Notes on portrayal of the landscape in recent Portuguese Art.
In the Western tradition, portrayal of the landscape has a long and complex history, and although its scope goes well beyond the ambit of the present text, it’s clear that its symbolic function has changed over recent centuries. Since at least the Renaissance, the landscape has served as a background context and even immediate scenario for many religious and mythological scenes represented therein, often providing an allegorical representation of contemporary knowledge concerning the phenomenon of representation, in the wake of the invention of perspective. The presence of the landscape has evolved over time in function of the artists understanding of perspective and has served as the ideal means of demonstrating and proving man’s belief in his progressive mastery over nature. The industrial revolution, whose shock waves rippled out from England, delivered profound political, social, economic and cultural transformations that engendered doubts in Europe concerning man’s persistent faith in rationality and purely rational explanations of global phenomena. In the late 18th century, it was in this mental context of accelerated transformation, initiated by a crisis that took many decades to resolve, that the ideas of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant first emerged. Kant probably made the greatest contribution to inventing a revolutionary notion of subjectivity and explaining how it intervenes in terms of our representation of the world. It was in this aesthetic, cultural and even spiritual context, that representations of the landscape were reconsidered. Romanticism became the standard bearer of this idea. In reaffirmation of Kant’s aesthetic conception, the landscape became less important in terms of representing truth and instead gained a subjective dimension, arising from each artist’s personal interpretation of the world around them, whereby they projected their individual sensibility. As a result, when the Impressionists, at the end of the 19th century, viewed landscape art as being directly inspired by nature – as a form of interpretation that diverges in accordance with the individual gaze – this opened the path to increased freedom for artists to explore an individual, singular, subjective truth, capable of being transformed into an arena where feelings centred on the individual artist could be expressed.
The inevitable consequence of this movement, towards greater subjectivity in interpretation of the signs of the world, was increased use of less naturalist forms. Whereas artists previously sought inspiration from the exterior, in the wake of Modernism, the interior dimension became the most interesting aspect to represent in art. From this perspective, landscape painting was progressively marginalised in the history of 20th century culture. In Portugal, however, landscape painting maintained its popularity amongst the public and even received a favourable critical reception throughout this period, until relatively late in the century, and was present in the work of several artists that, notwithstanding their Modernist aspirations, did not view Modernism as a one-way path. In the same manner, such artists did not view abstraction as the only means of endowing art with a more universal meaning. This overview of almost three dozen Portuguese artists working over successive generations obviously isn’t exhaustive, and therefore doesn’t provide us with the full riches of the panorama of Portuguese art produced over recent decades. Nonetheless it will be sufficiently elucidative of a specific situation and, in particular, of a plural approach to a fascinating theme. Notwithstanding all the cultural transformations that have taken place in Western art, the genre of landscape painting has not been excluded from consideration and Western culture continues to use this genre in order to pose questions concerning the link between nature and culture.
Bernardo Pinto de Almeida
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