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Transcript of John Moores 24 First Prizewinner podcast
Welcome to the picture of the month. Martin Greenland's 'Before Vermeer's Clouds', first prizewinner of this year's John Moores - John Moores 24. The first prize was Â£25,000, it's no small potatoes you might say. Â£25,000.
Also, it's a purchase prize, the Walker actually purchases this at the market price. I don't know how they're paying for this but it's going into the permanent collection. I must confess to a feeling of slight uneasiness whenever I have to talk about contemporary art. One has nothing to grab hold of. If I'm talking about a Victorian painting there's a whole wealth of stuff - documentation, contemporary reviews in the press. One can read out marvellous condemnatory reviews of 19th century masterpieces and get a lot of fun out of seeing what those people then thought of it and what we think of it now.
With a contemporary piece like this we don't have anything to hang onto. There's no critical appraisal. No props. One finds oneself flailing around looking for something to say. The worst is that it's towards the end of October now, I am speaking about this painting, giving my views on what the painting is all about now and in about a week's time Martin Greenland himself is going to be coming here and giving a talk telling you what it's really about.
Practically everything I have to say today I think you can take with a large pinch of salt. If you really want to know what's going on in this picture come and hear Martin Greenland. Fortunately, he has in the past written quite a deal about his own work in the form of artist's statements.
Usually artist's statements are practically useless because they are incredibly impenetrable. I often think that painters should be allowed to paint, they shouldn't be allowed to write. Luckily Martin Greenland actually says a lot of sensible stuff about his work.
The first thing to be said about a picture like this and about Martin Greenland's work in general is that he is a painter of landscape and that his landscapes are invented. They are fictitious, they are literally artificial.
He says in one statement - 'the work is entirely fictitious but its roots are in particular and real places'. Now, those particular and real places in which his landscapes have their roots are, as he says, 'the landscape surrounding my home in the Lake District and, latterly, the close relationship with Nordic landscape that I've discovered'.
He visited Scandinavia about six years ago and these Nordic landscapes or references to landscape in Norway and Sweden and Finland have crept into his work over the last six years. In an early statement he says 'everything shown in this picture is fictitious but I have deliberately aped a photographic look to reinforce the illusion of reality. I need to invent, it is this that is most rewarding and gives me the sense of being a composer. I am not tied down to specific topographical realities, except in the ways thing look and behave'.
Of course, his landscapes cannot be entirely invented. Individual elements in the landscape have to be drawn from some sort of nature or some sort of memory bank of nature, otherwise the whole thing would be completeley unrecognisable as landscape at all. For instance, down here you've got gorse. It's obviously gorse - it's green, it's prickly, it's got yellow flowers - that's gorse in my book. It's a fairly representational treatment of gorse but it's placing in the landscape is what makes the landscape fictitious.
There are representational elements in it but the entirety of the landscape is fictitious and imaginary.
He talks of aping a photographic look to reinforce the illusion of reality but it's just that illusion of reality that gives it it's dreamlike and unreal quality. One is reminded of the work of Salvador Dali. It was his mastery of photographic realism in his paintings that made his pictures such convincing and disturbing pictures of unreality and dreams. If they weren't so realistic they wouldn't be so unreal as it were. Paradoxically.
Greenland justifies his meticulous attention to detail, he justifies his skill - because in the contemporary art world one has to justify skill, it used to be as read an artist had skill, nowadays an artist like Greenland has to justify it, he almost has to apologise for it - he says he is working at the unfashionable end of an unfashionable medium - painting today is an unfashionable medium in the cultural climate dominated by conceptual art for instance. Highly finished and precise painting like this is the unfashionable end of that unfashionable medium.
In his artist's statement this time, he says it may seem futile to make the works seem as thought they have been observed or taken from photographs. He's actually apologising for making them look so realistic, he's saying that it may seem futile but inventing gives the work reason for existence and then finally he finishes with this - 'what is shown here exists only in this painted illusion'.
So we get back to the idea of fictitious imaginary landscape - this landscape does not exist in nature it exists only on this wall.
This is his fifth contribution to the John Moores exhibition. The first four were consecutive - there was John Moores 16, 17, 18 and 19 in 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1995. One could see development looking through previous catalogues - one image hanging over from one picture to another. From one John Moores exhibition to another.
For instance, in his first submission in John Moores 16 in 1989, he exhibited a painting called 'Rich'. Then the following year he exhibited a painting called 'The Minotaur's Palace'. In both of those pictures one of the details in the picture was a hatchet buried into a post. There was also a ball in the first one and that had transformed into a minotaur in the second one. In later paintings the minotaur becomes a gold minotaur, it becomes this strange little golden statue at odd points in the landscape.
The first painting called 'Rich' included in the distance a stone statue of a guardian lion looming in the distance. In the third John Moores submission, in John Moores 18 in 1994, he exhibited a painting called 'Released' and part of the plinth of that statue appeared at the side of the picture. But it had undergone a transformation and he said in his statement, 'the plinth which I imagine supports a massive guardian lion', that we first saw back in 1989, 'was originally of stone but looking at the painting in the half-light early one morning it suggested itself as gold. Its richness reflects the richness of nature around it - it is valuable but worthless.
