Australian painters gradually made the continent look less like Europe, but in Aboriginal work we can get behind European conventions of seeing altogetherby Sebastian Smee / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
Landscape in the European tradition seems a tired old genre. One can easily feel, however mistakenly, that all the main moves have been played out, which may account for some recent attempts to revive the public’s interest in landscape with a few ill-judged doses of exoticism. The National Gallery sought to freshen things up over summer with an exhibition of little-known landscapes from Russia, while the National Maritime Museum has played the exotic card by showing the paintings of William Hodges. Hodges went to the south Pacific with Captain Cook in the 1770s, and his views of Tahiti make an interesting pendant to the “Gauguin-Tahiti” exhibition that drew huge crowds in Paris late last year.
A hundred years separate Hodges and Gauguin, and their paintings could not look more different. But the really interesting question is: do they look much like Tahiti? Critics like Jonathan Jones and Waldemar Januszczak (who has been to Tahiti) are right when they suggest that Hodges’s Tahiti looks more like Claude’s Italy – with some local totems, a dramatic volcano and a few palm trees tossed in – than the island itself.
“A writer is a person who writes about countries which do not exist,” observed the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom. “Or about countries which do exist, but which they furnish with mountains that do not exist.” That’s all very well if you’re Dutch and crave a bit of altitude, but artists in the landscape tradition are more often judged by criteria of truthfulness – and in particular, by their ability to get to grips with the particular visual conditions of the territory they are painting.
If the basic pictorial concerns of landscape painting are the depiction of distance and natural light, then Hodges, like the Russian “Wanderers,” fails the test, for his light is not the natural light of the south Pacific, but rather, an artificial Mediterranean light. In the same way, the Russians, modelling themselves on esteemed predecessors from Claude to Corot, imposed a quality of light and atmosphere cobbled together from the Roman campagna and the forests of Fontainebleau.
We picture the world through a shifting veil of conventions about seeing, and about vision itself – which is to say the meanings we attach to seeing. Since the 18th century, and particularly since 19th-century romanticism, a lot of those conventions have revolved around our sense of certain landscapes as exotic, providing…