Sunday, October 12, 2014

Questioning Landscape Conventions

In his book on watercolor painting, Francis Russell Flint expressed a common rule of composition: "Avoid lines that cut a picture in half, both vertically and horizontally."

View of Madrid, 1987-1994, 72x94 in. by Antonio López García, painted on location

Antonio López García (born 1936) broke the rule with this painting View of Madrid from Capitán Haya. The horizon splits the composition in the center. In my opinion it succeeds because it sets up an opposition between the frenzy of the human-built world and the empty immensity of the sky.

Mr. López García also resisted the common practice of painting the view in romantic dawn light, choosing instead the stark midday sun, which he said is the main subject of the picture. After having painted other city panoramas early or late in the day, and having studied Hopper's use of light, he said he was at first "afraid to show it in broad daylight because it gave the scene a stark, frightening quality."
Irises and Roses, oil on canvas, 1977–80 by Antonio López Garcia
I believe Mr. López García's orientation to tradition and convention is a healthy one. He says: "There's no formula or recipe for this; each artist has to solve it in his or her own way, given their sensibilities and experience. The art of the past can set a high example, but all precedent, and all landscape conventions have to be brought into question and ultimately discarded in order to face the ultimate mystery of nature."
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Quote from the book Antonio Lopez Garcia

5 comments:

Carmel said...

Looking at that painting, my mind instinctively tries to revise the composition to put the horizon either a third from the bottom or from the top. It's not used to seeing this kind of conflicting diptych of elements - which I think makes the composition in this picture all the more successful.

Putting the horizon line on either third of the painting would make the color balance, mood, atmosphere and underlying 'statement' very different, in either case. With the horizon in the middle, it puts the city and the sky at equal levels of importance. Instead of regarding either the dense city or the empty sky as the main element of the painting, the viewer is forced both to face the somewhat arbitrary nature of the artistic division between man and nature, between earth and sky, and to examine the horizon line as it stretches out into seemingly infinite space. Because of the height of the viewpoint, there's nothing to comfortably block the endless view. That, and the empty space apparently opening up right in front of the painter's feet, contribute to the sense of unease and vertigo that I feel when looking at this painting.

I'm from Jerusalem, so I'm used to seeing paintings of the city under bright, direct midday light that casts sharp shadows, brings out architectural details, and brings to mind hot lazy afternoons. Garcia's painting isn't like those at all - certainly much more "stark" and "frightening".

Gavin said...

Caspar David Friedrich seemed to get away with it a lot!

Lori - painter said...

I couldn't agree more and am often telling my students that artistic conventions are just that, some things that other artists have used and liked. A convention is quite different from a fundamental. Learn your fundamentals and then you can do whatever you want.

Dan said...

I'm not sure I'd classify such "rules" of composition as mere convention. I think there's something more objective about them. As evidence, consider the fact that such "rules" have tended to be the same in many different eras and different places and schools of artistic expression (at least those prior to modernism, whose primary goal seems to be to flout all rules). Conventions, by contrast, are typically cultural--different in different times and places.

I heartily agree that composition is not a matter of dogmatic rules. Art is about communication. Most landscape paintings have a single subject. Here the artist deliberately makes the composition read like an "a/b comparson" (at least to my eye), which is an essential part of the statement it's making. And he also deliberately chooses lighting conditions that emphasize contrast, details, and hard lines in the cityscape. IMHO, these are all good choices given what he's trying to communicate.

But a naive young artist who is not trying to communicate such things might divide the frame exactly in half accidentally, when trying to frame a composition with certain elements. And this might just be distracting and ineffective. Hence, such "rules" are often a valuable starting place. The real rule might be stated as: "Don't divide the picture exactly in half unless you do it deliberately and understand the consequences."

I have to cordially disagree with the statement that all precedent must be "ultimately discarded in order to face the ultimate mystery of nature." There's no value per se in discarding everything that came before just because we didn't come up with it in our generation. I don't think doing so somehow helps us to face nature more effectively. To question, yes. To simply discard, no. Re-inventing art every few years doesn't make it easier to communicate or contemplate nature.

The Whalens said...

I do think it is interesting that some post about the confusion over broken rules, in an article about broken rules. It's en vogue to suggest that one is a sheep.