Why we go for walks, hikes or simply outside? What are we searching for? Nature, landscapes, ourselves? Do we love nature and landscape surrounding us? Or are we pining for remote spots? What do one or the other say about us? Do they say anything about us at all?
It´s only relatively recently that the term >landscape< has come to be interpreted and defined in purely geographical terms. Before then – that is, until the Renaissance – landscape denoted something social and, in particular, the community of people living within a geographical setting. At that time, we were the landscape, and what we now call landscape was merely our surroundings, the space we inhabited.
It´s easy to delineate spaces on paper. You can draw, map and portray a landscape. Depending on the time, place and artist, the portrayal of a landscape is more or less mimetic, symbolic or re-stylized. More strictly interpreted, however, we cannot really speak of independent landscape painting in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages. In Ancient Rome, in Ptolemaic Egypt and in the whole of Asia, the rendering of landscapes was already an established element in the visual arts. Using rough details that hinted at land formations or buildings, we began to place pictorial content in what was, at best, a vaguely defined environment. For example, in medieval iconography, a wavy line in a scene depicting Christ´s baptism was meant to symbolize the River Jordan, an area full of trees and flowers was seen as a symbol for Paradise, and a fortified city referred to Jerusalem. However, the landscape and its individual components were often used to convey their own individual meanings within the context of the image´s overall presentation. For example, the lily was meant as a symbol of purity, the dove as an allegory for the Holy Spirit, the hortus conclusus as an emblem of the Garden of Eden, and the locus amoenus as an idyllic countryside. At the same time, though, depicting an ideal or specific geographical space played absolutely no role.
However, the dawning of the Renaissance gave rise to a growing interest among artists and their patrons in the surrounding natural environment and its visual presentation. Suddenly, the particular space that people lived in had something interesting to offer, whether it was local plants or animals, contemporary fashion or architecture, or the inner or outer spaces they inhabited. Likewise, it also became attractive to render what was foreign. Thus, for example, Albrecht Dürer didn´t just make highly detailed drawings and paintings of hares, hands and blades of meadow grass; he also made his >Rhinoceros< woodcut of 1515. At that time, the central perspective characteristic of the natural way of viewing things replaced the Bedeutungsperspektive typical of European art in the Middle Ages, with the result that paintings created the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional pictorial space.
For a long time, however, the depiction of landscapes remained an ancillary – or hermeneutic – form of expressing coded content. Similar to the way in which Scripture is meant to have a fourfold meaning, images from the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance contain more subtle contextuality within their more apparent visual subject matters, and this is communicated via a complex system of coded symbols. Thus, for example, Dürer´s portrait of the so-called Fürlegerin with twisted hair not only depicts an attractive young woman holding flowers. Instead, the >learned specialist< can also read these various plants as providing a list of all her positive attributes.
In the Baroque era, landscape painting finally became a separate and equal category of European art. It reached its first high point, particularly in Dutch and Flemish painting, thanks to affluent bourgeois art byers. Indeed, someone viewing the mythological scenes that were so popular at the time would have to be truly fond of searching for things because sometimes the ancient gods, nymphs and heroes are so small and cleverly hidden that he or she might even wonder why these wonderfully rendered depictions of Elysian landscape are even given titles referencing ancient times.
In the Romantic era, the mimetic nature of these images is replaced by a metaphysical expression of the will that is pregnant with symbolism. For example, a nocturnal seascape by Caspar David Friedrich is no longer just an expression of his longing for the sea but, rather, much more an allegory for how a ship in the ocean´s vastness – symbolizing the human soul at sea in the darkness – would be irrevocably lost without the orienting light of the moon – symbolizing Jesus Christ … Light and mysticism play a major role, and every presumably simple study of nature is actually an elaborate visual composition meant to illustrate what is usually a religious statement. Thus, in the Romantic era, the depicted landscape becomes the landscape of the soul, where the artist and the viewer can encounter each other in a more internal sense.
It was only during the mid-19th century that the Naturalists and the Realists reclaimed landscapes as a separate space. Indeed, for the Impressionists, the style of painting was considerably more important than its subject matter. Painting was done plein air – that is, in the open air, in the direct presence of the subject matter. Painting was no longer about studies within the confines of studios but, rather, the subject determined where the painting was done, out in the open air. What was sought after was a fusion of artist and subject matter. In Impressionist landscape painting, the impression, the feeling, the interplay of light and color in actual nature seized absolute power.
Just a few decades later, expressions counted much more than impressions. With their exaggeration, extremism and mischief, the Expressionists even took control of landscape painting to transform it into a completely new vehicle of expression. Here, we observe a strange paradox: The more placid, remote and solitary the nature depicted is, the louder, more strident and wilder the painting´s depiction is.
With the spread of photography – which allows an ostensibly true rendition of subject matters, whether it be the world, the environment or landscapes – painting such subject matters was theoretically made obsolete. In reality, though, the exact opposite seems to be the case. Today, landscapes continue to be painted – and painted and painted. Likewise, artists who concentrate almost exclusively on landscape painting – such as Gerhard Richter, with his emotive seascape paintings, and Peter Doig, with his abstract landscapes full of decorative colors – have joined the immortal celebrities of painting even while still alive.
The landscape paintings of Konstanze Siegemund focus not only on the true-to-life rendition of our natural surroundings, but also on our relationship with them. The three sections of the exhibition and the catalog make clear how we move within our own landscape as well as how we harvest and consume it as >hunters<. They demonstrate not only how we take possession of it, settle in it and civilize it, but also how it is always open(hearted)ly and freely available to us.
In these hectic times of non-stop sensory overload, we go walking, hiking or simply outside to find ourselves again. We try to find some method of reclaiming our inner selves, of rediscovering our kinship with nature and the landscape surrounding us as well as the season and its rhythm. Regardless of whether we love the sea, the mountains or simply the place were we feel at home, we want to simultaneously liberate and heal ourselves by somehow synching with nature. That is a gift that landscape painting should give us – or at least remind us of.
Dr. Susann Buhl -Kunsthistorikerin-
Text zur Ausstellung und für den Katalog -Land-
2010, Kunstallianz1 Berlin, Allianz Deutschland AG