‘Gestures, marks, semblances of representation, cinematic painterliness: abstract climates – colour-filled, chilled, panoramas of remembered experience.’ These poetic ideas are drawn from recent commentaries on the relationships between landscape and painting embodied in an exhibition exploring conjunctions between Helen Frankenthaler’s and JMW Turner’s work; a film by Mike Leigh about Turner; and an exhibition citing the transitory elements of nature and the international contexts of modern art and St Ives at Tate St Ives, Cornwall.
The exhibition, ‘Making Painting’ at Turner Contemporary situated next to the sea at Margate, was a unique opportunity to see Frankenthaler’s work outside the USA. Like Joan Mitchell, another Abstract Expressionist painter whose work concerns light and landscape, who exhibited at the Edinburgh festival a few years ago, it is rare to see this work in the UK or in Europe.
Frankenthaler stated that she saw most of her paintings as landscapes or vistas, changing views and motion caught, full of climates. Curated in relation to Turner’s watercolours, confluences of space, light and seascape were enacted through the experience of looking at Frankenthaler’s and Turner’s works simultaneously.
There is something phenomenally unique about the Kent landscape of Constable and Turner as it rolls out south eastwards. One could almost be in France as the route winds its way through hillside orchards (substitute vines) and slate-turreted farmhouses (substitute chateaux). In the other direction, from Canterbury to London, towards evening, an expanse of water and land lies below sky, light and cloud washing you in a drama of 18th century Romanticism in its dissolution of boundaries. Something to do with the angle of the sun, or the position below sea-level creates an extraordinarily moving landscape-event.
A simulataneous unbelonging and of ‘being within’ were explored, as Sam Smiles argues, by Turner and St Ives artist Peter Lanyon who took up gliding as a way to think about painting and landscape and developed a painterly approach which drew on aerial photography and emotional experience. Through painting Lanyon was interested in a conjunction between the human body, landscape and place as he experienced it. Similarly, Barbara Hepworth, who had migrated to St Ives from London at the start of the Second World War and from the threat of fascism, violence and disorder, stated that she was interested in the subjective tension between herself and the sea, wind and hills.
According to some, it’s the inner landscape of the mind that is incorporated within the struggle of representation of sea, light and cloudscapes where shifting perspectives of ‘knowing’ take place through a backdrop of elemental universal uncertainty. The relationship between this fragility of selfhood in the experience of nature via the concept of the sublime is investigated by Kate Soper in ‘What is Nature?’ (Blackwell, 1998). Soper draws on Immanuel Kant’s (1790) thesis that the aesthetic of the sublime lies in the ability of the mind to overcome nature through reason which adopts ‘strategies of recognition’ of its own incapability to comprehend the immensity of nature whose boundless extent lies beyond our understanding. The rational-self separates us from nature yet we submit to its hold over us through a precarious form of power. In the process of this simultaneous dominance and submission before nature, we gain insight into an otherness within.
A good demonstration of how ‘the forces of the soul’ are ‘raised against the vulgar commonplace’ where we discover the power of resistance can be seen in the gardens of Georgia O’Keefe and Derek Jarman. Through a ‘cultivation of anxiety’ they demonstrate a kind of human transcendence through gardening, operating at the brink of danger whilst preserving a distance from it. O’Keefe’s garden in the expanse of the New Mexico desert of her Abiquiu studio, and in Jarman’s on the beach near the nuclear power station at Dungeness can be considered as expressions of the tensions between order, disorder and control through a subjugation of impending chaos.
The threat of nature encroaching may be becoming more of an urgent issue for artists. A recently commissioned site-specific artwork made by an MA Fine Art student demonstrated different forms of immersiveness. Her work, where an eerily-lit woodland apparently filled a terraced house in Kent, intrigued passers-by through its magical incongruity. Yet its ‘making strange’ of the domestic space suggested important and urgent concerns about human relationships with nature. The rupture of the unstable border between a safe, cultivated romanticism and a crisis of unboundedness may not be far away.