9 March 2020


Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger. © Bonniers konsthall, Stockholm.

English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the Grand Tour. Here look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!

– Hannah Jarvis in the 1993 play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

The landscape, vast and lovely. A green field with flowers white and yellow, a line of trees in the hazy distance and further afar the soft contours of a hill range in northern France. Arcadia, no doubt. Seconds later the camera sweeps us backwards to a spot where two young Britons are discourteously awakened by their sergeant. It is the first Friday in April 1917 and William Schofield hands over a letter to his friend – “Myrtle’s having puppies,” Tom Blake tells him before they walk down the trenches – and the camera turns around to face their suicide mission in this harrowing bedlam of barbed wire, filth, fear, nothing but death and a few trees that look like burned toothpicks. In areas where recently there was life, the Germans have chopped off the blossoming cherry trees and gunned down the cows. There will be no time for these boys in Sam Mendes’s profound achievement 1917 (2019) to reflect about White Male Privilege around fat rats having a banquet on laddie cadavers with mouths choked with worms in landscapes far surpassing the demonic imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. 

Rilke observed how the bleeding hearts and artists “see their task in grasping Nature, in order to insert themselves somewhere into its great contexts”. Nature is not a work of art. However, for the last five hundred years of Western civilisation the landscape has been a standalone genre, judged, painted and enjoyed for its own sake. A poet and a newspaperman who delineated this change of the landscape in art, from an earlier position as a mere backdrop to a noticeable subject for artistic imagination, was William Bryant in his 1882 study Philosophy of Landscape Painting: “Throughout the whole of what has become known as the period of the Renaissance there is observable a steadily increasing clearness and penetration in man’s view of, and a consequent deepening of his sympathy with, nature; and in precisely corresponding degree do we see that landscape backgrounds were wrought out with greater elaboration and care until they began to acquire significance apart from the personages represented in them.”

Caspar David Friedrich, who of course painted the almost too famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) with the red-haired man in the dark green outfit and the walking stick at the summit of a misty sublimity, believed that “Every manifestation of Nature, recorded with precision, with dignity, and with feeling can become the subject matter of art.” Friedrich’s Wanderer was done in the thick of Romanticism, painted in a rare spur of happiness when the artist was honeymooning and briefly returned to the humanistic practice of putting people at the centre of everything. “This attitude is completely reversed in Romantic thought,” explains Moshe Barasch in Modern Theories of Art: From Winckelmann to Baudelaire. “In Romanticism in general, and in the views of Romantic painters in particular, comparatively little attention is paid to the human figure as an expressive medium. It is now the landscape, animated by a mysterious life and reflecting human moods, that takes the place and traditional function of the human body.”

Landscape painting, as Maggie Chao points out in The End of Landscape in 19th-Century America, is “defined by its philosophical underpinnings – its metaphorical modes of address” yet gains much of its value and significance through “a set of pictorial conventions that became steadfastly aligned with the genre’s cultural mandate”.

An artist duo that opened this closet of conventions in the mid-1990s was Komar and Melamid who launched a large-scale international consumer questionnaire as a serious and well-intended effort to specify the general public’s Most Wanted Paintings, which pretty much turned out to be the same kind of painting: a generic, idealised landscape of pastoral kitsch comprising a uniform set of people, wild animals, some trees, lots of blue water and remote blue montane ripples. “Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland – what can be more different in the whole fucking world? – and they both want blue landscapes,” commented Aleksandr Melamid in 1997 while trying to soften the disastrous result: “Maybe paradise is not something which is awaiting us; it is already inside of us, and the point is how to figure it out, how to discover it, how to get it out.”

A young black man and the murdered The Shining twins lately announced in Scandinavian Airlines’ two-and-a-half-minute-long commercial designed to diss their customers and to pander to the PC in-crowd – the company’s tribute to the ideological inanities and the bewitchment of majestic trite in the Swedish distorted society where extremists and amateurs are authorities – that the merit of our culture is “absolutely nothing” and that we are still no better than our looting, raping Viking ancestors. So how do you make an exhibition about Swedish landscape painting then when (according to SAS) “everything is copied”, worthless and ho-ho, Eric?

The Trees, Light Green is an exhibition about landscape in two respects: the landscape as nature, the forest, the soil, but also landscape in the painterly tradition,” says Theodor Ringborg who is the new artistic director at Bonniers konsthall in Stockholm. “It brings together historical works and contemporary works in an attempt to discern differences, expressions, concepts between these two periods of time and between these artists. The idea is that the historical artists come from a period of mass industrialisation in Sweden, especially the forest and mining industries, and that the contemporary artists are a generation that observes some of the consequences of the massive expansion.”

Ringborg was hiking in the northern province of Jämtland in the summer of 2018 when (in his own words) “Sweden was on fire!” – yes, due to a singular heatwave, arsonists and the fact of the matter that Sweden is a woodland without legitimate fire prevention – “and we started to talk about signs in the landscape”. The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting – Past and Present comprises eighty-one works by twenty-eight artists, fourteen dead and fourteen alive. It is an exhibition that splits into a ridiculous part that bumbles on “ideologically”, and a so-so part that is what is physically shown on the walls. The latter does not take any part in the adolescent hysteria of the Greta cult however.

With his eight-hundred-and-ninety-word essay for this show that is (or is it really?) about landscape painting, Ringborg has composed an apocalypso of Luddite stubbornness and climate doom. “The typical landscape painter of the past depicted a seemingly unspoilt nature,” he argues. “The landscape still remains a motif in contemporary art. The problems with the environment serves [sic] as the subject of a painting at times, but not always. However, whenever depicting nature today, contemporary artists must surely be aware that the landscape is undergoing a historical transformation. An underlying connection to the current climate catastrophe is inevitable, whether or not it is made visible in the work.” So far, so predictable.

