Painting of the month for May 2016

Sunlit Pines

1886. Oil on canvas Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

A landscape can be a very emotive thing. It can stir every sense and create feelings that can be kept as snapshots of a time and place in our minds. They can be pure and cleansing, or invigorating and awesome. They can be nostalgic, whether or not we have ever visited the place. In them we can be made to feel small, like a child again. If we revisit a place as an adult we can feel as though we have grown, facing the landscape from a different point of view both physically and mentally. A feeling of a new adventure can challenge our bravery, inspire us either to conquer or become one with nature. The sun, moon and stars can have a dramatic effect on light, creating happiness or fear. The weather, which as Constable shows us, can have infinitely varied results. Being in a landscape can make us feel lost or found, being comforted by the feeling of getting back to nature or completely overwhelmed by the power of the wild. Oceans, rivers, mountains and trees can evoke intense ‘sublime’ feelings, as Romantic painters and poets discovered, capturing profound states of mind on both canvas and paper. Realism is a difficult thing, often sensation and fantasy take over (think of Turner), and there are a few painters who let the naturalism of a landscape speak for itself. Ivan Shishkin is one of the few.

Sunlit Pines (1886) is an example of the hundreds of landscape studies that Shishkin did in his lifetime. He captures every detail in photographic quality, allowing us to focus not on what he paints, but how we feel looking at the painting. Without being told we can imagine standing where he sat to paint this scene; sensing the time of day, the warmth from the sun on our backs, the smell of the air, all based on a culmination of the visual information here. Shishkin tells us the the trees are pines, adding another layer of information to our sensory reading of the painting, the smell of sun-warmed pine. Perhaps we can hear birds, a light rustling of branches in the breeze. One thing that landscape can be that other subjects cannot is timeless. A portrait can betray a trend of an age past, a strong visual style can tell us when and even where a painting comes from. But a landscape such as this does not age, it can hold relevance throughout the ages. We do not need anything to appreciate or understand it, only our memories and imagination.