If you were to walk into virtually any art gallery in this country, perhaps in the whole civilised world today, by far the largest group of paintings on display would be landscapes. The paintings would vary enormously, as would the locales, the styles, even the nature of the landscape itself, from what we've come to call the urban landscape to the bleakly uninhabited desert landscape. There's a reason for this. Once people lose their natural views, they find themselves having to buy them back. The framed landscape is but an artificial window upon an artificial, unnatural world of the owner's own choosing. Even as we lust for the wildness of nature, we crave to exercise control of our environment. Even as we take our overpriced, overweight, overbearing SUVs off-road into the wilderness, we demand they have air-conditioning, power seats, Dolby stereo sound, and a drop dead gorgeous, colour co-ordinated, deeply padded, leather interior. As for our paintings, we want a richly carved, gold leaf frame around our painterly improvisations of nature as we imagine it, free of roadside litter, free of roadside billboards, in fact, free of roadsides altogether.
Landscape painting did not grow out of a love of nature. It grew out of a love of God. In the fourteenth century when the first traces of landscape painting began to appear as backgrounds in religious works, nature was still something to be feared, something to be overcome, its beauty unrecognised and something to be taken for granted. As artists embraced the Bible and the richly rewarding commissions to decorate churches that came with it, fostered to enlighten illiterate worshipers, it quickly became obvious that it was impossible to paint Adam and Eve without a Garden of Eden, or Christ in the wilderness without a wilderness. But rather than go out and study nature, artists improvised and imagined it. A typical example can be seen in Duccio di Buoninsegna's The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. Painted around 1308, the background is gold leaf, the rocks contrived and monochromatic, the sea calmly flat but abounding richly in fish, calling to mind the "fishers of men" analogy.
Even 185 years later when Albrecht Dürer painted View of the Arco Valley we find him imposing his own order upon the scene, eliminating neighbouring hills to emphasise the noble character of the mountaintop Italian village. And where he didn't impose his own will, he depicted in great detail the will of his fellow man all about the scene, even the imagined face of a man seen in one of the rocky cliffs. His rendering is rich in medieval detail yet strangely sterile in natural colour. The theme is man's apparent triumph in his domination of nature.
The Dutch artist, Jacob van Ruisdael, in 1670, some 165 years after Dürer, when the lowlands of Holland were awash in a newly discovered love affair with landscape painting, chose to obliquely illustrate and ennoble his countrymen's victory over the sea, the prosperous business of producing linen, their neat, carefully ordered homes, and towering city buildings on the horizon. His View of Haarlem from the Northwest with the Bleaching Fields in the Foreground draws attention not to the land, which is flat and almost featureless, but to the ways in which his friends and neighbours were thriving upon it. Overhead we see two-thirds of his composition given over to the cloud formations of a threatening sky. Indeed, the whole history of Holland is an uneasy truce with nature.
And so it has been, down through the centuries. In Thomas Gainsborough's bucolic The Watering Place, in Claude Monet's almost scientific study of Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, in Canadian artist/photographer Jeff Wall's angst-ridden A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) today (1993), we find as many moments of conflict as of peace. No matter how strongly modern man professes a love of the great outdoors, no matter how wealthy become those who brave the forces of nature to paint it, no matter how faithfully they do so, what they bring back is mostly just another chapter in the saga of man's insistent efforts to orchestrate his vision of that which is increasingly becoming so rare as to be familiar only in painted memorials. Now, as in the past, what we are really seeing in such paintings are not landscapes, but "manscapes."