Thursday, February 15, 2007

The visionary of vision

By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript

Thursday, February 15
WILLIAMSTOWN — A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute argues that 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain is pivotal in the way modern Western society looks at the world.

Lorrain spent much of his life around Rome and is renowned for his landscape paintings. Prior to Lorrain, myths and biblical stories ruled the content of artists, with narratives being a major goal of the works.

"After Claude, landscape was suitable for artists of the higher ambition," said Richard Rand, who curated the show and wrote the accompanying catalog.

It wasn't that no one ever painted nature; it was just that no one painted nature as the main subject. Focusing on a landscape probably meant that the artist was lending his energy to the work in a way that had previously been reserved for paintings of, say, Jupiter or Jesus.

"Before Claude's time, people did make landscape paintings, but they were often decorative, small, they made landscape murals as decorations for country villas," said Rand. "At times, the background could become important to telling the story, but it was always secondary. An episode from the Bible or from Roman mythology is always played out by the
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figures, that's what was important. Claude reversed that in a way, he made the landscape more important than the figures. His landscapes always have figures in them and his paintings often have small figures that are enacting a narrative, but they're small. For him, the depiction of the atmosphere, the depiction of the trees, the light, all these were more important than the figures."

Beyond Christian views

It's certainly no accident that Lorrain's did his work in and around Rome — it drew from a world that no longer existed, a world that didn't focus on man as the spiritual center of the universe but, rather, as a part of it.

"The landscape around Rome really embodied the greatness of historical times," said Rand, "and you could imagine the ancient ones still roaming the landscape. He tended to focus on that side, the pagan world of Imperial Rome and not the current Christian world."

Lorrain's focus on the landscape does, however, reveal another side that is very much of the times and quite in line with Christian theology. It was the sort of attitude that would culminate in the 19th-century belief in "manifest destiny" and it began, like many things, with the idea that rich people wanted to control those things they had no control over.

"In the early 17th century, the landscape around Rome was really wild, dangerous, there wasn't a good road system," said Rand. "This was a way for Claude and, by extension, the patrons who bought these pictures, the very elevated aristocrats, to control the land. They wanted to control nature according to their ideology. They were projecting their power."

In many ways, this was the beginning of the notion of parks, where, in a controlled environment, people could visit nature, but nature tamed. Lorrain's painting didn't quite do that, but they did provide an analytical structure to the wild of the world. His work gave nature a bit of man-made order that Western society would take to its logical extreme.

"I called him the quiet revolutionary," said Rand, "because, while his art is very peaceful and pleasant and shows the landscape in perfect harmony, idealized, he really did transform the way people look at art in the Western tradition."

Hidden passion

In the Clark show, Rand takes this a step further — he gives order to Lorrain's work by showing his own process of calculating nature's order. Lorrain's paintings are paired with his sketches to show that his cool studies are forged from more passionate and personal moments and reveal a scrappy side to a painter who can come off as rather mannered.

"I think a lot of people will be amazed at how modern his drawings look, how fresh and beautiful," said Rand. "They're 350 years old and they look like they could've been done yesterday. They're incredibly accessible for an artist who comes from a distant time and place. You can gain a lot of insight from his drawings, more so than his paintings. His paintings — while beautiful — can often seem a little bit remote and overconceptualized."

Lorrain very rarely sold or gave away his drawings. For the most part, he considered them very personal. In this way, the work is very revealing in regard to the passions that fueled the man, as filtered through a precise visual mind.

"Even a quick study of bushes and trees created a picture that was very organized," said Rand. "Some of them look like Chinese brush drawings, very quick. You get the sense that he enjoyed doing these drawings, he took great pleasure in going out and capturing an impression of the landscape very quickly."

Too often with classical art — particularly a genre like landscape — the joy of making the art can be hidden in the final product, which often seem to exist mostly as paeans to precision. Laying out the process, Rand believes, reveals the man.

"I think this show really helps visitors get inside Claude's head," said Rand. "You really do feel like you are in his head, following him as he explores nature on his way to making these beautiful paintings. The show is all about his process and that's the way it's organized."

Once the man is revealed alongside his passion, the revolutionary might also be better understood — and, equally, his link with everyday modern vision.

"When you take a snapshot of a family picnic," said Rand, "you tend automatically to organize the composition such in a way that really can be traced back to Claude's drawing, framing it with a tree on one side, that kind of thing. You do that without thinking about it."

The irony is that, 300 years later, Lorrain's legacy is scattered in the landscape that he once chronicled — so much so that his revolution seeps into the style of even the most questionable of his modern contemporaries who mine the same territory.

"You see Claude's vision of nature wherever you look," said Rand, "whether it's Central Park in New York or your back yard or American painting in the 19th century, even Thomas Kinkade. He is one of Claude's descendants in a kind of kitschy way."

"Claude Lorrain: The Artist as Draftsman" will be featured at the Clark Art Institute through April 29. For more information, visit bitions/claude.