Research point: Different artists’ depictions of landscape
Look at and research different artists depictions of landscape. Make notes in your learning log.
For this research point, I’ve chosen to look at three artists – two with whom I’m fairly familiar (Albrecht Durer and L.S. Lowry), and one I’ve discovered relatively recently (Edward Burra).
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
The great Renaissance artist of Northern Europe, Durer is credited with being one of the earliest pioneers of landscape as a subject worthy of attention in itself, not merely as a backdrop for religious or allegorical paintings. After extensive travels through Italy, Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1496, bringing ‘the experience of Italian art’ with him (Cotter, 2013). He recorded his journey through Italy in a series of watercolours, with which ‘with an increasingly virtuoso handling of the medium, combined with a sparing use of gouache, he created landscapes out of light and colour’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013). An example of this can be seen in Landscape near Segonzano in the Cembra Valley (1495), a delicate watercolour of a seemingly vast expanse of hills and valleys. The palette is restrained – mostly greys and blues, with touches of green and light reddish-brown. The foreground is drawn loosely in a few broad strokes, whilst our eye is drawn to the middle distance, where Durer depicts the landscape in much greater detail, using darker tones to focus our attention on the undulating fields and dense areas of forestation. This view trails off into distant blue hills. This is an altogether softer depiction than his earlier watercolour, The Wire Drawing Mill (1489).
This seems a much tighter affair, much more controlled. Detail is shown through much of the painting, giving our eye far more to take in. This is possibly due to its depiction of the mill and surrounding residences – a lot was happening there. However, the detail continues quite far back into the picture – the trees in the mid-ground are almost as keenly observed as those in the foreground. Similarly with the distant houses. ‘In his early works he placed a much greater emphasis on topography, with the scene being recorded in painstaking detail’ (Web Gallery of Art, 2013).
Contrast The Wire Drawing Mill with Landscape with a Woodland Pool (above). It is believed to have been painted after Durer returned from his first trip to Italy, and his absorption of the Italian style is already evident. Rather than a purely topographical representation, this is a sensitive depiction of a landscape that would have been far more familiar to Durer (it is thought to show a scene near his home town of Nuremberg). ‘On the left we see the broken trunks of pine trees rising on a grassy bank. To the right are more pine trees, their deep green tops filling the paper. In between is deep blue water which disappears into the darkening distant horizon. As the sun sets, the clouds turn a deep blue which is mirrored in the blue of the lake. Similarly, the green branches of the pine trees are balanced by the green banks around the water. Dürer’s fluid brush and deep colours make it a very beautiful and harmonious depiction of restful nature’ (British Museum, 2013).
Durer’s early works tend to have ‘crowded compositions and emphatic emotions’, but he became ‘much more classical and restrained, as he learned to reconcile his native love of precise detail with Italian ideals of grandeur and harmony’ (Chilvers, 2012). This change in Durer’s landscape style is perhaps most apparent in Dream Vision(Apocalyptic Dream), painted in 1525. It is a picture made in response to a dream, so one might expect it to be sketchier and more expressive, but it seems a world away from the man who painted The Wire Drawing Mill. It could be any place – the location seems immaterial. It is the atmosphere which dominates, Durer’s own reaction to the shocking vision of which he’d dreamt the night before.
Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976)
I was interested to learn that Lowry spent twenty years as an art student (first at evening classes, and then at the Manchester School of Art and Salford Royal Technical College) – it makes the potential twelve years for an OCA degree seem almost brief! His studies ran alongside his work as a rent collector, around the Pendlebury area. His surroundings provided him with a rich source of inspiration – the mills and factories, the coal mines and back-to-back cottages. A Manufacturing Town (1922) depicts an industrial cityscape – ‘no place in particular, but in the spirit of a northern town such as the artist’s native Salford. It is an early work with a dark background, painted before Lowry was encouraged to lighten the sky. The artist combines elements of factory buildings, mine heads, smoking chimneys, busy street life and civic pride’ (BBC Your Paintings, 2013). I was intrigued to learn that Lowry had originally painted darker compositions, as the light creamy streets and skies always struck me as being at odds with the environments he chose. Compare A Manufacturing Town with Industrial Landscape (1955):
The difference is marked, with the latter painting seeming considerably more stylised. ‘The whiteness evokes the cold northern air, but also a light between unforgiving visibility and radiance – fact and enchantment’ (Wullschlager, 2013). The picture has a monumental quality, drawing much further back than A Manufacturing Town, in order to show the industrial landscape in all its glory. The division of horizontals and verticals is striking, too – the latter being preserved almost exclusively for the chimneys and smoke, which no doubt dominated the landscape for miles around.
