Friday, April 8, 2011

Among Trees: Tonalist Backlighting

George Inness, Early Autumn, Montclair, 1891

In "pure" landscapes - those with minimal, or no human figures - trees as often as not become the principal actors, or "characters," of the picture.

No wonder - they do resemble us in odd ways; their rooted trunks and outstretched, straining branches suggest the human condition as well as any other "objective correlative" (in early American landscapist Washington Allston's phrase).

They aspire to light, yet they're wholly of earth.

Of course they're bigger than we are, invariably healthier, and if left to themselves, generally outlive us. Among old trees one may often sense something essential about the nature of being human. Surely, when we look at them, they're looking back at us.

From the painter's perspective, whether after midnight or in broad daylight, most of the trees we see are at least partially silhouetted by light coming from behind them. Hence, a variable balance of shadow and highlight is required to render them in proper visual harmony in keeping with a definite space and a particular time of day.

The earliest landscape painters clearly appreciated this. Even in the idealized landscapes of 17th century French painters Claude (Lorraine) and Poussin, the trees are often dramatically back-lit, not without the the effect of emphasizing evening's effusive, honeyed glow.

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic landscapists like American Frederick Church and German Casper David Friedrich pushed this idea to extremes for emotive effect. Truth be told, we're still under their spell. As one of my art history students last week remarked, Friedrich's Abbey in an Oak Forest looks as though it was painted last year.

Casper David Friedrich, Abbey in an Oak Forest, 1810

Abbey in an Oak Forest
In painterly terms, Friedrich's Abbey in an Oak Forest is a tonal study of twilight, and therefore, because this is early 1800s Romanticism par excellence, a visual meditation on mortality and time. It's a ruined abbey (read: Christianity), at sundown, during the waning of the year, with a funeral procession (barely visible in the foreground churchyard) evoking an overall feeling of mortality and evanescence.

But whether or not we look closely enough to appreciate the symbology, why does this painting "just work?"

In the words of Hermann Beenken, "Instead of many tones, he (Friedrich) sought the one; and so, in his landscape, he subordinated the composite chord into one single basic note." (1938)

Tonalist painters of the late 19th century heard the same single tone and tone-cluster music, and they incorporated the "one single basic note" into their renderings of settled, evening-darkened North American nature.

Charles Warren Eaton

It's subjective, but for me these paintings evoke a sense of being alive in time, of appreciating our predicament, and yet of wanting to stand tall against "the dying of the light."

Charles Warren Eaton

What is it about these shadowy images? Contemporary painter Dennis Sheehan keys into this feeling.

And here's another contemporary take on the same,. Note the kinship to Eaton - none of this is the province of one person. It's an ongoing project - artists mapping the periphery of subjective life.

Contemporary Landscape with tonal Eaton overtones. 

This is some of what drives my own desire to add my voice, such as it is, to the fray.

Christopher Volpe, Evening Hush, 12 x 16, oil on canvas, 2010