He has this plinth on one side of this picture and it's shining gold. Part of that plinth, or something very like it, appears again here on the left hand edge of this current picture. In the ten years between Martin Greenland fourth John Moores submission and this, his fifth, various new elements have entered his catalogue of imagery.
Six years ago he visited Scandinavia for the first time and so the imaginary landscapes of his native Cumbria are added, to those are added imaginary landscapes of Sweden, Finland, the bottom right-hand corner here of this picture bears a marked similarity to two recent paintings exhibited in London one of which was called 'Imaginary landscape with frozen lakes - Finland' and 'Imaginary landscape in southern Sweden. This we can take as part of his memory bank from his trip to Scandinavia.
A recent statement gives us some idea of how he works on a picture, he says 'my work is predominantly invented and increasingly I work with little preparation. All thoughts and changes taking place actually in the painting'. For example, the obvious example of this is that stone plinth which in the early morning he looked at it and thought it would look better, more meaningful painted gold, so he changes the plinth from stone to gold in the picture as he's working.
In this case, you've got this Scandinavian calling of his landscape here. There has been a lot of discussion in the gallery about just what this is here. I suppose once you realise that it's based on Scandinavia and we think of titles of works like 'Frozen lakes' it becomes obvious these are snowdrifts in gullies. There was certain discussion about whether this bit down here is a stream or river or whether it's more snow. Looking at it closely you've got a triangular piece here, this is very obviously snow here, this could also be snow and then there's a melt of melting water, this stream going down the hill.
I didn't actually speak to Martin Greenland when I came up to collect his prize but I overheard him say something on the night. He was talking to somebody about the picture. Incidentally he had a marvellous suit. I tell you he knew he'd won! A very tall man, a superbly tailored red corduroy suit. And it was that sort of corduroy that looked as if it had been worn for the first time that night and it looked so stiff and wonderfully could have stood up in the corner on its own. It was gorgeous.
He was standing about here talking to somebody, I was listening in, he said 'see this bit down here, this stream, it originally started out as a flight of stone steps'. That is another example of him changing things as he goes along. This originally, we can imagine, was stone steps and it was changed to a river.
Notice one thing about this, it hasn't got a frame. The frame is important. A frame on a picture emphasises the artificiality of the painted image, that's one purpose of it. Another purpose of it is it makes you realise where the picture ends and the wall begins. It's an important thing. I've got a canvas on my kitchen wall. The kitchen wall is bright yellow and the canvas is bright yellow and it actually blends in. With a frame you could see where the.
In previous works you see, Martin Greenland's frames were integral to the picture. In a painting called 'Released' in the John Moores 18, he wrote in his artist's statement he wrote 'I actually bought the frame first', it was made from bits of driftwood that he'd picked up, almost looked like railway sleepers they were huge things covered in oil, 'the painting's size and shape were determined from the pieces of driftwood I'd selected from what I had gleaned over the previous two years. The frame is important because it contains and extends the painting'. Extends in the sense of, I'm not sure really, only that the frame becomes a part of the work of art. In this case it was made of hefty, oily beams.
In John Moores 19 in 1995 there was a painting called 'Landscape with ruins'. That landscape was tremendously claustrophobic, it was rather disturbing, it was a rather sinister, claustrophobic scene, an overgrown clearing in a forest with lumps of old rusted rubbish peeping out of the shrubbery. The sky was only visible through gaps in the foliage. It was a very disturbing, rather unpleasant painting. In that case the frame, rather a distressed wooden frame, the frame was so heavy that it added to that sense of claustrophobia, it enclosed the painting and enclosed the scenery, this landscape with ruins.
This year, one of the first things I noticed was that it didn't have a frame, apparently it did originally have a frame. It arrived here in a rather expensive frame, so it wasn't made of old driftwood, he'd spent a bit of money on it and the judges decided that it looked better without the frame. Without the frame it would look less encumbered. They felt that the frame detracted from the immediacy of the image.
Greenland was asked if it was alright that they exhibited it without the frame and he said it was alright, so it can't have been a big issue with him. You can imagine if they'd asked him the same thing ten years ago, I think he'd have objected because the frames were more integral to the image.
But I didn't know anything about this so the first time I saw this I thought it was a new departure, that he'd actually gone for an unframed image. The painting was liberated from the confinement of the frame. It was also liberated from that rather oppressive, closed setting of the earlier paintings. In this case it has a much higher viewpoint and a good third of the canvas surface, because of this higher viewpoint, is of sky. We learn from his statement that the picture while it was progressing was originally entitled 'A vision of heaven'.
I thought, new departure from Martin Greenland, he's come out of the frame and he's exhibiting these wonderfully spacious visions of heaven. The absence of a frame in a sense reinforces the illusion of reality as much as the sophisticated finish of the painted surface in this case.
