Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Some thoughts about French landscape

Since I am about to leave France for good perhaps you will allow me to share a few thoughts with you about French landscape

By 'French landscape' I  do not mean that distinguished history of landscape painting in France, culminating in the Impressionists, but what I simply see around me

When I first came to France I lived in the Montaign Noir - a range of limestone hills just north of Carcassonne and covered in pine forest, groves of Sweet Chestnut and deep gorges down which tumbled streams, many cunningly diverted into the Canal Midi

Direct experience of that landscape resulted in a series of gouache paintings - like the one above - that saw me struggling to capture, not only the rock forms, but also the tough trees and foliage that forced their way between  rocks split and shattered by countless winter frosts

This mountain scene was similarly  inspired by a rocky outcrop near the mountain village of Lastours, famous for its three Cathar castles

Often my work begins with a pencil sketch, like this one of the lake at Pradelles. This is quite conventional but such sketches gave me a starting point for more experimental work

Here I have taken conventional plant forms but have deliberately changed the scale of each element so that a sunflower-like plant becomes a giant tree and a rock formation appears to be floating in space. The desire to confound artistic conventions and throw viewers off balance is entirely deliberate!

This drawing (above) is based on a tiny area found in a rocky bank on the edge of the village - Labastide Esparbarenque - where I lived when I first came to southern France

It is as if I have used my camera lens to zoom in on details of exposed rock, twigs and roots

Of course, what we see above ground is only a fraction of the natural world. The roots needed to sustain and support the above tree constitute a considerable 'force' 

Indeed, there is an entire microscopic world that we need to be aware of and without which life on this planet would be impossible.

I have tried to capture something of that in the painting shown below:

This effect is achieved by dribbling paint, layer upon layer. It is meant to suggest the microscopic spores and filaments of the fungi that break down vegetable matter

It is this  hidden element that I am always conscious of and which I try to capture whenever possible in my work

Sometimes it is a natural component - like concealed roots - and sometimes something less tangible

The above pencil drawing, for example, represents a grove of trees that is perhaps haunted by some 'pagan' force. The varied textures and layers are created by using different types of pencil - from very hard (H6) to very soft (B10). 

There is also an element of collage within it whereby I have pirated earlier drawings of mine to enrich the final drawing's texture

Although my work invariably moves towards the semi-abstract or surreal, it frequently starts with close observation of nature

This banana plant (above) found in a park in Malaga, Spain is a pretty accurate drawing but in my imagination (and, hopefully, yours!) I can already see anthropomorphic forms that give it something of a disturbing 'edge'.

This photograph of a cactus was also taken on holiday in Spain. Later it was transformed into the large charcoal drawing shown below!

What's happening here, I think, is less to do with form or natural appearance than with some kind of inner animus or force. 

In this charcoal drawing the apparently 'simple' cactus has become a menacing plant quite capable of snapping off an arm or leg should you come too close!

I should add that this is not a character that I have imposed upon some 'innocent' cactus but something which I think already exists within nature - a dark force that is partly reflected in ancient Greek fertility myths. You find it wonderfully expressed, for example, in the poetry of Ted Hughes

This element of menace is also captured in the early drawings and watercolours of Graham Sutherland. It is his twisted trees and root forms - first discovered by me when I was a teenager - that started me on this particular journey

Colour is naturally important and in the above painting - called Harvest Moon - I explore the green and yellow end of the spectrum. This gouache on canvas is based on an actual landscape in which the yellow patches were in fact corn fields

 I am not, therefore, primarily interested in the representation of the natural world but in a kind of parallel universe that exits only in my imagination but which, never-the-less, derives shapes, textures and colours from nature itself

Moreover, plants forms can assume a semi-abstract form that is itself interesting. In the above sketch I have simplified the colours to enhance the twisted, plant-like, shapes

Sometimes, I add a photographic element to dramatically transform natural, rock-like shapes into anthropomorphic figures - in this case a follower of the violent god Dionysus from ancient Greek (or, more accurately) Phoenician mythology

Sometimes the addition of human elements gives a landscape a startling new reality, as in the gouache/collage shown below:

The rocks themselves are based on a rock formation I came across near Lastours in the Montaign Noir

Persephone's Summer Dream

The aim of much of my work, therefore, is to transform landscape into a richer, more complex art form in which various elements are thrown together -to create tension and disturbs those preconceptions we all have about conventional landscape

They are deliberately subversive!

When you combine all these elements you get - if you are lucky - a picture that is not only beautiful but mysterious

That at least is my aim. You must judge whether I achieve that or not!

Mike Healey

If you would like to know more about the work of Graham Sutherland, then there is an exhibition of his work currently on at The Modern Art gallery, Oxford

Click on the link below for direct access


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