Artists: Notes on Art Making

This is a scrupulously revised edition of Kenneth Clark’s book, first published in 1949 and based on lectures delivered by him as Slade professor at Oxford. It is true that, after covering the entire history of landscape art from its beginning in medieval times to an inevitable neglect in this century, the author has not felt the need to bring his survey up-to-date.

But the pioneering value of the book has not been diminished by the few later researches of the same subject in the intervening years. Also, what Mr.Clark contends here and illustrates so persuasively, is not only self-contained, but also far from being the conventional history of an art form.

Landscape established an independent status for itself fairly late in the day. It becomes a truly dominant form only in the 19th century. Before its decline, a number of perceptive geniuses staked their own theories about art and the concomitant techniques on the task of perpetuating landscape as a genre.

In the art of pagan times, in the illuminated manuscript of the early centuries of Christianity and even in the many-faceted flowering of painting right up to the Renaissance, landscape played second fiddle. If it wasn’t there by way of incidental embellishment, it kept to its subordinate position by way of broad symbolism.

As landscape gradually asserted its autonomy, the painters made bold to discard traditional representation rooted in symbols and stereotypes. Here began a journey towards what may be called a virginity of perception - a journey which was to culminate in the revolutionary discoveries of Impressionism.

Basically, the landscape artist tries to organise his responses to nature in all it complex manifestations in the shape of a unifying pictorial idea. After the age of symbols (in the fermentation of which religious dogma played an important role), we have a liberation of the sense in the true spirit of the Renaissance. This is accompanied, in all creative expression, by an overwhelming curiosity about the facts which could be explored by the senses.

When Mr. Clark begins to illustrate the successive transitions in the painter’s attitude towards landscapes, he exercises the specialist’s right to emphasise certain preference: we must react to his valunation of different painters strictly within the frame of immediate reference. Within this consciously mapped periphery of the theme, there may be sometimes a slight tilting of the scales.

It is thus that Mr.Clark expatiates in greater detail on Bellini than on Durer or, later, on Turner than on Van Gogh. Talking of Bellini, he pertinently quotes from Ruskin. The Victorian categories three different manners of looking at nature and pinpoints the essence of naturalism.

Ruskin’s statement underlines the metamorphoses that have affected landscapes painting over four centuries, and Mr. Clark has neatly compartmentalised these shifts in outlook and manner. The landscape of fact, as practised by 17th century Dutch painters, was vitally to influence the vision of 19th century landscapists.

(It is while talking about this subject that Mr.Clark suddenly opens his Oxford window and comes out with a loaded statement like: “The landscape of fact, like all portraiture is a bourgeois form of art”! Is this aside meant to placate ideological interpreters of art like Berger?)

Awareness of light as a key element in the portrayal of nature also dawned decisively during this period: Light holding sway over the sky, light reflected in a pool of water, light as it mapped the contours of hill and date and, finally, light as a mystic manifestation-all this was not entirely new to the 18th and 19th century landscape painter but it is a fact that he explored its innermost nature and, for the first time, established is essential chromatic relationship with the canvas.

The start with, the painting of light was an act of love. (In turn, this reminds one of the American Maurice Prendergast saying: “The love you liberate in your work is only love you keep”) But soon this became a trick. At this historical point, Mr.Clark turns logically to the landscape of fantasy. In his epilogue, he will return to this subject in order to remind us of the great painters of yore (e.g., Bosch) who worked in the shadow of an imagined apocalypse. Mr. Clark will then pose the crucial question whether landscape (otherwise an art form endowed with pristine beauty and divinity) will re-emerge powerfully enough in our own times. If so, will it then proceed to reassure an age threatened with its own forces of annihilation?

The author obviously has great admiration for the artist’s role as “maker”, and his summing up of Poussin as a characteristic landscapist of the ideal (the third of four categories envisaged by him) is as eloquent as his analyses of such 19th century masters as Constable, Turner, Seurat or Cezanne.

Indeed, these last chapters, which deal with the long period during which language finally came into its own, are typical of Mr.Clark’s consistency of reasoning, his abiding humanism one uses the word in its Renaissance connotation) and his obvious enjoyment in his subject as it is reflected in his lucid prose.

One last quality of Clark, the scholar, seems to be equally important, and that is an ingratiating lack of snobbishness. While talking of the tonal relationships in Courbet’s landscapes, he admits that “coloured post-cards of landscapes often give me a pleasure that I can only supposed to be aesthetic”.

Times, Sunday May 1, 1977
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