on our time - and getting out of the studio to paint is a time-consuming activity which can be difficult to fit in. Far easier to stay home and paint from photos?
  • our total disregard for our environment over many years (eg trash in the countryside/global warming and icecaps melting/etc) means that most people just don't value landscapes any more
  • a constant preoccupation with the new and new toys means that people value the old and the familiar less and less - until they're under threat of extinction.
Well that's what I came up with.

How about you - why has landscape art been downgraded in contemporary art circles?

I'd be having this discussion over on my new blog - but I need to build its audience before that can happen (although after 12 days it is now up to 73 subscribers!)!

Today's post on The Art of the Landscape is about the The development of landscape art and focuses on the different reasons why people painted landscapes. I must emphasis this is the plan of action for the project rather than the fulfillment of it. People who are interested in participating in the project should comment on that post.

The drawing at the top is one which has been developed from the sketch I did at Kew Gardens at the end of October - see Autumn at the Sackler Crossing, Kew Gardens. Subject to a few more titivations, this will be going on exhibition at the Barbican Library in the City of London next month.

The Art of the Landscape


  1. Food for thought, Katherine - Especially when so many artists are landscape artists!

  2. I agree with the novelty factor as well as the fact that there are now other mediums to explore landscape art - photographs, recording, etc. Perhaps landscape art just isn't considered "contemporary" enough to be focused on by contemporary artists. They'd rather explore the human psyche, the human condition, the human flaw...? Or something beyond the human realm? Perhaps they find landscape art to be too limiting? Or perhaps it's just simply not the "fad"? Once a famous or "inspired" artist revives the landscape painting, I guarantee a LOT of contemporary artists will begin exploring that genre again.

  3. I, for one, would *love* to be able to do landscape paintings. As it is, I can barely draw a simple twig.

  4. I don't think it is suffering a downturn

    - Len Tabner for instance is having an exhibition across 3 major London Contemporary Galleries - http://www.messums.com/ex156_home.htm

    Kurt Jackson, John Virtue, David Prentice, David Tress, David Hockney has returned to it and many others are highly respected artists who work with the landscape and are doing very well!

    I watched as a KJ sold for £28,000 in a sell out show at a good gallery - that's a fair old price!

    The huge money seems to be for the conceptual stuff, like pickled sharks, made popular by the likes of Saatchi - but it's about hype, spiel and advertising skills rather than talent or work with any sustaining qualities :>(

  5. Some very interesting thinking points. I suppose decades & centuries of accomplished landscape paintings are enduring quite beautifully on walls in homes & offices everywhere; getting passed down through inheritance...and taking up space. Although I do sell a fair amount of landscape work, certainly not for high prices, I often hear the lament of 'no more wall space.'We do like many windows in our new homes...must be we love to look at landscape.
    Katherine, you have captured that British autumn glowing light in your "Autumn at Sackler Crossing". It is just perfect.

  6. Vivien - I know people like Kurt Jackson are successful but why aren't there more Kurt Jacksons?

    I recognise that there are many artists who are making a respectable living as landscape painters - but they never get featured in overviews of contemporary art - or books which provide an overview of the development of art in the twentieth century. It's the status of landscape art - and maybe even painting - which seems to have been downgraded in the art world at the 'upper levels'.

    Maybe the factor I left out of the equation is that marketing hype has overtaken art?

  7. Considering the serious environmental problems our planet is facing perhaps now more than ever before landscape painting is still relevant. If an artist choses to be part of the "in crowd", then perhaps landscape painting has become passe. If an artist choses to put sharks in formaldehyde that is their choice. Looking through Art of the West , Southwest Art , American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, American Artist there are many excellent landscape painters working creating art that has meaning. It all depends on what "market' you want to communicate with. I personally do not care for much of this conceptual art that is wrought with angst and supposed "smart" commentary. Much of it is too stupid by a half. Taking a brush to canvas or paper and painting or drawing still has meaning even though its 2010. Looking at art created by many of todays landscape painting masters validates this .

  8. Katherine, I think your last comment here nails it....

  9. "Considering the serious environmental problems our planet is facing perhaps now more than ever before landscape painting is still relevant."

