On Jan Kempenaers’ contemporary picturesque
Dirk De Meyer
On Jan Kempenaers’ contemporary picturesqueDirk De MeyerOn Jan Kempenaers’ contemporary picturesque
Dirk De Meyer
“That’s what I’m after: a normal view of the landscape. Almost.”
If artists are important to society, this is so not least because they have the power to give new forms to matter and to endow existing matter with new meaning and character. An early-modern illustration of such a transformation that was to affect modern culture for centuries is how artists produced “landscape” out of what had formerly been referred to merely as land, or nature. The modern form of our conception of landscape, with its connotations of scenery, first appeared in the late sixteenth century, when Dutch and Flemish painters – on the verge of becoming masters of a new genre – used the term landschap when referring to paintings of inland natural or rural scenery. Land acquired the ability to become, in a depicted scene, something that could be appreciated for its own intrinsic aesthetic qualities.
Following the proliferation of these landscape paintings and the spread of the genre with the success of Claude Lorrain’s visions of Italian mythological scenes, the eighteenth century witnessed a radical change in the perception of land itself: it was no longer restricted to depiction on canvas. It created what we are now used to calling “landscape”, a term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that was only introduced around 1725 to denote an actual physical landscape. What had formerly been perceived in terms of ownership, production, agriculture or military significance became aesthetic material – something imagined, created or viewed by man, as pointed out by the mid-twentieth-century landscape theorist J. B. Jackson.
In particular, the new condition in which a spectator could appreciate a tract of land in the same way as one appreciates a well-composed painting was soon to be called the Picturesque – i.e., “after the manner of painters”. Ever since, the picturesque has altered the way we look at landscapes, even to the point that it has become completely ingrained in the way we see the world and produce our own representations of it, as when we take snapshots or choose a route for a walk or a drive. On a more theoretical level, during the course of the last century it has been hailed as the true pioneer of modern design by Nikolaus Pevsner in his The Englishness of English Art (1955) and stigmatized as an undefeatable adversary in Reyner Banham’s The Revenge of the Picturesque (1968).
Many of the works of the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers are artistic representations of fragments of our environment – landscapes, as we have come to call them. Some of these landscapes are “natural” ones and continue an overtly picturesque tradition. For instance, Kempenaers’ arresting photographs of rocks, sometimes isolated in the middle of the sea, sometimes as part of a larger inland environment, build upon a long tradition established by early photographers such as Roger Fenton – one can think of The Cheddar Cliff of 1858 or Bowder Stone of 1860. In a similar way, Kempenaers’ forest landscapes grow out of the tradition that encompasses imagery ranging from Gustave Le Gray’s photographs of the forest of Fontainebleau from the late 1840s to Thomas Struth’s more recent ones. Some of Kempenaers’ other photographs of rocks and landscapes, such as Rock #3 (2010), may come across as “natural”, but upon closer examination they reveal the traces of man’s intervention in a way that seems to revisit the approach of Robert Adams or Lewis Baltz. In Adams’ Clear-cut and Burned, East of Arch Cape, Oregon (1976), for instance, traditional picturesque imagery and tools are used to produce an image of the impact of man on nature, an impact that reaches the point of total devastation.
Setting aside his most manifestly, or undisguisedly, picturesque series, the majority of sites that Kempenaers looks at have been altered by man, or are even entirely man-made. Often what appears in the pictures feels familiar, yet how it is presented in the photograph does not feel that way to the same degree.
At first glance Kempenaers’ photographs may not reflect the traditional ideas we have about an everyday picturesqueness. To better understand the relationship between his compositions and the aesthetic category of the picturesque, we need to look more closely at some of the original eighteenth-century aspects of the picturesque. When we leave aside this popular genre’s legacy – which has been significant though not highly prized, for at one point the picturesque even became synonymous with conventionally beautiful scenery – we will be able to discover its astounding modernity and topicality. The picturesque conceived as such, I will argue, fits perfectly with our contemporary way of looking at and appreciating natural and urban environments, and is also firmly entrenched in contemporary practices of representation. Viewed from this perspective, Kempenaers’ photographs can be understood as an exploration of the continuing relevance of the picturesque in the contemporary visualization of our environment.
