Published  21/04/2008

Turner to Monet: The Triumph of Landscape

Turner to Monet: The Triumph of Landscape

National Gallery of Australia, 14 March-9 June 2008
Catalogue: Christine Dixon, Ron Radford, Lucina Ward, 2008

This exhibition sets out to be revisionary, looking at 19th-century landscape painting afresh. The genesis of the genre is recognisable in all its familiarity. And, as in the title, landscape is cued as having 'triumphed' over what has to be explained, and hopefully substantiated: but it is possible to draw a different range of conclusions.

Since Poussin is neither represented in the exhibition, nor equated with Claude Lorrain as a historic influence on the art, it is necessary to assume the argument that only in about 1800 did landscape become the predominant painting subject in England and Germany. This renders less valid the contention that in the 19th century, landscape 'triumphed', if it had already, so to speak, done so prior. (This in any case denies the primacy in Europe throughout the 19th century of allegorical, figurative and portrait art.)

What was, however, of the greatest significance, was the expansion of the sense of the sublime as a means of showing the true drama of nature. Here of course it was Turner, as shown to the full in this exhibition, who exemplified that English quality of the sublime. As the curators show, the distillation of the countervailing quality of 'stillness' in nature was chiefly fostered, where the contemplation of nature becomes 'an almost religious experience', 'for the glory of God's creation'. In the great landscape of America, and to a lesser extent Australia, what there was on offer perceptually was a total release from just those binding constraints of tradition. What this exhibition makes interesting is the different experience and impact each of these environments had upon the artists who painted in their great open spaces. That was not a primary motivation of this exhibition, and yet it may well be seen to have been the major contribution of the exhibition to art history. As part of the re-envisionary process entailed, certain migrant artists can be shown to have played a key role, one missed by other compatriots, who nonetheless remain celebrated for their technical skill and composition.

The case of the English painter John Glover (he moved to Tasmania later in his career) is exemplary to a point. The quality of stillness, even domesticity, is movingly captured in the garden landscape exhibited, that of his own Tasmanian farmhouse and domain. Possibly this painting was intended to show those sceptics back in England how idyllic his new home was (in contrast to prevalent assumptions in the early 19th century). But what Glover also revealed in subsequent paintings was his fascination with the novelty of the bush, and a natural sympathy for its indigenous aboriginals. 'A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains' (1832) (close by his new abode) gives a slightly ominous impression; more lightly so is 'View of Mills Plains, Van Diemens Land' (1835), or the open plains landscape of 'Cawood on the Ouse River' (1838).

Glover had only settled in Tasmania (as it now is) in 1831. These paintings do not focus on the hardships of settlement but eulogise the sublime aspect of the sparsely forested 'bush' hills in the glow of the sun and the radiant light. But the method and premise of this latter painting emphatically proves that the artist had detached from the Claudian precedent to which other contemporaries remained enthralled. The 'triumph' was surely not of 'landscape' per se, but of these adventurous, pioneering, emigrant painters in a new world breaking out in other words. This escape was not any triumph of settlement 'order' over the 'unruly antipodean bush' (as the catalogue describes it).

Was this a pastoral arcadia? Glover had fallen for a Dutch vision of 'landskip' after Jacob van Ruisdael early in his European career, and his settlement in Australia enabled him to step cleanly out of such English baggage for good.

So, a lesser painter such as Glover (in this current hall of fame) indicates better than any other what this triumph is about. It was not about the actual embellishment of the landscape tradition now three hundred years old, but about its actual rejection. In that lies the triumph. Of course, as the exhibition rightly shows, there were many other necessary revisions to the ethos, style and content of landscape painting. Landscape was only itself the catalyst to new and revolutionary movements in painting, from the Impressionists and post-Impressionists onwards. Other flag bearers of 'triumph' could carry forward the impact of new surroundings, new sciences, political thought and social change. But without this reconception about what to paint, the exercise was meaningless.

Martin Johnson Heade's American painting 'Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes' (c.1871-1875) from the Connecticut marshlands, conveyed how with a hallucinatory stillness, 'verging on the transcendental', the sublime was still there. But it had transformed itself, under new patterns of thought. The Tate Gallery's important exhibition of 2002, curated by Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer,1 gave the museum world a reappraisal of the American sublime (1820-1880), which can be said to have prefigured this exhibition, albeit on a more tightly nationalistic premise. Thomas Cole's incorporation then of national and religious motivation into his paintings still revealed an inability to forego established convention. He likewise drew no lessons from available geological or scientific information in his paintings, such as 'Peace at Sunset (evening in the White Mountains)' (1827). His 'Landscape Scene from Last of the Mohicans' (1827) hardly bears comparison with Glover's 'A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains'. Here, there is a merciful absence of religious connotation. It all speaks of release - for artists and for natives, all of which is surely part of the triumph of landscape.

Without elaborating upon the NGA's somewhat market-oriented concentration of Impressionist and post-Impressionist landscapes here, the exhibition undoubtedly clarifies the progression of landscape painting without rejecting and so destroying its precedent. The absence of Poussin (groundbreaking in his later work) and the persistence of 18th-century landscape painting traditions well into the 19th century remains to remind us of the obstacles to revisionary readings. This triumph then is essentially that of such Australian painters in the exhibition as Tom Roberts, John Glover, Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton and, one might add, George Lambert (now restored in reputation again by the NGA). By the same token, perhaps Nicholas Chevalier, Isaac Walter Jenner and even Eugene von Guerard belong elsewhere.

The NGA is to be congratulated on the challenging nature of this truly global exhibition - as experienced by your reviewer, an exhibition not to be missed. Congratulations are also due for the excellently organised, written and indexed catalogue. Incidentally, it was good to see Samuel Palmer so strongly present (one wonders what the effect of clear Australian light would have been for him?). The groundwork laid for the subject by such as Dr Tim Bonyhady over twenty years ago was indeed critical.2

1. Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880. London: Tate Publishing, 2002.
2. Tim Bonyhady. Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting, 1801-1890. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985

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