John Ruskin said in one of his lectures that the best landscape paintings, by this he meant the landscape paintings of Turner, had the power to open your walls as it were into so many windows, through which you can see whatever has charmed you in the fairest scenery of your country. So, according to Ruskin, a picture like this should be viewed as a window. You open your walls putting a window with your picture and you can see what has charmed you in landscape.
The title of this picture is 'Before Vermeer's Clouds'. The particular clouds he's talking about are the clouds from Vermeer's painting of 1660-1 called 'A view of Delft', wonderful big picture. It's celebrated for being, not only one of the biggest paintings Vermeer ever painted, but it's also one of only three works we know of by Vermeer which were actually open air paintings. We normally think of Vermeer as a painter of interiors. There are only two extant paintings, one of them is called 'The little street', it's about a fifth the size of 'A View of Delft', probably the largest thing that Vermeer ever painted.
A very, very influential painting 'A View of Delft' by Vermeer. In my 1910 Baedecker for Holland and Belgium there's a whole entry devoted to it and it's in the Maratz house in The Hague and Baedecker gives it two stars. He gives St George's Hall two stars, in Liverpool, so 'A View of Delft' is a two star picture and that's as good as it gets. This is one the Baedecker says, 'Among Vermeer's landscapes a speciall mention must be made of the famous 'View of Delft' which has once more in the 19th century exerted a most powerful influence on the entire domain of landscape painting' - the Impressionists - 'in the foreground is the canal with a portion of its bank shown on its left, among the figures on the latter we notice a woman in blue skirt and yellow jacket. In the middle distance and dominating the composition appears the town with its red and blue roofs partly lit up with yellow sunlight. This simple view is perhaps unmatched by any other landscape in the world for the truthfulness of its atmospheric and light effects and for the vigour and brilliance of its colouring.'
'The View of Delft' shows the city of Delft from the south, demonstrating on here if you like, in the foreground here you have the near-bank of the river, with a half a dozen figures down here, then you have the river itself and then, about here, you have the city. Above the city the sky. So it's a wonderful big picture of sky. It's Holland, lot of sky in Holland because the landscape is so flat. The sky in 'A View of Delft' occupies over half of the canvas.
This is what Martin Greenland has incorporated into his landscape, the sky from Vermeer's 'View of Delft'. According to my Guardian chart of cloud formations, the dark clouds up here are strato cumulus, long and grey, can cause light rain. These white fluffy clouds here are the cumulus humilis, wider than they are tall, they do not cause precipitation. The importance of Vermeer's clouds is their effect on the city underneath.
You've got this dark bank of cloud here, then there's a gap in the cloud and then another bank of clouds. What this does to the city in Vermeer's picture is that the dark bank of clouds places in shadow the nearer buildings of the city. The light shining through the gap lights up the farther buildings which is precisely opposite to what you normally expect in landscape, you normally expect the things closer to you to be more distinguishable.
In this case though the dark buildings are at the front, the lighter buildings are at the back. In just the same way, Martin Greenland here, you've got all this dark lush foliage here and right in the distance is brilliantly lit. A similar effect.
One of the features in this landscape is the disparity of the three areas. You've got nordic here, nordic verging on arctic, very little conifers here, snow, rock. Down here you've got deciduous trees. You've got a sort of temperate climate here and then right as far as you can see you've got this ridge of sandstone which is brightly lit, obviously very, very hot. One thinks of middle eastern landscape.
You've got an imaginary landscape with three different sorts of landscape thrown into it, an unreal landscape, a vision of heaven. On the far horizon there you've got various details. As far as you can see there's what looks to me like the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens here. You've got here a dome of a mosque and this reminds one of a recent painting by Martin Greenland which has a dome much closer to you and that is also called 'A Vision of Heaven'.
So, you've got a dome, what looks like the Acropolis. Finally, you've got this, this tower. To my mind the only thing I can think of is that sort of baby's toy you find in, I can't remember if I had one, it's a little stick, plastic and concentric little plastic coloured rings and you build it up into a tapering tower. Promotes hand-eye co-ordination in a toddler.
So that can only be imagination, an imaginary landscape. Which brings us back of course to this landscape being fiction. The title itself draws attention to the fact that it is a painted sceneby discolsing the fact that the sky at least has been taken from another painter's work.
The title 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' is interesting as well. Why before? Why not 'After Vermeer's Clouds'? That's usually the formula, there's a little painting through there called 'After Paul Nash'. It's a painting based on a picture by Paul Nash. This is a painting which has taken Vermeer's Clouds, why not 'After Vermeer's Clouds'? The only explanation that I can think of, which I'm sure will be dismissed out of hand by Martin Greenland in about a week's time, it is before Vermeer's clouds in the sense of being in front of Vermeer's Clouds.
You have a painted sky appropriated from Vermeer's picture and this forms almost a theatrical backdrop to Greenland's painted landscape. It's an imaginary landscape in front of or 'Before Vermeer's Clouds'.