Letter to beth: An update

Kia ora tatou:

No geeky posts or software updates here.

After a six-month hiatus, I have responded to Beth’s last post.

While I have posted it in full on the appropriate page, I have decided to post it here as well.

You may want to download it and read it over a glass of wine and a Diazepam…

Now on to Marthinus…

Letter To Beth Tuesday, 1 October 2008


It has taken me time to respond to this. Life and work have stood between me and  my need to make a response. My apologies.

Revisiting your last contribution, I found your comments  so rich that it was hard to know where to begin. So I am going to start…somewhere…perhaps with my moths in the moonlight and what they have to tell me about Beauty.

I am not sure I entirely concur with your thoughts about the pictures in the old folk’s home where your father lives being a depiction of beauty, and that you have grown past it. I think there is a significant gap between Art and Ornament, an abyss perhaps, in this case between beauty and decoration, or maybe between the representation of beauty as opposed to ornamentation.

I guess we have all seen those rural scenes where the lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea. There are fading prints of such things in homes all over the world. This is not Beauty, or even a passable facsimile of it; rather it is sentiment, often ill-or unconsidered. This is the realm of derivation and cliché. In New Zealand we have our fair share of this (some would say more than our fair share); snow-clad mountains, gentle beaches with teal-coloured water and of course gambolling spring lambs. I am sure you have your own versions of these up there in Canada. Are these efforts the depiction of the Beauty of Nature? I would venture to suggest only marginally. While the subject material may have the capacity to show it, the treatment of nature shows minimal understanding of beauty, Beauty or indeed Nature.

This brings me to the Shores of Semantics, to three rocks in the sand which are tripped over frequently. I want to take a little time with language, since I feel it not only defines our attitudes and approaches but also has an influence upon them. Sublime is a word often misunderstood and frequently misused today. You hear people talk of a weekend’s holiday being sublime, or a concert performance being sublime. The speaker here is talking about how memorable it was. In fact the word has a much more precise meaning and one with an art historical context.

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) identified the Sublime (usually capitalized today) as something so vast, grand, or dangerous that it could only inspire awe, fear or veneration. Accordingly, artists immediately supplied a demand for windswept landscapes and storms at sea (Ruisdael, Turner), enormous cityscapes (Cole, Martin), struggles between man and beast (Delacroix, Rubens), and all manner of variation — most with the tacit assumption that the forces of the Divine were immanent in Nature (Bierstadt, Friedrich).-Faculty of Creative & Critical Studies, UBC Okanagan.

Thus the current meaning of sublime has been watered down and pasteurised to a tasteless shadow of its original meaning. It can be seen here that for the early romantic painters, the beauty in nature was a thing to be considered with awe, to be awe-full, and here we have the second rock, now repainted to show an altogether different countenance. Both words contain the idea of grandeur, of something to be taken seriously, rather than the saccharine-sweet travesty that passes for beauty in the calendars of today.

The third of these rocks in the sand is picturesque. Used today it contains the same watered-down romanticism, the same nod to a barely-understood concept that both sublime and awe-ful  ( sic. awful) do. In 1782, the Rev William Gilpin published his Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (London 1782). In it he laid out some of his ideas on how the landscape should be interpreted. As he saw it, Nature was capable of producing textures and colours, but rarely capable of producing the perfect composition. For him the picturesque lay between the feminine (yin) of beauty and the masculine (yang) of the sublime. For him the picturesque was a set of rules for depicting nature. It is worth noting here that improvements in travel and income had created opportunities for domestic tourism and many of these people took the opportunity to sketch what they saw before them. Gilpin’s treatise was therefore timely and an instruction manual of sorts. Grey’s Elegy in A country Churchyard is in many ways a poetic interpretation of the view these tourists enjoyed.

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

In other words we are shown the view from the point-of view of an observer.

It seems to me that this idea has continued to this day, and that we see picturesque and beautiful being used synonymously. Nature is depicted as something soft and sentimental, as something to be consumed. In a way, the picture postcard is a classic example of this, a cheap way to appropriate and to consume the landscape. Martin Parr’s images around this idea flesh out this idea of the tourist as consumer. In fact the whole tourism industry, born in the concept of the Grand Tour and now and object of mass consumption. People travel to New Zealand to enjoy its beauty, as no doubt they do to Canada. But is this appreciation or consumption? Parr’s images would suggest the latter.

The advent of the Box Brownie made this available to “the masses” and generated a huge industry which continues to this day. Just walk into any camera shop and you will see an enormous range and number of cameras designed to remove any need for technical expertise from the owner. Their function, it seems to me, is to enable the user to ‘consume’ the landscape as cheaply and expeditiously as possible. A friend snidely refers to these as PHD cameras (push, here, Dummy) and, while there is a degree of superiority in his comments, he has a point. Stand near any place that purports to offer a photo-opportunity and you will see people busily photographing the scene or, preferably, themselves in front of it. The latest generation of point-and-shoots even offer face detection to make sure the person being photographed in front of the monument/landscape/building is correctly-exposed.  For these people the object is to create a memory key for later consumption, when they return home.

All of which has little to do with my own attitudes towards Beauty.

As you know, I am primarily a landscape photographer. I am drawn to the land in all sorts of ways at different times. Over the last few years I have explored why I am drawn to this and in what way. In fact my work is based on this exploration, on the need to discover what it is that draws me and what it is I want to say about what is before me. There is no question: the landscape, in fact any landscape, is beautiful at times and sublime at others. I have stood out in bad weather, at once terrified, and once elated.  I have stood out there when it was balmy and …feminine. and responded to what was before me as best I could. And, as time has gone by, I have allowed my feelings to feed through into my work.

I have given myself permission.

It hasn’t been easy.

But it has informed my work and informed me. In that order.

There is no question that the landscape is for me a thing of infinite beauty. A thing of infinite Beauty. My moths in the moonlight are what they are.

In fact they just are.

From the realisation of what those moths are about I have come to realise a lot about the nature of being, and to realise that my landscape photographs are in fact autobiographies, journeys into and within myself. Perhaps they are statements about a place and time. Perhaps I am not so far removed from those C17th English country gentlemen on their Grand Tour…

I have one last comment and then it is up to you. Of all the New Zealand painters I admire, perhaps Colin McCahon is my favourite. I was invited, a few years ago, to do a Masters on him. I rather regret I did not take up the opportunity.

For whatever reason, I have felt a certain kinship with him. In a way, I can identify with a number of his issues as an artist.  Of his painting he said:

“My painting is almost entirely autobiographical – it tells you where I am at any given point in time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in. In this present time it is very difficult to paint for other people – to paint beyond your own ends and point directions as painters once did.”

From time to time, as I lose my way, I return to the artist’s statement I wrote one dark night in Africa. I test it and find it resonates for me as much today as it did then.

Noho ra mai

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