The Recovery of the Artistically Discredited
From the very beginning, the picturesque was a practice rather than a category of objects. It related both to the elements in a scene as well as to the artist’s treatment of his subject. For the English artist and author Reverend William Gilpin, who is considered one of the originators of the picturesque, it was essentially just a set of rules for depicting nature. In his Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty, On Picturesque Travel, and On Sketching Landscape (1792), Gilpin succeeded in virtually codifying the picturesque as something that is composed of such conventional elements as ruins (à la Lorrain), cottages, villages and winding paths, characterized by roughness, intricacy, sudden variation and abruptness, and comprised of a foreground, middleground and background, which together formed the general and more abstract paradigm of the picturesque.
The essential qualities of the picturesque were formulated in the most succinct way in his earlier Essay upon Prints (1768) when he said that the term was “expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”. Gilpin realized that the accepted definition of beauty – which, in his day, was most often marked by a unity of composition and a sense of effortlessness – was hardly suitable for describing what he appreciated in nature: “the picturesque”, composed of roughness, irregularity and variety. The landscape he had in mind produced another kind of beauty – the beauty he admired in the lake shores, looming mountains, perilous rocks and crashing waterfalls of Ullswater, in the Lake District, as he described it in his Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1772; often referred to as Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland): “Among all the visions of this enchanting country, we had seen nothing so beautifully sublime, so correctly picturesque as this.”
Gilpin, however, was not the first to articulate this new kind of beauty. William Hogarth had already introduced the key concepts of variety, curvilinearity and intricacy in his The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste of 1753. Hogarth’s publication also came out four years before Edmund Burke’s better-known text entitled A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In his attack on dealers and connoisseurs, Hogarth focuses on the concept of “the Line of Beauty”, whereby he substitutes the classical figure of male heroic virtue with the charming female figure of Venus; in one of the book’s accompanying plates, the Farnese Hercules, an embodiment of classical taste, has turned his back to Venus. Hogarth centres his aesthetics on the virtue of variety, which he finds in the beauty of women, in their serpentine locks of hair and the way they move, in their corsets . . . Hogarth’s Analysis became the focus of ridicule for some, particularly the English landscape painter Paul Sandby, but it was nonetheless generally well received and widely read. Particularly in landscape theory, Hogarth’s “Line of Beauty” became associated with the principle of the most successful landscape architect of the later eighteenth century, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and with Humphrey Repton’s landscape gardening, and it was developed by Gilpin as the picturesque, with its preference for irregularity, roughness and variety.
Just like Hogarth had intended with his aesthetics, Gilpin wanted the picturesque to be utilized to counteract and correct what was officially considered “beautiful”. Hence, at the very core of the picturesque there is something quintessentially modern: it seems to be about the recovery of the artistically discredited – a landscape, a ruinous construction – as a source of sensory pleasure and, subsequently, of aesthetic pleasure. In providing an initial way of seeing landscape, the picturesque movement actually encouraged the viewing of landscape. It opened up the scenery of England to enthusiastic travellers in search of the picturesque and revealed what had always been there but had never been seen before. It was with the same attitude that J. B. Jackson, as a sort of Gilpin for the mid-twentieth century, recognized the existence of a new landscape, and that photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz saw its pictorial potential: two centuries after Gilpin had codified the picturesque landscape, they revealed the until then artistically ignored American expanses of tract houses and industrial parks. “The best place to find new landscapes is in the West”, Jackson wrote. “Pictures painted on canvas is not what I mean, nor glimpses of pleasant rural scenery, but landscapes as we are now learning to see them: large-scale organizations of man-made spaces, usually in the open country.” Some of Jan Kempenaers’ images of new urban environments in Asia or of housing developments in the Dutch polders refer to the pioneering photographic series of the New Topographics and often share with them that peculiar blend of being simultaneously boring and interesting.
