A question of representing landscape

Kingston Whig Standard
27 January 2015

KINGSTON — “The Park and the Landscape” is a new exhibition on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, and I was very keen on viewing the show when I learned it was going up. Focused on landscape representation from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this exhibition is my cup of tea, because this is the area I researched and studied during my time at Queen’s University. I’m almost always interested in learning about others’ approaches to the subject, so I hied myself off to the Agnes to see it.

In my last column I wrote about how art can be both simple and complex, and landscape representation is a very good genre in which to continue exploring this idea. A landscape drawing or painting is simple because a landscape is something most people can easily relate to — it’s a picture of a place.

A landscape representation can also, theoretically, be a great deal more complicated, with many layers of influence and subtleties of meaning related to modes of representation, context, authorship, location, etc. (and, depending on how far things are taken and who you might be talking to, possibly a great deal of improbable, bumptious chaff as well). “The Park and the Landscape” is a small-ish exhibition, however, so the interpretive aspect is manageable, though not comprehensive due to the scope and space available.

What the exhibition aims to show is how the work of British-trained artists working in Canada in the 19th century reflects both changes in approaches to landscape representation at home, and how they had to further adapt those approaches and techniques to representing an essentially alien landscape here. Without going into a lot of detail we are given to understand that long-established conventions of formulaic landscape representation, ie. the Picturesque (that had held sway for a couple centuries at least) were, in the first third of the 19th century, gradually being thrown over for more naturalistic (rather than idealistic) approaches that allowed for (some) individualistic, artistic interpretation.

There was actually a great deal of debate about landscape and its representation swirling around during this time, much of it focused on ideas concerning the ideal, the sublime and the beautiful, the romantic, and the (incredibly tenacious) picturesque conventions (which, by the way, often survived — even subdued — the then-picturesque-resistant Canadian wilderness, and are still with us today to some degree). Change in landscape representation certainly occurred, mostly in the practice of professional artists, though not always. An early artist such as George Heriot never seemed to move beyond the conventions of the picturesque, which can be seen in two of his works in this show. A little further along in time the struggle of artists to adapt to the Canadian landscape is quite evident in the tree sketches of George Harlow White on display in this exhibition. On the one hand you have his studies of trees in the set of “Burnham Beeches” drawn in pastoral, manicured England; and on the other you have his sketches of trees in the un-manicured Canadian wilderness, which he portrayed in a similar manner but which don’t seem to want to conform. Still later artists, such as Daniel Fowler, have the benefit of further developments in landscape painting, and his work is much less apt to follow older artistic conventions with respect to landscape.

An exhibition of this size doesn’t allow for an exhaustive exploration of changes in landscape representation and (fortunately, perhaps) all of the theoretical baggage that can be carried along with its interpretation. What it does illustrate is that change did occur (though not always how and why), and it’s an engaging show. What makes it even more interesting is to view it in conjunction with some of the landscape paintings in the concurrent retrospective exhibition of Kim Ondaatje’s art. If you think that landscape is a static and unexciting genre, looking at Ondaatje’s landscapes allows you to fast-forward about a hundred years and consider a completely different approach to landscape representation. In particular, her “Hill” series and “Factory” series show how something as simple as landscape can be an expression of very individual ideas. You can explore more than a hundred years of Canadian landscape representation in both of these show until early April.

Kamille Parkinson is the owner of Upper Canada Art Consulting (UCAC), specializing in Appraisal of Fine Art, Art Writing, and Art Consulting. She has a PhD in Art History from Queen’s University and is an International Society of Appraisers Accredited Member in Fine Art. Her website is www.uppercanadaartconsulting.com, and you can also find UCAC on Facebook.

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