I Have Landscapes on My Mind

Tom Thompson, Spring River, 1915 (Source: phillysfaves.blogspot.de)

It has been raining here for days. The windmills on the hill have been whirling in rhythm to my iPod music, their blades disappearing and reappearing from behind low clouds. Mist gathers around their feet. The view is a patchwork quilt of fields and trees, crowned by these enigmatic steel structures.

Neil Young says, “for whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.”

I know I’m going somewhere. I don’t know the end destination, but I know where I’ve been. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the North American landscape, and specifically the Northeastern and Canadian landscapes as captured by a handful of artists, starting with the Group of Seven. Here are some of my favorite pieces by these Canadian artists. (Click here to see a Pinterest board featuring some of my favorite landscape painters.)

Tom Thompson, In the Northland, 1915, Oil on Canvas (Source: Group of Seven Art)
F.H. Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921, Oil on Canvas (Source: National Gallery of Canada)

The best of these artists, in my opinion, achieve almost a stained-glass quality in their work and yet the images are intricate, sometimes almost like latticework. Every twig and rock is included. The Group of Seven painters brought post-Impressionist influences to the Northern landscape and created something entirely new.

I think the reason for this is best explained by how shockingly clear the landscape can be because of atmospheric and light effects. Contemporary Maine painter Neil Welliver said of the Northeast, “there is extraordinary clarity. You can look for a mile but objects seem right before your face; you can identify them. I’m interested in the character of the light—that northern flat light—where the sun doesn’t get very high.” Here is an example of Welliver’s response to that environment, along with that of one of his acolytes, Ken Tighe:

Neil Welliver, Black Brook – Damp Day, Oil on Canvas, 1988 (Source: Alexander Gallery)
Ken Tighe, Peters Hill (detail) 2011, oil on panel (Source: kentighe.virb.com)

Of course, if you grew up in Ohio like me, or lived in the Mid-Atlantic area, you know that the American landscape can also dissolve into haze or a profusion of pink or golden light, more along the lines of settings that inspired our European forebears. And that is the kind of landscape I see before me now in Germany. One that deliquesces like this study by Piet Mondrian:

Piet Mondrian (Source: Philip Koch Paintings)

On his blog, Philip Koch makes the observation that:

Just like our experience of reality, painting can seem overwhelming. Every artist has to come up with a way of simplifying their compositions without draining away their energy and ability to intrigue the viewer. A way I like to think about it is how they handle two key questions. I call them: silhouette and breakup….When I am painting I try to concentrate of these two questions  – powerful silhouettes and then the break up of some, but not all, of their interiors.

Koch, very much in tune with the principles of the Group of Seven, leans toward the principle of silhouette in this beautiful piece:

Philip Koch, The Song of all Days (Source: Philip Koch paintings)

Contrast it with this painting by Daniel Morper:

Daniel Morper, The Veil Descends, Oil on Canvas, 1994 (Source: LewAllen Contemporary)

The veil descends, indeed. As it did with my windmills in the wet twilight last night.

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