Reading ‘Landscape and Power’

Mitchell, W.J.T., 2002. Landscape and power 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I read the selected chapters of this book over a few weeks, making notes here as I went. I read this book to understand how my intentions and landscape painting fit into landscape painting in history. And also to understand the British (and western) relationship nature, so I could better understand my paintings in relation to those ideas.


Landscape exerts a subtle power over people, eliciting a broad range of emotions… landscape exerts the passive force of setting, scene and sight. It is generally the “overlooked,” not the “looked at,” and it can be quite difficult to specify what exactly it means to say that one is “looking at the landscape.”


“looking at the view” is said instead of “look at that mountain”:

to look at landscape is an invitation not to look at any specific thing, but to ignore all particulars in favour of an appreciation of a total gestalt , a vista or scene, that may be dominated by some specific feature, but is not simply reducible to that feature.


^ This quote above has similar intentions to what I want my paintings to achieve; there is no focus on any individual brushstroke, and the scenes are dominated by one feature – the structure – but the whole painting is not reducible to that feature, instead the painting is about an appreciation of ‘a total gestalt’.

An empty space is not the same thing as an empty place. An empty place is filled with space, as if space were the negative void that rushes in when a place is vacated. It is the spectral absence that “fills” a hollow shell or a clearing in the forest.


^ My paintings are filled with empty space that is defined by the brushstrokes hovering in it.

Seeing landscape “as an instrument of cultural power”.

System, Order, and Abstraction by Ann Bermingham 

Landscape drawing and painting is argued by Bermingham as transforming landscapes into active “sites of specific ideological attitudes and ambivalencies,” in the 18th c. P.78. Bermingham goes on to read placements of objects such as trees in the landscape and compositional tools to suggests things like man’s isolation in nature P.79.
My paintings therefore are a reflection of how I see the natural world. This was proved true when I had my group crit, and there were comments on how spring like and happy the painting looks, which reflected the feelings of spring arriving and the good mood I was in when painting the scene. Pathetic fallacy?

Difference in two paintings (PP.80-1) between a painting of imagination and a painting of sensation. Between a grand overview of a perfect landscape, and a description of ‘internal details’. P.79

The experience of vastness is… internalised and contained by the oak trees rather than extended over the landscape.


^ The oak trees are containing the vastness just like a giant building would contain vastness. You need defined boundaries for this sense of space and vastness to be created. If there is no edge to space, it is vast in a much more unimaginable way. 

Chapter Israel, Palestine, and the American Wildnerness by W.J.T Mitchell

“purification” – landscape as a liberation of the visual consumption of nature from use-value, commerce, religious meaning, or legible symbolism of any sort into a contemplative, aesthetic form, a representation or perception of nature for its own sake.

This purification… is… a modern and Western discovery, a revolutionary liberation of painting from narrative and ecclesiastical symbolism that can be dated quite precisely in the seventeenth century.


^ Seeing where my works sits in relation to history. My paintings are a product of my culture: at the moment see the landscapes I am painting are a purely a celebration of nature for its own sake.

Mitchell goes on to say that other cultures, such as Chinese, have placed religious significance on the landscape that prevent ‘a pure appreciation of nature for its own sake.’ This is especially common in cultures that have not ‘developed a tradition of realistic or naturalistic pictorial representation.’ P.265.
In these non-Western cultures, a person sees themselves as part of the landscape instead of ‘as a consciously detached viewer’.

Picture and Witness at the Site of the Wilderness by Jonathan Bordo

Discussing ‘the wilderness’ and what it means.

Wilderness behaving like a name tag attached to some one or group or tribe’s intimate and parochial [relating to a Church parish] relationship to the real, to real estate.


The wilderness in a landscape as a denial of human presence?

Western European art from ‘at least as early as the fifteenth century’ is full of landscapes that are marked by human presence, be that dwellings, roads, smoke, ruins, graves etc. Wilderness as witnessed… wilderness

Removing human traces in landscape painting crosses ‘the threshold’ from witnessed to un-witnessed landscape and therefore makes the landscape about the wilderness. P.299

The painting ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck, 1434:

The painting posits both present and absent witnesses… On the one hand the picture carries a delegate or proxy witness to the event (the witness figure in the mirror). On the other hand the picture as witness substitutes itself for the witness. It is the picture that notarises the event… It “arbitrates” because it sees without having to be present.


^Interesting and relevant in making me consider what my painting’s role is as a witness to the landscape. The painting is created outside in the elements of the landscape, so is it less a witness and more of a recording of an experience?

Wilderness – a place for incident without witness? P.309.

The wilderness is a denial of the meaning of the event…

The wilderness also comes to be a frame and topos [argument] of the aesthetic of the sublime, a reflexive specular looking, constituted through a cultivated or practiced relation to pictures, visually testifying to an unpredictable condition.

With modernity there is no wilderness without a picture.

The wilderness might thus be constructed as a monument without a witness.


^ Our human events, both external and internal, are irrelevant when standing in ‘wilderness’?

Reading this book has been very interesting! I want to return to these notes as my project continues. The implications that will materialise interwoven with future works.. we’ll see!
I do now have more self awareness around how my culture and upbringing affects how I paint the landscape; it makes sense that my paintings are so linked with aesthetics, experience and nature as something to witness as external from it, I think you can see that in the painting.
It will be interesting to see if I can challenge my own defaults with this, and bring in elements to the painting. I am thinking here of the interior of cathedrals that I have become interested in.
The implications of drawing religious inspired structures into my paintings; I then could be reintroducing ritualistic, spiritual or religious associations into woodlands. Like a conversation I had last night: the vikings had a lot of rituals in the woods.

I am also fascinated by this idea that for space to have depth and height and atmosphere it must be contained. So Cathedrals act in the same way as woods – they both contain space and therefore create a lot of height.

This book has really impacted my practice!

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s