Many of Lowry’s landscapes show people going about their daily activities, be it work or leisure. The Organ Grinder (1934) is a good example. It depicts a busy Manchester street, a more domestic scene than either of the previous two pictures. But still there is the looming presence of an industrial chimney in the background, and clouds of chimney smoke hang above the passers by. This painting provides another striking comparison with A Manufacturing Town, with more distinct colours and lighter street tones.
Lowry tended to work with a restricted palette, using black, vermillion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. Limiting his colours was one way in which he simplified the scenes he painted, lending them a sense of uniformity, but also a degree of familiarity. The seemingly naive style he adopted actually has a very modernist quality to me – particularly when one looks back at his early work. He seems to have stepped away from fairly traditional depictions of townscapes, to lighter, more colourful, and more manipulated compositions, which must have been surprising to his contemporaries. ‘The exact location of his works was rarely stated as Lowry often worked from memory, calling his paintings dreamscapes ‘part real, and part imaginary … bits and pieces of my home locality. I don’t even know I’m putting them in. They just crop up like things do in dream’ (BBC Your Paintings, 2013).
His depiction of people moved from detailed to impressionistic, increasingly suggesting ‘the routine movement of crowds of workers’ (Stuart-Smith, 2013). This is illustrated in the two paintings shown above: Going To Work (1943) and Going To The Match (1953). It also offers a view of how much of life in these towns was communal – the community of work, and the community of leisure – and how the industrial landscape was the backdrop for all activity.
I was particularly interested to see some of Lowry’s drawings, such as Dwelling, Ordsall Lane, Salford, 1927 (above). ‘Lowry felt that drawings were as hard to do as painting. He worked the surface of his drawings by smudging, erasing and rubbing the pencil lines on his paper to build the atmosphere of the drawing. He was always doing quick sketches on the spot on whatever paper he had in his pockets’ (The Lowry, 2013). This quick sketchy work has even more energy for me than his paintings, and is a good reminder to try and keep initial drawings loose – immediate responses to what stands before me.
The two drawings above are the works I find most exciting by Lowry – bold lines for a strong landscape, drawn in equally strong contrasting tones. Their pared down quality holds appeal for me, and would be useful in selecting and simplifying details for drawing townscapes. They make me realise my natural tendency would be to opt for pencils and lots of detail, when this way of working is far more dynamic. They also show the importance of looking for interesting compositions, vertically as well as horizontally.
Edward Burra (1905-1976)
A very different kind of industrial landscape appears in the painting above, by English painter, illustrator and stage designer, Edward Burra. So broad and varied was his career, I could easily fill a post on him alone. However, here I shall concentrate on his landscape work, which dominated the latter half of his career. Despite living almost all his life in Rye, Sussex (with frequent trips abroad), he increasingly favoured remote, sparsely populated areas.
While Cabbages, Springfield, Rye (1937) is similar stylistically to his later landscapes, the content seems more densely packed. Even so, for what is a relatively undramatic area, he has created a bold scene, with the rays of sunlight coming through the brooding clouds. I was struck by the leaning attitude of many of the trees, too – having read that Burra didn’t care too much for genteel Rye, it seems as though his very landscapes are craving to be elsewhere.
‘In the late 1930’s, he had begun to paint very large watercolours and continued in his late landscapes a technique of joining together several sheets of paper that he had worked on separately’ (Causey, 2013).
He used watercolour in ways not generally associated with the medium – ways that really excite me. Broad washes of intense colour, on an unusually large scale, give his work something of a monumental quality, quite unlike traditional watercolours. In English Countryside (1937), the land is presented in bold swathes of colour, cut through by a seemingly endless road, and diagonally dissected by intermittent electricity pylons.
Features such as pylons frequently appeared in his later work (see above). Along with tunnels, roads, and heavy lorries, these were the ways in which he illustrated man’s impact on the land, often providing the only reference towards people in his landscape paintings. He seemed to be saying that even in these wild and remote places, one could not escape the hand of man. In several of the articles I read on Burra, these paintings were referred to as ‘sinister’. I suppose they might appear that way to some – vast empty landscapes, bearing the scars of despoilment. The main emotion they evoke for me is melancholy, though. I sense a genuine sadness at the encroachment on these areas of wilderness. There is beauty in them too, though.
