Land ho: the flourishing of Flemish landscape painting

An exhibition in Dresden chronicles the emergence and variance of landscapes from Flanders

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The convergence of powerful currents has produced the exhibition Paradise on Earth: Flemish Landscape Painting from Breughel to Rubens at the Kunsthalle in Lipsiusbau, Dresden. The exhibition is a display of an exceptional collection of 141 paintings, as well as works on paper, mostly from the collections of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (state art collections in Dresden). The show surveys how landscape painting blossomed in Flanders over a period of some 150 years.

By the 15th century, a distinction began to emerge between landscape elements in certain works (such as altarpieces, works of devotion and Books of Hours) and landscape painting as a discrete entity. Thereafter, the genre emerged from the sources from which it came and narrative began to take second place to what had once been mere background. Various artists took up what can be designated, to greater or lesser degrees, landscapes. The so-called Danube School (Cranach the Elder, Altdorfer and others) stand out, as do Venetians such as the Bellinis, Carpaccio, Giorgione and Titian, all of whom devoted particular attention to outdoor settings.

But it was in Flanders that landscape painting most came into its own. One might be excused for overlooking (on account of size and unexceptional title) a small, seven-by-nine inch oil on oak panel picture, The Flight into Egypt (around 1516-17) by Joachim Patenir. A bird’s eye view (Patenir's most puissant legacy to later landscapists) discloses a mountain with two enormous rock outcrops rising on the left, while rolling hills cuddling a farm and its staffage fill in the middle ground, behind which, like a stage set, forest and pasturage lead the eye to a high mountain range in blue atmospheric perspective at the back. (Note the mountain goat—an insignificant, although recurrent, Flemish landscape motif—microscopically, but adroitly, perched on a short ledge.) A wedge of sea, above which float clouds in the blue sky over the horizon’s mist, fills the background. In the bottom foreground can be made out the Holy Family of the title. They are incidental, almost an afterthought.

In a “Tagebuch” (diary) entry from 24 March 1521, Albrecht Dürer writes that he had met Patenir and had seen his work, referring to the artist as “der gut landschafft maler” (the good landscape painter)—the first usage of the word landscape in German and a primary indicator that the genre had come to emerge as a distinct corm. Patenir is, as it were, the father of Flemish landscape painting.

From here the exhibition takes us chronologically and thematically through the rich history of Flemish landscape painting. With three brown ink and black chalk plein-air drawings from around 1520 by the anonymous Dresden Master, we learn about the interrogations of real and ideal landscapes. We see the relationship between landscape painting and cartography with St Christopher with a View of Antwerp in the Background (around 1530-50) by a follower of Patenir, and in a map-painting (1501) by Jan Hervy of Zwin-Gebiets from Flanders, which relates directly to the Flemish speciality of map-making.

There are examples of the relegation of historical and Biblical subjects to the background, as in Hans Bols’s Abraham and the Three Angels (1586). The show includes examples of the “fantastic” landscape, with scenes of Hell, battles and burnings—a legacy of the Thirty Years’ War and Bosch—such as in Juno in the Underworld (1598) by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hans Rottenhammer. There are animal and “Paradise” landscapes (based on aristocratic menageries) of which a good example is Jan Breughel the Younger’s Landscape with the Creation of the Animals. (The works i this section could easily be distant ancestors of Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom series of paintings.)

Some works depict the exploration of often impenetrable, but unthreatening, woodlands. Some instances are seen in Roelant Savery’s drawings of the forests of the state of Tirol for the Emperor Rudolf II. Finally, we get to the pathetic fallacies of the Baroque landscape, illustrated by Rubens’s famous The Boar Hunt (1616-18), in which the forest writhes in sympathy with the dogs and the boar.

All very interesting, but why would one go to Dresden, not the easiest of European destinations, for this show? The answer lies partly in the extraordinary fact that almost all of the drawings, prints and paintings on display are from the museum's own collections. While the exhibition is not about collectors and collecting, one should be aware that these paintings were specifically amassed by only two collectors: the father and son Saxon Elector/Polish Kings Augustus II the Strong (who reigned from1695-1733) and III (who picked up from 1733-63). The latter had a personal taste for Flemish landscapes and his agents hoovered them up between 1740 and 1756, many from Prague, bringing the holdings to around 160 works, the largest in any public institution in the world.

But this exhibition is not only the happy result of an historical accident; it is also what one might think of as an hors d’oeuvre to a scholarly achievement. For the past three years, Uta Neidhardt and her colleague Konstanze Krüger, along with other art historians, conservators and scientists, have made a close scrutiny of Dresden’s Flemish landscapes. Next year, the first of three volumes of a comprehensive catalogue will be published, giving detailed accounts of all the artists (in alphabetical order) and their works. No doubt, this publication will be a definitive account of Flemish landscape painting. It will serve to illustrate not just the Dresden collection, but will be a general reference work for years to come

Furthermore, the paintings have been, and are undergoing, thorough scientific examination (infrared reflectography and digital x-radiography), revealing new aspects of collaborative and workshop procedures. For example, an oil-on-copper painting of the Holy Family in a Crown of Flowers (around 1630-40) by Jan Breughel the Younger and Frans Francken the Younger turns out to have been painted on one of several printer’s plates used for Abraham Ortelius’s map of Asia, made in Antwerp in 1567 (also on display). Cleaning has, of course, clarified colours, the handling of light and shade and brushwork, and has made many of the details legible.

Congratulations are in order not only to Neidhardt and her team, but also to the Deutscher Sparkassen- und Giroverband (the German savings bank association) and the Kulturstiftung der Länder (the federal cultural foundation) for their generous support of this show. The 368-page, hardback catalogue, in German only, is published by Sandstein Verlag (€39.80).

Donald Lee is the literary editor of The Art Newspaper

Paradise on Earth: Flemish Landscape Painting from Breughel to Rubens, Kunsthalle in Lipsiusbau, Dresden, until 15 January 2017

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