    Spot on - so far as I'm concerned.

  10. I think the answer to why Landscape Art is no longer highly regarded lies in the development of the art canons or movements of the Art World, chiefly Modernism and Postmodernism. The Art World is less concerned in the genre or subject matter of the work and more in the idea it represents and the process. High Art is all about the grand idea and Conceptualism is the foundation. Today it is not enough to produce a beautiful painting of a landscape, as the museums already have Turner, Gainsborough et al. The Art World is constantly seeking the next new thing or something known done in a new way.

    As you know there are artists producing landscapes it is just no longer acknowledged as such by the Art World. Other painters for your list who tackle the subject of landscape, and are respected in the Art World are Peter Doig and Anslem Keiffer. However Keiffer is known as a history painter.

    Maybe what is needed is someone to start a new landscape art movement with other artists and create a reinvention of this subject. The group could write a manifesto, set up a series of DIY exhibitions get art critics and theorists to write a series of essays about the new relationship between art with the environment. Seriously. The Art World doesn’t produce art movements Artists do.

  11. I very much agree with what you say GB

    If my new blog with its focus on learning about landscape art is a small start I'm all for starting a new drive to raise the profile of landscape art!

    Thanks for the Peter Doig suggestion - so obvious bu of course I'd forgotten (and he's also very popular and in museums). 'How does he do it?' might be an interesting enquiry.

  12. Beautiful reflections and perspective, Katherine. The warm autumn colours are heart-warming too in the midst of all the current grey.

    I've been thinking a lot about your reflections on the popularity or lack thereof, of landscape art. It's going to take a lot more pondering. Landscapes like the great Colour Field paintings, I find are best appreciated by seeing the picture in its original form, whereas still life, portraits, abstracts seem to translate more easily to reproduction. Could this have an impact? Like most things, the more I learn the more I love (landscapes).

  13. With all due respect I don't think I agree with your premise. There are many great contemporary landscape painters and their work is highly valued... DeKooning, Alex Katz, Jim Dine, and David Hockney to name a few. Current painters I especially enjoy are Eric Aho, Peter Hoffer, and Stuart Shils.

  14. Steven - my point is one of relativity - I'm NOT saying that there are no great contemporary landscape painters. Put bluntly, it seems to me from my perspective of interest in art but relative ignorance that, on the whole, contemporary landscape paintings don't tend to get much attention from museums or win the big prizes or sell for very high prices at auction any more. OK - so neither did works by Van Gogh - but one has to try and find some sort of parameter as a start point.

    Conversely Peter Doig is maybe celebrated because he is that unusual person these days in the upper echelons of the art world - a painter who paints landscapes. He is also the artist whose painting of a white canoe in a recognisable landscape sold for $11.3 million at auction.

    You maybe haven't seen the other posts on the new blog where I've noted that I've yet to start a serious listing of leading landscape artists - although David Hockney is already listed (partly because I'm a Hockney fan).

    My definition of a landscape artist is somebody who does more than produce a few landscapes. For example Rubens produced some stunning landscapes - but I don't think many people would describe him as a landscape artist. Consequently I'd disagree with you about Jim Dine - his subject matter seems to be too eclectic to justify him being described as a landscape artist. On the other hand, I'd include David Hockney (who similarly has ecelectic interests) because he has returned to the landscape again and again over the years and is currently involved with an extended period of developing artwork about the landscapes found in East Yorkshire

    I'm certainly greatful for suggestions of artists who are worthy of attention. However at the moment I'm mainly looking for the ones that rank with the names of other artists from the past - the sort of artist who will be still be identified in these sort of listings in 200-300 years time.

    Maybe you can help by identifying some serious reviews of contemporary art which focus on landscape painting and its importance as a genre within the contemporary art scene - because I'm struggling to find any at the moment.

    From a practical perspective, the problem with a lot of the contemporary painters is the dearth of images online for people like de Kooning. Plus there are other issues such as whether calling a painting which rooted in abstract expressionism a landscape make it a landscape - I really don't know. Here's an example, Woman, Sag Harbor

    But finding out is the point of the project!


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