From Speed of Light to David Hockney, landscape art is thriving

This Spring’s David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy was, perhaps, the year’s unexpected blockbuster.

The show, A Bigger Picture, enjoyed the kind of round-the-block queues normally reserved for Leonardo da Vinci and the big name Impressionists, and rarely experienced by living artists. More remarkable yet is what they were queuing to see: a show of vivid, resplendent, ambitious landscape paintings.

There is a piece of received wisdom in the art world that suggests landscape painting has had its day. There’s a sense that the genre has been fully explored by previous generations, that there’s nothing new to do, things have moved on. Yet here was Hockney, illuminating the wolds of East Yorkshire with his fiery imagination, suggesting otherwise.

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Today Scotland’s largest art prize, the Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards, will open for entries. The 2013 Awards, with a total prize money of £35,000 aimed at emerging artists painting landscape, will be awarded next June. The Awards were founded by John Lowrie Morrison, one of Scotland’s most successful living painters, with the aim of stimulating interest in painting in a contemporary art climate that seems to favour conceptual art. He believes, like Hockney, that the age of landscape painting is far from over.

When Hockney returned to Yorkshire from Los Angeles seven years ago and started to sketch and paint the Yorkshire landscape, this seemed, in the words of Martin Gayford, author of A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, “an audaciously old-fashioned thing to do”. Hockney himself addressed the question of whether landscape painting is a thing of the past in typically forthright fashion. He said, in one interview: “I thought about it, then I decided that it couldn’t be true because every generation looks differently. Of course you can still paint landscape, it’s not been worn out.”

Edith Devaney, curator of A Bigger Picture, said that the artist was now using landscape painting as the arena in which he engages with the questions he has wrestled with throughout his career. “You can see him working out issues which have preoccupied him in most of his work, issues of perspective and scale, how much you can imagine a landscape.” He is also investigating the relationship of the viewer to the work. “He is challenging the long-held view of landscape painting being a window on to the world, arguing that the bigger you get, it is less of a window into the world and more about the viewer inhabiting the world. He is not painting bigger to be more splendid, he is making a painting about how we as viewers relate to it.”

Most of us are hard-wired to have a relationship with what is around us. John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland and a judge on the Jolomo Awards, says: “It’s hard to imagine there are people who haven’t taken a photograph of landscape, cityscape, their surroundings at some point. We all do it. I think the popularity of the Hockney show, or Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscapes [at NGS] or our annual show of Turner watercolours shows there is still a huge appetite for exploring landscape through the eyes of the artist. To me, it’s like asking if the human figure is still alive as a subject for art. Of course it is, it’s bound to be, will always be.

“Until you stop to think, you don’t realise how much contemporary art has landscape, environment, surroundings as a point of departure. A huge amount of contemporary abstract act is abstracted in some way or other from landscape. The broad tenets of traditional landscape painting are evoked in many forms: land art, landscape art, sculpture, performance art. Speed of Light on Arthur’s Seat [a project by NVA for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival] is in essence a form of landscape art.”

He says there are signs of healthy debate about different ways to approach landscape. “What is interesting is that the dialogue between what seems like more conventional oil painting and exploration of more novel modes of expression is very alive in the Jolomo Award. The fact that someone like Hockney can create a fuss with pictures which have origins in the 19th century tradition of working out of doors suggests the tension between these artists, who are essentially inspired by some sort of rendering of external reality, as opposed to those inspired by more ideological 
concerns. Perhaps it’s more alive than we know.”

But are young artists still interested in picking up a paintbrush and addressing their environment? Selina Skipwith, curator at the Fleming Collection, London’s leading collection of Scottish art, says yes. “I’ve never felt that landscape painting has gone away, it’s just that traditional painting hasn’t had as much press as installation, photography and film. People are revisiting painting as a medium. Artists such as Graeme Todd and Carol Rhodes wouldn’t call themselves landscape painters, but that’s definitely where a lot of their work is.

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“There are lots of younger artists this is very relevant to. Maybe they’re not taking the landscape in front of them and painting it, but they’re using it as a basis for further thought and study. An artist like Briony Anderson is very much concerned with painting landscape at the moment, 
looking at how it has been used 
historically in the backdrops of paintings. She’s one of a number of younger artists wanting to find a more contemporary approach, rather than repeating what has been done in the past.”

It could be argued that the sign of a healthy genre is when people are pushing its boundaries, driving it in new directions. That has certainly been true of the previous winners of the Jolomo Awards, from Anna King’s atmospheric take on wastelands to Calum McClure’s exploration of nature reclaiming the derelict estate at Cammo near Edinburgh.

The other message in all this is that landscape is popular. No one needs to tell that to John Lowrie Morrison, who is one of the top-selling artists in Scotland. “People are just crying out for good landscape work. My own work is proof that people are interested in landscape painting, I’m having sell-out shows in a recession. It’s not just the sales, it’s the feedback I get from people, they enjoy the work, they’re interested in it.

“I hope the popularity of Hockney’s work, and his standing in the art world, will get people thinking. I do think there’s a resurgence in landscape painting, it’s definitely coming to the fore. Young artists are finding ways to do it, and doing it well. I think the entries we had for the last awards were the best bunch yet. When we start getting entries for 2013, I think we might see some really interesting work,”

• For more information on the Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards and how to enter, see