Let Me Lead You Up the Garden Path...
This article was first published in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Look magazine (March 2013).
Here we are: a tutorial group of 15 students, clustered around Claude Lorrain's Pastoral Landscape (c. 1636-37) in the European courts of the Art Gallery of NSW. It is my first year of university, and I don't realise it, but I will come to love and admire this period of art history.
"What is central to the pastoral genre?" our tutor asks.
We survey the small oil on copper work. It is a tranquil landscape scene, with a shepherd lounging in the foreground, paying more attention to his pan-pipes than to his flock. We all gaze at the work, and I can't help thinking that there may be nothing more to pastoral genre painting than meadows and verdant woodland scenes, inhabited by wandering shepherds.
However, one of the students offers up: "The pastoral is all about an imagined, idealised idyllic landscape. Somewhere you can get away from city life; where the viewer can imagine themselves inhabiting the role of the shepherd, liberated by the simplicity of country life." Our tutor agrees, and goes on to explain the historical relevance of the development of the genre.
At 18, I was surprised to find that such a seemingly innocuous subject could hold so many meanings captive. It seemed incomprehensible that the pastoral idyll had come to encapsulate the frustrations of the French aristocracy during the 17th century.
During his reign (1610-43) Louis XIII and his closest advisors sought to achieve a new level of monarchical control. Since the 1300s, French kings had consulted the people through the Estates-General, a simplified parliamentary system that gave representation to the three tiers of French society via committees. The king was expected to pay deference to the First Estate of the nobility, particularly by limiting their taxation. Yet, Louis XIII introduced unprecedented, large tax increases on privately owned lands. It was a direct attack on the aristocracy, designed to erode the influence of the First Estate and any threat they posed to the kingship. This infuriated much of the aristocracy as it undermined their long-held influence at court and ultimately led to the civil unrest of the Fronde in the mid-1600s.
As Paris became an increasingly urbanised modern city, those who could afford to purchase land in the countryside surrounding Paris did so, and used their new plots to escape into nature. The pastoral genre of painting developed alongside this. The Venetians Giorgione and his then pupil Titian had developed their art of enigmatic poetic landscape scenes (poesia) in the 1500s through works such as The Tempest (Giorgione, c. 1509) and Pastoral Concert (c. 1509-10, attributed to Giorgione or Titian, depending on your authoritative source). By the 1600s the Renaissance notion of a serene landscape in which the shepherd was inspired to philosophise, make music and perhaps transcend the merely physical, became a particularly attractive vision. The nostalgic and reverential treatment of the landscape provided a popular means of visual escape from urban life and from the increasingly convoluted rituals of the French court.
The development of the pastoral genre in France illustrates how familiarity with the historical context of an artwork can add a depth of understanding, beyond the pleasure it affords to the eye. At the time Claude painted his Pastoral Landscape, idyllic landscape scenes held latent political import. The pastoral represented nostalgia for country life, but it had also become a poignant allusion to a time when the idyllic fantasy of rural life could be enjoyed by landowners freely. Thus for the French the notion of the pastoral, which had always played on the dichotomy between the realities of urban life and the fantasies of the Arcadian idyll, came to symbolise individual's freedom away from the artificial structures of court.
In my first year of university, Claude's Pastoral Landscape came to represent what the study of art history and theory is all about. It is the study of cultures and histories through the artefacts of beauty, decoration and narrative; it is an unraveling of historical and cultural meanings through visual signs. To understand artworks, especially historical artworks, you must cast your net wide, and not simply absorb yourself in a study of the formal elements of the object itself.
Rather, in looking at an artwork we must consider a multitude of questions. We must ask, why was it created, who created and commissioned it, what did the work represent within its cultural and historical context and how did these ideas evolve; furthermore, can we verify these claims through a pattern of representation across a number of artworks? Can we uncover something that has been lost from cultural memory, something that has been overlooked and forgotten over time?
This is the exciting part! This is where you find the thrill of the chase! Huddled over a pile of books, the library becomes the hunting ground for correlations, verifications and discoveries. Often it seems that there are endless levels of meaning to peel back and explore, and solving the puzzle can become quite addictive! I invite readers of Look to join the chase.
It is the talismatic properties of art from previous eras which makes studying historical works so fascinating, as they can transport us back to the time of their creation and give us an insight into an individual's or a culture's way of thinking.
And yet, at parties, in taxi cabs, when being introduced, all humanities students are familiar with that most piercing of questions: "What will you do with that?" It is often a hard question to answer. In truth, there are so many opportunities within the arts that it is often difficult to choose. Most importantly art historical education cannot be fully comprehended within a single glance.
You may need to look twice.