Thursday, 7 March 2013

Turning Landscape Art on Its Head

This is Horatio McCulloch's painting Loch Maree.

Horation McCulloch, Loch Maree (Oil on canvas, 1866)

It's a fine traditional, Scottish Victorian painting, by a fine, Scottish, Victorian painter.  

Here is Mr McCulloch, looking every inch the fine, Scottish, Victorian painter.

Photograph of Horatio McCulloch (Hill and Adamson, 1847)

And here's Loch Maree.  You can see that in order to step up the romantic Highland drama (Salvator Rosa has a lot to answer for), Mr McCulloch accentuated the ruggedness and the steepness of the mountains as they rose out of the loch.

However, to today's tastes, it's quite a brown, dull, old-fashioned painting.

So how do you make a dull, brown old-fashioned painting look exciting and new in a gallery today?

By doing this, apparently.

 Picture: Colin Mearns (The Herald)

Yes, by hanging it upside-down.  

Although it's not just an upside-down Horatio McCulloch any more.  Oh no.  This is now an installation by the artist Rachel Mimiec entitled 'A Pause of Pages: Reflection on the Practice'.  It's currently on display at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, and has 'attracted excitement', according to The Herald newspaper.

"Once it's been hung upside down like that, you are being forced to notice details about it that you haven't seen before," said 'A Spokesman'.  "And also when it's upside down you are not looking at what's being painted so much as how it's being painted."

When I took life drawing classes recently at the St Ives School of Art, our model did the final long pose upside down for that very reason - it meant that we were forced to consider her body afresh, to go beyond what we know about how things fit together, and to see her as a shape, a volume, a movement, a feeling, a still life, a pattern, a sculpture, a texture.  

Drawing a nude is about far, far more than clinical measurement and exact representation.  As well as being a representation of another human being, it's also a self-portrait of the artist, as well as a dialogue between the model and artist. A good model won't just hold a pose, they'll give you a pose. 

It's not a medical text-book illustration, with exact muscles and joints.  It's a feeling, a moment.  When we were in the life-drawing room in St Ives, we could hear the sea, and the sun was setting, and it was beautiful, and as an artist, that's the sort of sense you have to put in the drawing.

The same goes for landscape.  Loch Maree isn't just about a representation of a place, although you can actually go there and still see the scene that McCulloch painted.  It's about the time and the values - social, moral, economical, political -  in which McCulloch lived, and which moulded him as a person, and also about him as a person.  Have a look at that image-moulding photograph setting him out for posterity.  He's quite a rugged, romantic looking guy.  There's quite a sense of brooding intensity going on there, like the scenery.

So I'll leave it with you about the upside-down paintings.  I'm all for anything that makes you look afresh at an unfashionable painting, especially if it's a landscape one, because landscape has to run the current gauntlet of being an untrendy, unhappening genre.  Which, if you saw the Hockney Royal Academy show last year, is blatently a load of old nonsense.  

It's just that the expressive potential of landscape is a bit too subtle for today's tastes.  It's not an in-your-face diamond-studded skull.  As a viewer, you have to work with landscape.

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