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.

Walter Crane and the Arts and Crafts Watercolour (Richard McDougall Lecture, 10th December 2013)

I had been rather looking forward to the annual Richard McDougall lecture on British watercolours, as during my time at studying for a BA at Manchester in 2008, there was a particularly rewarding exhibition running at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Walter Crane and Socialism. It introduced to me the extraordinary breadth and beauty of Crane’s output, a truly thoughtful and polemical High Victorian. Meaning is woven throughout his works, ranging from Socialist banners to children’s books, forging a broad, personal visual language not dissimilar to William Blake. Little did I realise the curator of this exhibition was tonight’s speaker, Morna O’Neill, the top authority on this otherwise rather neglected figure.

Walter Crane's studio

Walter Crane’s studio

In a photograph of Crane’s studio in 1885, the oil Freedom sits opposite his watercolour Pandora, the latter not distinguished by embodying the Aesthetic dictum “art for art’s sake”, but instead just as didactic as the oil. Crane encouraged the act of connoisseurship as a way to knowledge, and many details in Pandora act as emblems towards a theme of universal Hope. Particularly resonant for Crane are the sphinxes which hold up the eponymous box: ciphers for individualism against the Orpheic artist’s dream of Socialism. But all this begs the question: why choose watercolour at all? The nineteenth-century British watercolour is a strange thing, as was explored by Colin Cruise at last year’s lecture. Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knightbravely exhibited at the Old Water Colour Society in 1864, was one of the first works to challenge what watercolour could be. It was in this context that Crane would develop his own concept of an Arts and Crafts watercolour.

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

It is rather a paradox to suggest that watercolour’s medium specificity is fluidity and ambiguity, but its role for Crane was a site of experimentation and self-referentiality. This reminded me again of Cruise’s lecture, where in Rossetti’s early watercolour, The First Anniversary of the Death of BeatriceDante is shown working in the medium in which he is painted. Crane was less direct in his reflexivity. In Pandora the mosaics of the floor and the curtain were based on Crane’s own objects that were originally designed in watercolour. Crane used watercolour extensively to provide designs for the production of Decorative arts, and also of his tremendously beautiful children’s books. Crane’s Art’s and Crafts watercolour then works as bridging the gap between designer and maker, not an end in itself, but a means to an ideal as yet unrealised.

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour, exhibited (private collection)

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour (private collection)

Surprisingly, Morna spent much time on the iconography of Crane’s works, and less on the specific painterly potentiality of watercolour, although this was explored in the evanescent visionary reverie in the Youthful Poet’s Dream (1869). Yet the central issue of Crane’s exploration of the dynamic between illustration and narrative: the act of looking as a way to knowledge, is very reassuring to any art historian who still likes looking at paintings. And one hopes Morna can see the Pandora itself soon as a way to knowledge, as currently it sits in a very private collection…