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A few of us painters have a little tradition of sending out an sms declaring that our brushes have been laid down ahead of an exhibition. Mine went out on Sunday at noon. After many months, and seemingly endless little touch ups and tweaks, I finally crawled across that finishing line. Through good fortune and doggedness, I did all I’d set out to do, and even had an extra, unexpected painting. I drove over the mountains on Monday with a carload of drying paintings. I kept the windows open to dilute the fumes coming off them. It felt good. After all this time, I’d finally cleared my desk.

Not a painting in sight

Later that day though I was busy doing a few nervy touch ups again. It’s a tense business. After all, the painting is only as good as its last brushstroke. Rather like bowling the last over of a cricket game; one false move and you’re out. “Finishing is everything”, said Lucian Freud. There is a wonderful account from the 1850s of  JM Turner finishing a  painting on Varnishing Day, the day before the exhibition opened:

“He was at work before I came, having set to at the earliest hour allowed. The picture was a mere dab of several colours, like chaos before the creation, little better than a bare canvas. Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest. Etty was working at his side and every now and then a word and a quiet laugh emanated and passed between the two great painters.

“For the three hours I was there, Turner never ceased to work or even once looked or turned from the wall on which his picture hung. A small box of colours, a few very small brushes, and a vial or two were at his feet, very inconveniently placed; but his short figure, stooping, enabled him to reach what he wanted. In one part of the mysterious proceedings Turner, who worked almost entirely with his palette knife, rolled a lump of half transparent stuff over his picture.

“Presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, went sideling off, without speaking a word to anybody, and when he came to the staircase hurried down as fast as he could.  Maclise, who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work: he knows it is done, and he is off.”

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"Traveller looking over a sea of fog"

 

German painter Casper Friedrich (1774 -1840), was a contemporary of JMW Turner and friend of Goethe. His solitary figures peer into the landscape, inviting us into their world of melancholia and awe. Rather than painting traditional religious subjects, Friedrich depicts the encounter with landscape. It’s no accident that these works emerged as Europe industrialised and the Church weakened. They compensated for the loss of both Nature and God. I don’t know if the godless philosopher Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) ever saw Friedrich’s work, but the solitary mountain wanderer would surely have approved of it.

In the Jura region of France, another lone mountain man and painter was jotting down his sensations: “The clear green streams wind along their well-known beds; and under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines there spring up such company of  joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth”.  John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was England’s most influential Victorian art critic. He churned out volumes of impenetrable but poetic writing. He hated the demolition of old buildings. He disliked mountaineers. He didn’t like the march of Progress.

But the flower lover was no hippy: “My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others … and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons to guide, lead, or even to compel and subdue their inferiors, according to their better knowledge and wiser will.”

 

Ruskin as an Imperialist. Oil on canvas(2005)

 

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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