Jón Proppé, critic.
Kjarvalsstađir, Listasafn Reykjavíkur. Apríl-maí
Some modernist believed that landscape painting was a kind of paradox. In his Aesthetic Theory Adorno explains that since nature is itself visual a painting of nature canreally be no more than a copy or an emulation that does not add anything to our experience and in fact falls far short of our direct contact with the real, living world. To revive painting the painters should focus on the reality of the painting itself instead of emulating external reality and seek out the inner life of colours and forms on the canvas. This conviction was the root of abstraction in painting and was also partly responsible for the fact that more and more artists abandoned painting altogether in favour of other media.
It came as a surprise to many when first exhibithed his landscape paintings thirteen years ago. Few had probably imagined then that a young artist could seriously and without any irony dedicate himself to landskape painting in light of repeated pronouncements that it was a dead art form and and had been superceded by the New art in all its variety. No doubt many saw this as a sort of joke, wry postmodern cynicism that would soon abandon for more contemporary forms of expression.
But the critic and painter Bragi Ásgeirsson pointed out already in 1985 ’s paintings were “not just ordinary landscapes”. His canvases were careful studies of perceptual effects and the nature of forms. In such study the landscape is not merely a neutral subject but an active partner, the living visual world were we can research the nature of our preception and our contract with reality itself.
Thirteen years have now passed and ’s research is still not finished and shows no sign of ever being finished. What, then , has he achieved – what conclusions can we draw at this stage in the painters work?
The paintings that exhibited in the beginning were certainly unusual landscapes, even to Icelanders with their long and varied tradition of landscape painting. They were obviously the result of long and arduous labour, yet they seemed oddly pareddown and simple, the colour scheme limited and the construction rigid. The artist seemed deliberately to avoid any emotion and beautification in the paintings, yet they had strong aura that one could not quite pin down. The paintings were so rigorously and simply executed that they seemed almost abstract, and still they showed identifiable features from the Icelandic landscape, mountains and hills that every Icelander can name on sight.
It can be hard to see how such paradoxical paintings can be understood. How can the srtist continue to work when his work seemd totaly caught op in irreconcilable contradictions?
The fact is, however, that the paradox is the very life of the painting. Its logic is not the logic of the head, as Cézanne put it, but the logic of colour, and that os the only logic that the painter can follow. But this does not mean that the painter must abandon all representation as Adorno believed. The logic of thh visible world thar the landscape painter seeks to capture in his paintings.
The simplicity of ’s paintings seems to underscore that it is not really the mountain or hill depicted in the painting that matters but rather the painting itself. The work of art is not based on the copying of nature, but literally its creation on the painting. Thus we see, for example, that Cézanne painted the Montagne Sainte-Victoire again and again, not, as André Malraux pointed out, because he was dissatisfied with his erlier paintings but because at certain moments the mountain offered the possibility of a new colour scheme and a new realisation: “It was not the mountain that he sought to realise, but the painting”.
But what is then the aim of the landscape painter of not to represent the natural landscape, to bring the mountain into the museum so that we may view it there? Why does he paint hills and heaths and laca fields if the hills and heaths and lava fields are not the goal or the target of his art? The answers to these questions lie in understanding the nature of painting and its relationship to our perceptual world, and in an understanding of the very creative process involved in painting.
The imagery or visual vocalbury of the landscape is simple but effective.A single line drawn across a page from left to right becomes a horizon. Awobbly line is enough to indicate mountains. But the colours of the landscape are a different matter and more difficult to handle. To paint a landscape it is not enough to capture the colour that appears in nature. The pinter needs to guide the viewer’s gaze to reproduce in the painting the reality of the landscape itself. Each colour in the field affects all the others, giving them depth or reducting their force.
A painting of a landscape is different from a photograph of the same landscape, and not only because one os an artist’s interpretation while the other is a supposedly neutral documentation on film. The fact is the a photograph and a painting are based on completely different visual logic. While the photograph reproduces in two dimensions the light reflecting off the landscape the painting – or, at any rate, a good painting – is a recreation of our visual world where the play of colours and forms occurs in many dimensions determined by our perspective and our attentive gaze. And we must not forget that our experience of the nature is not merely visual but involves all our senses in a perceptual whole. The painting needs to capture all this – not merely the reflected light and its colour frequency.
Césanne once said that even the smell of the landscape was in the painting, by which he meant that if the composition of colours on the painting was right it would capture our complete experience of the landscape. This is the essence of the art of painting.
It is safe to say that few Icelandic artist of ’s generation have taken to painting with much determination. His work over the last decade has shown conclusively that the early paintings were no joke but completely sincere. He has worked without respite to perfect fis commend of the medium and this work can only be described as a “traditional” approach to painting.