Here is the worst part (warts and all), and it is as messy as Greta’s Tesla: “This exhibition primarily features our immediate environment. But as climate change is global, so too is the exhibition. Just like a fire that pays no heed to divisions between a national park and a cultivated forest, the climate could care less about regional boundaries and frontier lines. On the very same day this exhibition ends – on the 29th of March, 2020 – humanity will have most likely have consumed this year’s resources. In other words, the natural resources our planet can produce in a single year will then be depleted. From that day on, we will be living off resources we essentially do not have. We take from future reserves that are diminishing by the minute. The planet itself, naturally, is anything but frail. It is rather we, pathetic latecomers, who arrived in the most recent microseconds of the planet’s history, that have constructed a system wreaking havoc. Without us, Earth would repair itself in time. To keep existing we must reassess how our system is currently prioritised, with economic growth prevailing over all else that grows. At one point in time, laws were put in place to enable industrial expansion. Many now believe we have enough information to regulate in the opposite direction.”

The curator of this show appears to be a flower from the same garden as Cambridge professor Patricia MacCormack who in her new book The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene proposes that “The only solution to climate change is letting the human race become extinct.” (Speaking words of wokeness, let it be, let it be.) Ringborg’s exhibition fits perfectly well with a quote from William John Thomas Mitchell’s book Landscape and Power in which the author maintains that “It is almost as if there is something built into the grammar and logic of the landscape concept that requires the elaboration of a pseudohistory, complete with a prehistory, an originating moment that issues in progressive historical development, and (often) a final decline and fall.”

Nature is interchangeable with weather when the curator speaks, as both are consequences of “human impact” and hence “unnatural” he figures. It is more than ever enormously beneficial for one’s career to cautiously declining to produce anything like a thought of one’s own in the Social Democratic La La Land – this groupthink-tank nation of soulless Me-centrics who think that they have all the answers. The science of climate stupidity is the Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of our time, yet everyone is expected to kneel before these fools and their “discovery” that our solar system is a precious clockwork and that the climate is changing over time (and always has), and because of that we must all live in a state of panic, the worse, the better. People are not nice but our planet is fine. We have now a much more balanced weather system and the Earth is greener than in ages thanks to the sound levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Try to ask Greta a relevant question and you are briskly surrounded by her eight totalitarian bodyguards who will tell you to fuck off because, referring to her homeland, “This is a Communist country.” Recently in a cold and damp Bristol, where thirty thousand little planet savers wrecked the public College Green in order to get a few minutes with their callow commander, Greta lifted her new Iphone to read out what the speechwriter had typed for her: “The world is on fire!” (Ha-ha, charade you are.)

“As I write this,” the curator stresses in his introduction to the essay, “contemporary art is a much-debated topic in the media. In some places people are opposing ‘challenging contemporary art’ and restrictions have been made on art’s place in the public sphere.” Well, almost everything in this country is judged on how you play along with the emotional Marxism in the Swedish Opinion Corridor and its instinctively constipated resistance towards sincere new thinkers, people who see things differently and have the courage to be good. (It is like what Houellebecq said in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, exactly thirty years after 1984: “Sweden is one of the most undemocratic countries in the world. Sweden is a real dictatorship. It is impossible to think what you want.”) A generic blue landscape painting is not a work of art, but the same goes for art class suck-up Margaret’s tampon-in-a-teacup piece – “The shocking image of repressed femininity!” – in Ghost World (2001) and all that kind of “challenging” crap for the taxpayers’ money. It is the death of art (life, joy, lust, truth, creativity), either way.

The French 18th-century painter Claude Joseph Vernet quipped that “If it is good enough for nature, it will be good enough for painting.” The Trees, Light Green exhibition at Bonniers konsthall puts the past and the present (and nothing in between) in Swedish landscape painting under one roof with “a modern, contemporary salon hang that is made to break relationships and also create relationships”, but is it good enough, does it work? Is the line of tradition and the quality of these paintings strong enough for this higgledy-piggledy? Nah, these now-and-then squares are as bad at getting along as they are at ignoring each other, and though the works from the past are goodies they are hardly any goldies.

“He discovered virgin lands where no one had yet placed a foot, aspects and forms of landscape that one could say were unknown before he painted them,” wrote art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary in 1882 about the greatest artist of physical landscape painting, Gustave Courbet. “Each time he plunged into the bosom of deep nature, he was like a man who has penetrated a beehive and come out covered with honey; he returned charged with perfume and poetry.”

Ringborg says that the ambition of the exhibition is “to give people a place to reflect on their relationship to what we call nature or the environment or landscape, but also to give people an opportunity to experience landscape painting as it looks today and what it has looked like earlier”. The title of this honeyless show is taken from a late-1960s poem by Göran Sonnevi which he ends with an essential urge to make “the distance between trees and between people disappear”.

The world did not end in 1917 or in 1918, not in 1933 or in 1942, nor has it ended at present day in spite of these drastically pathological loudmouths who really aim to sink the world to beige. 1917 closes just like it begins with Will against a tree, and once again he is looking out at a vast and lovely landscape. The young man pulls out a small metal box from his uniform pocket and picks up a photograph of his loved ones at home with somebody’s handwriting, “Come back to us x.” Here is the paradise within us.

Sara-Vide Ericson, Surface, 2017.

The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting – Past and Present at Bonniers konsthall in Stockholm through March 29, 2020.