This week on Civilisations Simon Schama took us through the place of landscape painting within cultures across the world. From Song China to the Netherlands, to 19th century America, he showed how depictions of a landscape could act as an escape from the anarchy brought by humanity, idealise the world in which we live and, in some cases, – contribute to the construction and ideals of the identity of a nation.
Landscape has played a significant role in the story of Scottish art since the seventeenth century, although with humble beginnings – initially painted as decorative panels for houses. Principal among these artist decorators was the Norie family, whose work helped to elevate landscape painting in Scotland into a subject in its own right; by combining topographical realism with a classical idealism, inspired by European artists such as Claude Lorrain.
This idealist approach to landscape continued into the eighteenth century, with Scottish artists continuing to visit and be influenced by the classical, picturesque works of the Italian landscape. This can be seen in the work of artists like Jacob More and Alexander Nasmyth. One example of Nasmyth's idealisation can be seen in a depiction of Edinburgh Castle and the Nor Loch made later in his career. Although presented as a likeness of the city’s landscape it was, in fact, a reminiscence of a place that no longer really existed – the water long since drained to make way for the development and extension of the city.
However, it is not the urban environment that has stood out as the defining trait or stereotype of Scotland’s identity, but rather the rugged, dramatic wildernesses that lie beyond these population centres. From the 19th century on they have captured the popular imagination - with artists, writers and poets all contributing towards the ‘discovery’ and celebration of these landscapes and their place in the definition of Scotland as a nation. Works from this time are imbued with scenes of the romantic – stormy waters, crumbling castles and cliffs, mostly devoid of human presence.
Although it has persisted to the modern day, the idealisation of Scotland's rugged landscape in the 19th century did have its opponents. For example, the pre-Raphaelite belief in truthful observations of more "humble" subjects influenced the work of Scottish artists like Robert Herdman. Some artists also began to embrace naturalism and took to working outdoors, capturing the landscape directly onto the canvas. The most active proponent of this idea was William McTaggart, whose unprecedented freedom in painting and interest in the cycle of nature and its impact on human life led to the creation of his 1890 masterpiece The Storm.
The strong tradition of landscape painting carried on into the twentieth century, with artists such as James McIntosh Patrick making use of a hard-edged, precise realism to depict their subject. However, a growing awareness of the emerging artistic movements in Europe also made their mark; along with reactions to the events of the 20th century.
One of the most powerful examples in the collection is William McCance’s Atom Horizon. This is one of a series of paintings made in the 1940s that reacted against the atomic age and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this picture, McCance uses the landscape not to escape from the anarchy and chaos of man, but to confront the viewer with the devastation, horror and chaos that has been unleashed by human society and its actions in warfare.
Beyond 1945, Scottish artists began to make use of the possibilities that abstract art could offer the landscape while remaining true to their original subject. Nowhere is this more evident than in the dramatic, boldly coloured scenes painted by Joan Eardley. After she moved to the village of Catterline in the 1950s, her work became larger and more imposing, inspired by the vast expanses of sea, sky and field that the landscape offered her. These paintings often included materials such as grass and grit to heighten the sense of realism within them. Although her career was tragically cut short, her modern approach and style has since become cemented within the vision of Scotland’s landscape and national identity, continuing to inspire visitors to the galleries from Scotland and beyond.
Civilisations continues on BBC2 at 9PM on Thursdays.
The Storm is on display at the Scottish National Gallery until March 25th, as part of the display Constable and McTaggart: A Meeting of Two Masterpieces.
Other examples of landscape by William McCance can be currently seen in the exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950, at Modern Two.