Still it would be a grave mistake to say that ’s art was in any way derivative or dependent upon the work of older painters. On the contrary his achievement of this traditional work is the result of much labour and original creation – labour that quite naturally leads him onto paths where other painters have travelled before him. His dedication to his medium leads him further and further into the mystery of the colours and the sensations that they evoke. If this is traditional art then we can say that it is traditional only in the sense that the world itself is traditional: It is always already there and yet always new.
The landscape that now appears in ’s paintings is different from the landscape in his earlier works. Instead of mountains and hills, the easily recognised natural formations that have been the subject of Icelandic painters for a whole century, he now paints the heaths, the almost featureless windswept landscape where a traveller will get lost simply because there are no landmarks to guide him. It is almost as if wishes to challenge both himself and the viewer by choosing to paint this forbidding landscape where Icelanders do not travel if they can help it and would prefer to leave to the sheep alone.
Such paintings are almost paintings of nothing; they show no recognisable features and could be painted almoust anywhere in Iceland. The choice of subject thus forces the viewer to inspect the painting itself and does not allow him the easy recourse of simply naming the mountine in it and evaluating the painting by how well the artist has captured its characteristic outline. is a demanding artist, both as regards his own work and for the viewer.
This emphasis in ´s painting brings us to another key feature in his work, namely the relationship to the land that they reveal. The discipline and frequent starkness of the works might be seen to indicate that landscape itself is irrelevant to it, that it is merely a pretext for the painting. But it seems more reasonable to conclude that these very features in ’s painting show a profound respect for the land, even that bleak landscape of the heath which seems unworthy beside the famous narural wonders of Ţingvellir and such tourist attractions. It is as if the artist is stepping forth like Christ to invite us to love even our least significant brorhers. Even the weatherbeaten lichen of the heath carries the same force and exudes the same inner light as the viewer who examines ’s heath paintings.
The meaning of a picture emerges in the relationship of the painter to his subject and in his mode of recreating it in his painting – in his style. Style in turn is never – or should never be – a predetermined goal in painting. It, too, emerges in the process of painting and the artist literally creates it along with his work. Our perception of the world is always already somewhat stylised in that all perception ois to some degree affected by our attitudes and intentions and by our relationship to people and objects. Thus the world appears different when I’m merely out for a leisurely stroll. But the painter’s attitude differs from that of most as the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty ponted out:
...if I am not a painter, the woman passing by speaks only to my body or to my senseof life. If I am a painter this first signification woll arouse another. Iam going to do more than select from my usual perception and translate lines, colors, traces on to the canvas, and these only so that among them there appears the vital or sensual value of the woman. ( The Prose of the World. Evanston: Northwestern Universety Press, 1973.)
In this way painting becomes in effect a meaningful langue though its meaning cannot be translated or rendered in words. The meaning is in the painting and the act of painting consists in evoking this meaning which then soeaks to the viewer from the canvas. The style of the painting is the mode in which the painter renders its meaning –his individual gestural language. The understanding of the world that can thus be expressed in painting can be just as profound as that of the poet or philosopher.
Our individual experiense of painting can differ widely and requires a degree of discipline and study. Paintings that depict something familiar that we can admire in nature seem at first to give us more than paintings that have little or indistinct content. Such paintings seem more accessible than others because we can see through them to the thing they depict and exclaim: There is the shepherd with his flock, there is the cliff where that English trawler aground. But the viewer who responds in this way has not attended to the language of the painting. He has evaded the task of reading and understanding the painting itselfe.
Only a very intensitive viewer could fail to experience the magic in ’s painting, even when the subject is not the great and awe-inspiring natural formations that Icelanders never tire of showing to visitors from abroad: The waterfalls, volkanoes and moss-covered lava fields. It is precisely in the modest landscape of the heath that he has managed to capture the core of the Icelandic landscape – not merely the colours or the light, but the very force and meaning of the landscape.
It is pherhaps somewhat surprising but fortunate that there should still emerge from the younger generations of artists some who understand the possibilities of painting and are willing to commit themselves to it. Without disparaging other media we can say that painting, with its long tradition, still offers possibilities for fertile art and is uniquely placed to render our perceptual world. The painter’s work is a direct continuation and deepening of our own sensual contact with the world – our reality – and can lead to a new and deeper understanding of that world and of ourselves. He who undertakes this work with determination can gradually work toward the core of our perceptual world and perhaps come to understand it and transmit that understanding to others.
This is indeed paradoxical work: To recreate the world on the canvas in order to understand it. In order to carry this out the painter must first loosen his ties to the world in order then to reaffirm them in light of the understanding he has gained. This demands continous labour and even then the artist has no guarantee of success. But if he turns away from such paradoxes there will be no creation and no understanding.