Landscape painting has, in the past, been used to celebrate an artist’s painterly skill — that is, his or her ability to scientifically observe and render scenes and objects.
Transcendental qualities, the majesty of God, imagined ideas of landscapes, recording an ‘impression’ of a landscape by observing light alone are some of the many key defining moments attributed to the development of landscape painting. In fact, this genre was even used to celebrate human labour and nationhood. If we think of Pakistani painters, it is Ustad Allah Buksh that comes to one’s mind with paintings such as ‘Winnowing With Buffaloes’ or ‘Punjab Countryside’ that pay homage to the rural landscape of Punjab.
To a resident in our urban cities today, these pristine visions are akin to a mirage. Our landscapes are littered with manmade objects and piles of trash that are evidence of our consumption patterns and greed. In response, contemporary artists are reorienting themselves in how they view landscape painting as a genre, so as to highlight more pressing and urgent concerns, such as climate change and growing human consumption/waste.
New mediums, such as video and photography, have also emerged that have altered the meaning and scope of this tradition. The intention is not to simply paint what Kenneth Clarke has called “popular images of beauty” that offer “joy and consolation” which are, of course, important, but to engage the viewer in considering how this beauty is now under threat and that it is manmade activity that is endangering the harmony and solace we seek in nature.
The polythene bag, for example, is an important motif in many of Suleman Aqeel Khilji’s works. In a drawing, titled ‘Landscape with Floating Objects I’, he renders the rugged landscape of Balochistan with its tall mountains and sweeping valleys. He contrasts the view by drawing in colourful polythene bags that seem to float and obscure the scenic view of the mountains.
Zohreen Murtaza explores how the tradition of landscape painting is being revisited by artists to comment on important present-day environmental concerns
Should polythene bags be considered beautiful instead of flowers in the age of consumer culture? What happens when they finally land on the landscape itself? Are they part of the landscape now? The effect is still pleasant but unsettling and also compels us to think about how our aesthetics and colour preferences are changing in response to the proliferation of plastic and other waste.
Rashid Rana’s award winning installation at the second Karachi Biennale (2019) offers a scathing critique of the environmental damage wrought by manmade waste. In a video and photomontage, Rana references German painter Caspar David Friedrich and his painting titled “Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog”, which he appropriates to comment on the reality of Karachi and its waste problem.
Like Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer…’, he positions himself on top of a mountain in the midst of rolling fog, except that the landscape is, in reality, made of endless mountains of trash located at one of the largest garbage dumping sites in Pakistan called Kachra Kundi (located near village Jam Chakro about 20 kilometres away from the main city of Karachi).
The moment the viewer realises the falsity of the illusion and the disgust it evokes in us should serve as a call to arms — human greed and exploitation has progressed rapidly and the response has been inadequate.
At the time, Friedrich had used ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Fog’ to explore what Edmund Burke had described in one of his key writings — which became the cornerstone of the Romantic movement — as the concept of “the sublime.”
The sublime was described as “the passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”
Friedrich wanted to create a certain kind of theatricality in his paintings using the sublime, and used the physicality of the rugged landscape to his advantage. The haze of the fog, craggy peaks and jagged edges were used to evoke this feeling that became inextricably linked to the majesty of God with its vastness and beauty.
Rana’s work, on the other hand, is compelling us to reconsider what “things” and emotions have replaced and swallowed our landscape; we feel neither astonishment nor horror at the sight of such spectacles. They are part of our new normal.
Perhaps that is why it is important to revisit the history of art now and then and ask ourselves what paintings can tell us about our present.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 28th, 2021