Imagining Landscapes

A portfolio of exhibits

The lute song: saying farewell at hsun-yang

Ting Yün-p'eng, The lute song: saying farewell at Hsun-Yang, c.1575
Hanging scroll, ink and colours on paper, 140.9 x 45.7 cm
Melropolitan Museum of Art John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913

Whether a landscape is seen through the lens of a camera, a telescope, the unaided eye, or even a microscope, the cultural dimensions of that seeing both direct the process and give it meaning.

Clark's discussion may be found in his Landscape into art, Harper and Row, New York, 1976.

Three hundred years ago the English word 'landscape' belonged to the painter rather than the topographer. Landscapes were paintings rather than terrain, representations of countryside rather than the countryside itself. Nowadays this emphasis has changed. We think of landscapes as slices of the real world, and the term refers to the physical entity rather than the mental reconstruction.

Yet this slide of meaning, from mode of depiction to the object observed, must not be allowed to hide the fact that the observation of landscape, whether by artist or scientist, geographer or layperson, remains an activity of mind, a mental process through which images of the natural world are formed. Significantly, these images, like those which hang in galleries, often differ profoundly from one culture to another, and, within each culture, from one person to another.

In other words, observers of the same landscape may produce different mental pictures, regardless of their visual acuity or their skill at naturalistic representation. What is actually seen when people look at a natural landscape may vary according to intellectual interests or training, cultural values or expectations, psychological fears or preferences, economic interests, aesthetic sensibilities, and other factors which directly influence the simple act of observation. Thus, what is often taken as an objective process (seeing) necessarily reflects a host of subjective mental operations which together reveal one's personality, social position, culture, and indeed one's humanity. To go a step further, whenever one's perceptions of a natural landscape are recorded for posterity (as in a drawing, painting, map or photograph) matters of artistic and scientific convention additionally influence the resultant image.

Thus, art critic Kenneth Clark's famous contrast of the 'landscape of symbols' with the 'landscape of fact’, must not be taken as a hard and fast distinction valid in all historical periods. A landscape painting is rarely purely symbolic and never purely factual. Though it may be approached, the 'landscape of fact’, strictly considered, cannot be reached. Because it is ultimately impossible to see and depict nature in its totality and as it really is, devoid of cultural illumination, it may be appropriate to set more attainable goals: realistic and pragmatic standards of naturalistic description.

After all, an individual artist or scientist may well capture and put to use something of the essence and something of the existence (to employ an old philosophical distinction) of any natural object. Yet another generation may see and understand the landscape in an entirely different way. In Clark's discussion of the landscape of fact ('the tame delineation of a given spot’, according to the keeper of the Royal Academy), he makes it very clear that facts cannot simply be transposed to canvas: 'facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality'. I should like to broaden this notion to include all representation of the natural world. Thus, one might say, facts become art and science through culture, which unifies them and gives them meaning.

Sidney nolan, wimmera

Sir Sidney Nolan, Wimmera (from Moum Arapiles), 1943
Ripolin enamel on board, 61 x 91.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria
Presemed by Sir Sidney and Lady Nolan 1983