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Monday, August 13, 2012


Rooftops with Snow, 1878, Gustave Caillebotte
When we think of landscapes, what usually comes to mind is an image of bucolic peace, quiet and plenitude where nature and beauty are one and where never is heard, a discouraging know the rest. But in the latter half of the sixteenth century, there grew up a genre of painting called "perspectives," and this type of landscape painting had little to do with any of the above. In fact, we've long since ceased calling them landscapes at all (or perspectives either, for that matter) but cityscapes. Although, in the last hundred years or so, city planners (now there's an oxymoron) have taken it upon themselves to try and merge these two very different environments, in theory, if not in fact. Only the Impressionists were ever very good at depicting such efforts in paint (above, left). And even at that, they mostly captured but a brief moment in time and space--a fleeting glimpse of Paris and a few suburbs before the city managed to beat down much of the countryside greenery planners tried to implant along its grand boulevards. In the city, nature has often been reduced to grass struggling to grow between cracks in the sidewalk.

The Effects of Good Government in the City (detail), 1338, Ambrogio Lorenzetti
The city is no newcomer to art. Painters have painted cities for almost as long as there have been cities. In fact, most painters have always lived in them. Walled cities, sometimes even bearing identifiable landmarks, have appeared as backgrounds in paintings since medieval times. Ambrogio Lorenzetti may have painted the first true cityscape as far back as 1338 with his The Effects of Good Government in the City (above) in which he depicts the interdependence between the city (Sienna in this case) and the countryside--farmers bringing in their produce to sell in the city, where its inhabitants trade their manufactured goods for food, wool, and flax. As the title indicates, Lorenzetti emphasised the social order rising from good urban government and free trade.

The Dam with the New Town Hall in Amsterdam, 1688, Jan van der Heyden
But it was the Dutch who raised the painting of the benevolence of classic good order and good government to the level of high art. It was they, too, who first introduced the term "perspectives" to describe such art. And, it's not difficult to see why in Jan van der Heyden's The Dam with the New Town Hall in Amsterdam (above), painted in 1688. Even today, the painting would challenge the best efforts of the best draughtsman/artist in managing its angled view on what is now the Royal Palace and the exceptional detailing of the massive classical edifice while correctly proportioning the city's other major landmarks and its citizens as they go about their business in the town square. All his life, van der Heyden specialised in such detailing. There's not so much as a single tree or blade of grass in sight--not even a tulip.
Piazetta,Venice, Looking North, 1730, Canaletto
But even van der Heyden's Dutch tendency for stickling details pales in comparison next to that of Canaletto's Venetian scenes. Reproductions of his 1730 The Piazzetta, Venice, Looking North (above) could pass for 20th century picture postcards despite its having been painted more than a hundred years before such technology existed. The lighting, the restrained use of colour, the perspective, the seemingly infinite, razor sharp focus, the natural "busyness" of the scene seems incredible as we remind ourselves that it is, in fact, actually a painting. Quite frankly, Canaletto's work has much to do with both post cards and photography. They were, in fact, large, souvenir images painted by the hundreds specifically for the tourist trade (albeit rich tourists) who came to see what was even then considered one of the most beautiful, romantic, and unique cities on earth. And recent studies have brought to light the extensive efforts Canaletto employed in creating such works. The paintings were drawn, if not painted, from inside a portable, room-sized, camera obscura by highly trained (and no doubt very patient) draughtsmen (we could hardly call them artists), and then turned over to studio assistants and apprentices for the actual painting. Canaletto, of course, oversaw the whole enterprise and no doubt lent his hand to the all-important finishing work, but in large part, these incredible painted images were the output of a surprisingly sophisticated art factory.

The City, 1919, Fernand Leger
By the advent of the 20th century, much of the romance and perceived good order of the urban environment had worn thin. Cities such as London and New York were becoming so large as to be largely unmanageable by 19th century standards. But, they were no less exciting places to the artist's eye, and ideal subjects for the fragmenting styles of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. Fernand L├ęger may have captured this high-impact excitement best in his 1919 painting, The City. The City was Paris in this case. Girders from the Eiffel Tower compete with signs, people, utility poles, and scraps of urban architecture in a striking array of bold, primary colours juxtaposed with pure blacks, whites, and a few mitigating greys. We don't hear April in Paris playing in the background but Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

In America, before she took up huge flowers, Georgia O'Keeffe was painting huge buildings (below, right). John Marin (below, left) was abstracting them in watercolor, and Joseph Stella was bridging the gap between cities with his (and Roebling's) Brooklyn masterpiece of art and engineering. Despite the absence of natural vegetation, or even human presence, in many such works, as the cities have spread with unrestrained exuberance north and south, east and west across this country, they've come to represent so much of what America is that it seems now to be a bit arbitrary to maintain any kind differentiation between the rural and the urban scenes. More and more they seem to be simply somewhat different angles painted of the same American landscape.
Brooklyn Bridge, 1912, John Marin
New York with Moon, 1925,
Georgia O'Keeffe

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