The aim of scientific communication is to achieve complete transparency, to ensure that all the relevant empirical facts and arguments are explicitly and honestly stated, free of rhetorical devices, metaphors and subtly slanted adjectives. Such truthfulness is not always achieved by any means, but it remains an ideal continually reinforced by good editors and peer pressures.
None of this is true for Art which thrives on subtle suggestion, metaphor, nuance and careful selection of material to create an at least partly predetermined impression on the audience. Truthfulness in art is emotional and subjective and must find some point of resonance with the mind of the viewer or reader. Thus it is widely believed that art is strongly tied to time and place and can only be understood in context.
But such a formulation, though in some sense undoubtedly true, leaves open questions of merit, originality and universality. These issues are the meat and drink of art historians and literary scholars though most of us amateurs make do with the odds and ends we pick up in unsystematic reading and conversation. So, despite my sometimes acute feelings of historical and analytical inadequacy in this area, I try to get on with the act of creation (or rather interpretation) hoping that critical introspection and the occasional dip into “theory” will help me up my own evolutionary curve.
In this post I want to look at some of the landscape images from the previous entry “36 Hours in the South-Western Cape”. In particular I want to explore a common theme in these landscapes: tiny human habitations overshadowed by the majestic and overwhelming vertical cliffs looming over them. Such scenes in the South African context are best represented by the landscape painter, Gabriel de Jongh who, in this respect, carried on in the same tradition as his more famous father, Tinus.
The father still carries some weight in the South African art world but the paintings of Gabriel are probably dismissed as accomplished kitsch by most modern critics. Nevertheless, the romantic and naturalist genre they represented clearly appealed strongly to the popular imagination. Why?
I surmise that the juxtaposition of relatively puny human structures and the gigantic forces of nature strikes a universal psychological cord in human aesthetic consciousness. Yet this theme, as far as I am aware, only emerged in the 18th century. Certainly it is not a feature of the hunter-gatherer art to be found all over South Africa or, indeed, earlier European paintings.
Perhaps such art could only truly arise when humans had achieved some mastery over nature and were thus not pre-occupied with simple survival. Perhaps too, it reflected a disgust at the excesses of modern industrialisation and required the mobility of an educated, leisure class who found an escape from the noise and ugliness of industrialised Western cities in the still wild places of Europe and the colonies.
But why the frequent need to insert some evidence of human presence into images of rampant and magnificent nature? Part may have come from the juxtaposition of the puny, but also heroic and resilient, human presence in the midst of an impervious and merciless nature. But I would also like to suggest that nature without some evidence of human consciousness is empty. It requires consciousness, only available from human beings, to acquire the soul and poignancy of true art.
Many would challenge this assertion. For example, photographic images of wild animals set in vast natural landscapes are popular and potent. Can animals serve as surrogates for humans? Perhaps to some extent, yes. Does this negate the validity of the argument that evidence of human presence amplifies the emotional voltage of landscape pictures? I don’t think so. Try looking at the landscapes included in this post while imagining them without the buildings, vines and other traces of human presence.
So while these landscapes are following, not extending, the well-established romantic tradition of Man in Nature, they do tap into a universal human response. True art they are not, but they will one day go to form part of a tapestry of images (and maybe words and music) which depict one response to human existence in a unique corner of our planet. Perhaps, if lucky and persevering, some of that will reach the threshold of real art.