Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton (National Gallery)

If you plan on visiting the National Gallery this summer, you won’t want to miss the sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes currently on view in “Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton.”  The paintings in this display reconstruct the interactions between three of Europe’s foremost artists of the nineteenth century: France’s Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Italy’s Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), and Britain’s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896).  “Artistic Exchanges” insightfully draws attention to the admiration these men had for each other’s work, as well as their shared appreciation of the natural world.

Corot - Avignon from the West (1836)

Camille Corot – Avignon from the West (1836)

Eager to establish a landscape tradition in his native country, the Roman-born Costa sought inspiration from foreign artists such as Corot, who was keenly interested in painting the poetic effects of light and atmosphere.  Corot’s Avignon from the West (1836), for example, unites land and sky with one another through a harmonious pattern of sunshine and shadows.  The interplay of light and form became a salient feature in Costa’s own compositions, such as Bocca d’Arno (c. 1895), a sweeping riverscape bathed in subdued blue-grey tones.  The panoramic views of Italian countryside favored by Costa made a subsequent impact upon Frederic Leighton, a fellow admirer of Corot.  Throughout his life, Leighton regularly traveled to Italy for painting excursions, on which trips he was occasionally accompanied by Costa after the two met in 1853.

Frederic Leighton - An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

Frederic Leighton – An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

The intimate exhibition space encourages viewers to draw comparisons between the landscapes by all three featured artists.  Leighton’s An Outcrop in the Roman Campagna (c. 1866), for example, employs the broad, lateral format favored in Costa’s paintings.  Meanwhile, the loose application of pigment in this landscape resembles Corot’s mode of handling in The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (c. 1826).  The two artists’ treatment of light is also similar, so much so that a different painting by Leighton—The Villa Malta, Rome (1860s)—was originally attributed to Corot.  One of the most striking similarities of design appears between Costa’s A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81) and Corot’s The Leaning Tree Trunk (c. 1860-65), both of which the motif of sinuous branches backlit against a vaporous sky.

Giovanni Costa - A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

Giovanni Costa – A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

At the same time, the display also highlights the stylistic characteristics that made each artist’s approach to landscape painting unique, such as Costa’s delicate brushstrokes, Leighton’s solid forms, and Corot’s soft-focus delineation.  Corot’s large series The Four Times of Day, which hangs in the adjacent gallery, is a fitting compliment to “Artistic Exchanges,” particularly because it was Leighton who originally purchased this work from the artist in 1865.

Overall, these landscapes construct a compelling visual argument that emphasizes how these three artists influenced one another over the course of their careers. It also underlines the international nature of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Artistic Exchanges is in Room 42 of the National Gallery from 7 May – 3 September 2014 .

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany (Courtauld Gallery)

Spring might still be over a month away, but the winter rain cannot darken the stunning natural views currently on display at The Courtauld Gallery in “A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.” This exhibition, jointly organized with the Morgan Library and Museum, explores important developments in German and British landscape painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These years were a time when artists in both countries increasingly began to turn away from conventional classical landscapes (think Claude Lorrain) in favor of evocative scenes painted directly from nature.  Indeed, the exhibition title captures the idea of personal interaction and interpretation that became central to the Romantic landscape tradition.

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15), The Morgan Library & Museum

The oil sketches, drawings, and watercolors in this exhibition are spread across three rooms on the top floor of the gallery.  Their subjects range from rural hills and lush forests to haunting churchyards and imposing ruins.  The first room focuses on early Romantic landscapes by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, and Jakob Philipp Hackert.  Hackert was one of the first advocates in Germany of painting landscapes out of doors, and his careful observations of botanic detail can be seen in the leafy foreground of his View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls of Tivoli (1783).  Particularly interesting is the second room of the exhibition, which is filled with paintings and drawings of clouds by Franz Kobell, Johann Georg von Dillis, and John Constable.  This in-depth look at the role weather and atmosphere play in influencing the mood of a landscape serves as an apt transition into the final portion of the exhibition.

Samuel Palmer Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828) The Morgan Library & Museum

The third and largest room focuses on one of the most recognizable characteristics of Romanticism: the sublime.  The overwhelming power of nature is readily apparent in works such as Carl Philipp Fohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15), which depicts the crumbling remains of a once-mighty structure slowly being engulfed by its sylvan surroundings.  “A Dialogue with Nature” also draws attention to specific motifs commonly found in British and German Romantic landscapes of this time.  Images of twisted and gnarled trees, for example, appear in works by both Samuel Palmer and Karl Friedrich Lessing.  Vivid highlights and writhing lines make Palmer’s watercolor and ink drawing Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (c. 1828) a striking interpretation of this subject.  In addition to pointing out similarities, the layout of the exhibition also invites viewers to compare stylistic differences between British and German approaches to landscape painting.  For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s finely detailed Moonlit Landscape (c.1808) is hung side by side with another nocturnal scene, the more atmospheric On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (1841?) by J.M.W. Turner.

The landscapes in this exhibition present a fascinating combination of frank observations imbued with poetry and emotion.  Their intimacy and immediacy is sure to leave an impression upon all those who visit The Courtauld’s “A Dialogue with Nature.”

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany is at the Courtauld Gallery until 27 April 2014.

Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.