Category Archives: Landscape


Much like the reproductions of Song landscapes Roy Lichtenstein consulted, the Landscapes in the Chinese Style project the illusion of a transcendent realm. The vastness of nature in both Song works and his renditions is heightened by the inclusion of tiny details such as a lone tree, boat, or philosopher in repose. Lichtenstein’s virtuosity is especially impressive, as he used a technical. approach radically different from traditional Chinese brushwork. This was a consequence of both dot size—Treetops through the Fog (1996), for example, utilizes at least 15 different sizes—and the complex spacing, which accounts for the extraordinary suggestion of atmosphere.

The Chinese landscapes, the last series Lichtenstein completed before his death in 1997, were included in the retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.


SEEN, BUT NOT OBSERVED: Jacob van Ruisdael

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Thirty years ago UC Berkeley art historian Svetlana Alpers published The Art of Describing, which is a study of the 17th-century Dutch way of seeing the world; a study of the art a culture possessed of that visual epistemology produces; and a study of the (inadequate) art historical methodologies that had been brought to bear thus far on that art representing that epistemology.

Alpers argues at the local level that the approach of Dutch art historians, which relied on emblem books to decode hidden moral meanings in Dutch art was not only often wrong, but unintellectual, while at the global level, she challenged the prevailing iconographical methodology, claiming it had been developed for the study of Italian Renaissance art, where it worked (when practiced by scholars such as Panofsky) because Italian art was textually-based, but had been extended to the study of northern art, where it did not work.

All of the above was merely an introduction to The Art of Describing, the main goal of which was construct a framework for understanding Dutch art, that was derived from indigenous Northern visual and artistic practices, conventions and skills. That indigenous Dutch way of visually construing the world, according to Alpers, involved description (rather than rhetoric), empiricism (not classicism or idealism), mapping and surveying (as opposed to inventing), and other visual practices, particular to the Protestant, Dutch republic at the time of the advent of capitalism.

The genre of landscape painting, with its interests in topography, recording and plotting, plays an central role in The Art of Describing and pictures by Jacob van Ruisdael (1626-82) support Alpers’ thesis. Surveyed from above, the landscape seen in View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields, (c. 1670) resembles a map, which correctly charts relative distances while at the same time, it provides an empirically-observed record of topographical features.

Ruisdael was a prolific artist, his studio producing over 700 known paintings and 100 drawings in his lifetime and, naturally, emphases and interests fluctuate within this large body of work over time. Later in his career, Ruisdael continued to work in an objective, descriptive mode, but gradually shifted over to a more subjective, imaginative, and inventive mode. Many of the visual tropes associated with Romanticism appear routinely in the later Ruisdael—ruined buildings, abandoned cemeteries, stormy weather, blasted trees, torrential waters, castles and even sublime mountain peaks. Pictures with tiny single figures, facing away from the viewer and gazing at primeval landscapes could be by Caspar David Friedrich.

Ruisdael never traveled far from the Low Countries, which had no mountains or waterfalls to describe; nevertheless, these rugged, dramatic landscapes were the result of on-site, observation—done by another artist. Amsterdam painter Allart van Everdingen visited Scandinavia in 1644 and made a number of drawings of rocky mountainous scenes with torrents and waterfalls, from which other artists, including Ruisdael, borrowed motifs to create views of topographies they had never seen (A Norwegian River Landscape with Waterfall, c. 1665). Ruisdael also created detailed images of ruined buildings (Ruins in a Dune Landscape, probably 1650-5), the individual bricks of which are discernible and from which ground plans could be made, that never existed.

This is not to say, however that Ruisdael is a fraud, cutting empirical corners and making convincing fakes. Ruisdael invented and composed landscapes may have been a response to the changing tastes of the art-buying public and/or necessitated by the increased demand for for his work which meant less time out in the field and more composing from memory and models.

On a less material level, Ruisdael’s fictive landscapes do not contradict Alpers’ theory. His use of another artist’s visual record of a place is not unlike citing an authoritative work in a written argument—a drawing’s informational value is not diminished by reproducing it. Furthermore, Ruisdael’s use of another artists testimonial could be seen as observing description, and insofar as his work draws on visual rather than textual sources, Ruisdael’s seeming exception actually confirms Alpers’ thesis, which holds that works of art were accepted as visual information as much as maps and diagrams and a practical, rather than (Italian) decorative, function.


“I am an artist of paint, making discoveries”

In 1950, Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 – 2011), fresh out of Bennington College, was thrown by Clement Greenberg into the virile, competitive maelstrom of Abstract Expressionism in its prime years. Not only did the 25-year old show she could hold her own ground, within two years, she produced a breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea,that was held to be the first substantial picture in a style that grew out of the New York School, but broke new ground as well.

Although she had moved the debate forward, Frankenthaler was nevertheless constantly characterized in subordinate or retrospective terms. She was the designated “heir” to Jackson Pollock’s dripped and poured legacy and she was charged with maintaining the abstraction revolution, the irony of which, one imagines, was not lost on the young artist.



In the summer of 1986, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the Vienna 1900 exhibition and acquired Gustav Klimt’s Hope II (1902), thereby admitting Klimt and his Zeitalter into the official canon of modern art. Despite this belated acknowledgement, and setting aside for a moment his fervent participation in the Wiener Secession (“Der Zeit Ihre Kunst und Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit”), Klimt still looks very much like a late 19th-century artist working in a conservative center at the edges of Europe that valued historicism, eclecticism and high-gloss academic finish. In his early work from the 1890s, he changes styles depending on the job—meticulous, hard-edged idealization for official public commissions like the Kunsthistorisches Museum vestibule murals, to gauzy, soft-focus late Impressionism for portraits and landscapes to murky Symbolist topoi executed in a slick,Jugendstil serpentine manner.

This isn’t quite the eclecticism of the Ringstraße, that schizophrenic collection of revival-styles emblematizing the problem of 19th-century historical self-consciousness in general, which the Secession categorically opposed. Klimt’s eclecticism consists of an ability to inhabit fully and to replicate perfectly a range of styles, each closely associated with other, usually French, painters, without privileging one over the other. This nearly post-modern agnosticism is most visible in Klimt’s landscapes, a genre in which he worked throughout his career. Here, his palette of styles ranges from plein air Impressionism and, more specifically, Monet’s Nymphéas, to the pointillism or Seurat and Pissarro to the expressionism of Van Gogh. It’s not hard to see why Klimt worked this way—each mode has its own gorgeous effects and, is suited to particular landscape sub-genres and his technical mastery of all of them is breathtaking.

The overall application of uniform, atomized, pin-points of pigment to the picture plane in representations of trees—Rose, Birnbaum and, most winningly, in Der Park—is the closest Klimt gets to a modernist concern. This exploration of surface effects on differs considerably from the broadly applied decorative patterning seen in the golden paintings, which in its derivation from Byzantine mosaics, is another example of eclectic historicism. His landscapes are also free of the lurid, psycho-sexual heavy-breathing of the golden paintings and other Symbolist-inflected works, which, ironically, makes them seems more modernist than the works he himself would have considered his most avant garde.