Kempenaers’ choice of light, the very first element of the photographer’s practice, adds to this. Unlike Ansel Adams’ dramatic skies, which underscore the drama of the imposing landscapes, Kempenaers’ skies, like those of Lewis Baltz, are of a uniform, featureless white. Much as the early picturesque landscapes were no longer lit by the warm light of a fanciful Golden Age or capped off by the grandiloquent skies of Lorrain or Poussin, his photographs consciously steer clear of the drama of earlier landscape photography; Kempenaers’ landscapes are viewed in a common light that is undramatically flat and sometimes even bleak.
An Egalitarian Art
While the theory of the picturesque was intellectualizing landscape, it was also transforming it into something that could be appreciated through learning, much as neo-classicism had done previously to the classical canon. However, the rules of the picturesque were clearly intended for a public that extended beyond that of connoisseurs. Some contemporaries like Allan Ramsay, who wrote a friendly but dissenting Essay on Taste (1755) in response to Hogarth, understood the egalitarian core of Hogarth’s and Gilpin’s theories of the picturesque well. Not only was the picturesque intended to counteract the canonically beautiful, but it could also be achieved perfectly well without a classical education or a Grand Tour: it was a technique one could learn. Capability Brown could compose his parks without a great knowledge of painting or an imagination well stocked by a liberal education, something that originally had been considered paramount to the appreciation of landscapes, let alone to their design. (Brown’s practices would, however, be condemned by the more high-brow scholar and connoisseur Richard Payne Knight on the grounds that Brown “knew nothing of pictures”.)
The appeal of the ruin and of picturesque decay can be understood in this context: it has rarely been pointed out how ruination could easily verge on a layman’s revenge against classical connoisseurship. In the first of his Three Essays, Gilpin suggested: “Should we wish to give it [Palladian architecture] picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel: we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin.” And Hogarth, in his Analysis, had advocated introducing a “break” in a building – that is, in its Vitruvian orders – and avoiding regularity “by throwing a tree before it, or the shadow of an imaginary cloud or some other object that may answer the same purpose of adding variety”.
Unlike the later versions of Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, Gilpin’s and Hogarth’s picturesque does not suppose the gradual transformation of landscape by benign neglect but requires an energetic intervention by an artist. When following the rules, a ruin, like the one seen in Kempenaers’ depiction of the demolition of an Antwerp hotel, could acquire a direct appeal without needing to be mediated by a familiarity with any kind of learned culture.
A Disconcerting Portrait of Common Life
Following the early years of its theoretical development, the picturesque was soon popularized through illustrated guides and fashionable sketching tours that tended to portray a populist and recognizable landscape. These made the picturesque one of the central conventions in the repertoires of traditional and popular visual culture. The picturesque became identified with a kind of quaintness.
However, at the root of this process was something much more profound and meaningful. The formulation of the category of the picturesque encouraged artists to include subject matter which was neither canonically beautiful nor emotionally heightened, but which possessed instead the idiosyncratic charm of the particular and the everyday. Moving away from seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century depictions of myth-laden Italian scenes, the picturesque embraced rustic England and developed a visual idiom from common life.
Following Uvedale Price’s eighteenth-century definition of the picturesque as something suited to the interest in the near-at-hand and the ordinary, Kempenaers’ photographs of cityscapes and suburban tract houses display precisely this, with their cranes grouped like Gilpin’s trees. These photographs eventually illustrate what John Macarthur has written about eighteenth-century aesthetic theory: the admiration of a painting of filthy cottages showed that one’s interest was in art, not in the objects represented.
In his cityscapes Kempenaers continues to adopt a visual idiom for what is now the common, rustic landscape: the tract housing developments spreading across the Dutch polders, the backs of typical Belgian townhouses or, even more, the generic malls and high-rise buildings being built all over the world. Common life is, after all, set against the backdrop of the generic.