In Landscape, Dartmoor, for example, the washes of green and earth tones, with hints of blue sky, conjure up a place close to my heart. I live very close to Dartmoor, and am always curious to see how artists treat it – especially as it changes almost constantly. Here, Burra captures the way that light falls across the hills and valleys, producing great shadows. The landscape overlaps, as it rises and falls, creating a vast backdrop intersected by lines of trees following the River Dart. His use of colour is beautiful – such variety of greens. The patchwork effect is not altogether typical of the area, as it tends to be marked out more by scattered stone settlements, rather than these regular smaller boundaries. But the scale works, absolutely.
If certain landscapes seemed to deviate from geographical reality in Burra’s paintings, that could be explained by the fact that he worked largely from memory. ‘He did not paint on the spot, but sometimes used drawings made after seeing a view. Because the drawings were done after seeing the landscape, and the painting from them was often not begun until many months later when the scene had come to the boil in his mind, there were two clear intervals between seeing the subject and making the picture during which his imagination had the chance to act on it’ (Neve, 1990). Burra spoke of ‘a time-lag between my seeing a landscape and my coming to the boil, so to say, but when I go back there, I’m always puzzled by what I’ve left out’ (Bristow, 2013).
I’m curious to know if there’s a connection between the change in Burra’s art, in his later years (compared with the packed and lively paintings created earlier in his career), and the fact that these pictures were made only a few years before his death. He had suffered poor health since childhood (severe arthritis and anaemia). How much of this change of direction was a response to his declining health, I wonder? His landscapes certainly have a contemplative quality – as though he was aware of how small we are in the midst of nature. Frequently, these pictures have an immense sense of depth. As Christopher Neve wrote, ‘what gives the pictures their emotional potency is their raking depth to the horizon, their roller-coaster perspective’ (Neve, 1990). Burra and his sister, Anne, went on regular car trips in his later years – open empty places, such as the Yorkshire moors. Places where he would be able to see far into the distance.
The result of one such journey was Valley and River, Northumberland (1972). Another expansive view, painted on a large scale, it has an almost abstract quality. The cleft of the river in the landscape creates a feeling of looking inward, rather than outward.
Of all the painters I’ve looked at here, Burra is the one I can most imagine relating to the way I’d like to work. Bold handling of watercolour – fluidity of line – a sense of space – an interpretation of the landscape, rather than an illustration of it.
BBC Your Paintings (2013) A Manufacturing Town [Online], Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/a-manufacturing-town-179867 (Accessed 2 October 2013).
BBC Your Paintings (2013) Industrial City [Online], Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/industrial-city-176858 (Accessed 2 October 2013).
Bristow, L. (2013) Edward Burra Education Pack [Online], Available at http://pallant.org.uk/docs/educationpackfinalprint_reduced_0.pdf (Accessed 5 October 2013).
British Museum (2013) Albrecht Dürer, Landscape with a Woodland Pool, a drawing [Online], Available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/a/albrecht_dürer,_landscape-1.aspx (Accessed 25 September 2013).
Causey, A. (2013) Edward Burra [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T012602?q=edward+burra&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 5 October 2013).
Chilvers, I. (2012) Albrecht Dürer [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198604761.001.0001/acref-9780198604761-e-1137?rskey=l0XBsd&result=5 (Accessed 25 September 2013).
Cotter, H. (2013) ‘The Renaissance Followed Him North’, The New York Times, 21 March 2013 [Online], Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/arts/design/albrecht-durer-master-drawings-watercolors-and-prints-at-the-national-gallery.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed 25 September 2013).
Lowry, The (2013) LS Lowry – His Life and Career [Online], Available at http://www.thelowry.com/ls-lowry/his-life-and-work/ (Accessed 2 October 2013).
Oxford Art Online (2013) Albrecht Dürer [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T024180pg1?q=durer&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 25 September 2013).
Neve, C. (1990) Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting, London, Faber and Faber.
Stuart-Smith, S. (2013) L.S. Lowry [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T052185?q=lowry&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 2 October 2013).
Web Gallery of Art (2013) Albrecht Dürer [Online], Available at http://www.wga.hu/html_m/d/durer/2/16/1/15willow.html (Accessed 25 September 2013).
Wullschlager, J. (2013) LS Lowry: the industrial revolution [Online], Available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/d2534a80-dd8e-11e2-a756-00144feab7de.html (Accessed 2 October 2013).