But then, what was to be done with that peculiar quality of the picturesque, its creation of a new – if not the only – way of deriving aesthetic pleasure from landscape? Is the contemporary picturesque offering us a means of deriving aesthetic satisfaction from the built results of bland market capitalism? The eighteenth-century picturesque had already had a political and economic overtone with the licence it provided for liberalism, variety, change and originality. In addition to this, it had even had a down-to-earth connection to early capitalism: Capability Brown’s clients appreciated his landscape gardens as much for their picturesque layouts as for their wise investment in wood (or at least a better one than could be provided for by their old formal gardens, which were erased to make way for Brown’s landscape parks).
Yet can one look today at these photographs of new urban developments, whether they are found in Europe or in South-East Asia, with the same peculiar combination of pure aesthetic pleasure and complete detachment from the forces behind their development, in the way Gilpin was arguably able to? When, in Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland (1772), Gilpin wrote about his birthplace, Scaleby Castle near Carlisle, it is unclear whether he intended even the slightest touch of satire: “What share of picturesque genius Cromwell might have, I know not. Certain however it is, that no man, since Henry the eighth, has contributed more to adorn this country with picturesque ruins. The difference between these two masters lay chiefly in the style of ruins, in which they composed. Henry adorned his landscapes with the ruins of abbeys; Cromwell with those of castles. I have seen many pieces by this master, executed in a very grand style; but seldom a finer monument of his masterly hand than this. He has rent the tower, and demolished two of it’s [sic] sides; the edges of the other two he has shattered into broken lines.”
Gilpin’s picturesque musings exceeded the catalogue of elements and rules of composition. For all his asseverations regarding artistic theory, it was the visual art itself which most concerned Gilpin and which explains the focus of his reflections. Words, Gilpin insisted, “can not mark the characteristic distinctions of each scene – the touches of nature – her living tints – her endless varieties, both in form and colour. – In a word, all her elegant peculiarities are beyond their reach.” And while Gilpin concluded that it is “the pencil” that “offers a more perfect mode of description” and “speaks a language more intelligible, and describes the scene in stronger, and more varied terms”, today these are the ambitions of photography.
Yet, even when gratifying due to their composition and “their living tints and endless varieties”, Kempenaers’ photographs of landscapes altered by man forestall the nostalgia that has, over time, become typical for the picturesque. They force the viewer to remain in the present and think about its conditions and its future, and about the forces threatening our environment. Using Gilpin’s topoi of the picturesque – which, by now, are themselves “classical” – Kempenaers’ images confront us with the picturesque’s slightly disconcerting aspects. As one visitor of the 1975 New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House observed, the photographs on display were saying “This is it, kid; take it for its beauty and its ugliness.”
 Nikolaus Pevsner, “The Englishness of English Art”, Reith Radio Lectures, BBC, 1955. The text of Pevsner’s lectures, expanded and annotated, was published by the Architectural Press in 1956 and reissued by Penguin in 1964.
 Reyner Banham, Revenge of the Picturesque: English Architectural Polemics, 1945–1965, in John Summerson, ed., Concerning Architecture (London: Allen Lane, 1968), pp. 265–73. Banham blames the eventual revenge of the picturesque and its triumphant victory on the Smithsons.
 William Gilpin, An Essay upon Prints (London: Robson, 1768), p. 2, section entitled “Explanation of Terms”. In later editions the title becomes An Essay on Prints.
 William Gilpin, Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, on Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland (London: Blamire, 1722; 1792 ed.), vol. II, p. 52.
 See for instance Lewis Baltz earliest portfolio, The Tract Houses (1971), which was recently reissued in a three-volume box set together with other portfolios as The Tract Houses; The Prototype Works; The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California (Göttingen: Steidl, 2005).
 John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “A Vision of New Fields”, in John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 141.
 William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (London: Strahan, 1753; 1772 ed.), pp. 19–20.
 John Macarthur, The Picturesque: Architecture, Disgust and Other Irregularities (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 11.
 Gilpin, Observations, vol. II, pp. 122–23.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Jack, a visitor to the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (George Eastman House, Rochester, N. Y.), in a tape-recorded conversation with a student on 14 December 1975, which was part of an assignment for Joe Deal, a photography instructor and participant in the exhibition. A partial transcript of the conversation can be found in New Topographics (Göttingen: Steidl, 2009), p. 9.
© Jan Kempenaers