Landscapes and Memories in Art ~Hemant Gavankar

Landscapes are a favourite with art lovers. When one wishes to put up an art piece in their homes, the natural choice goes to landscapes, of deep forests and beautiful seashores. Young artists when beginning their art career commence with landscapes, painting the places and spaces they see in their vicinity. Every monsoon attracts landscape camps, where artists gather to paint the picturesque. The natural attraction to landscapes could be because firstly everyone has experienced them physically, and secondly for one and all and understand what has been painted. But are landscapes limited to just what we see and to what is seen? What has attracted artists and connoisseurs alike for centuries  that they seek landscapes? This blog explores the idea of landscape painting with a fresh outlook and explores its impact.

Hemant Gavankar is an alumni of Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai having done his graduation in Drawing and Painting and post-graduation in portraiture. He is an explorer and enthusiast of literature and films. Landscape has been his area of interest and he has been trying to understand the nuances of this genre. His recent works have been explorations in the changing landscape of the city, focused on modern interventions in heritage landscapes. Hemant lives and works from Mumbai.

Looking at some of the old masters' paintings I have always wondered, would they seem this beautiful when the paper was white and fresh? Or the yellow tint representing the course of time that spreads over the whole painting adds to its beauty, making it priceless!

Drawing and painting are the oldest forms of visual art. Both of these forms have evolved and developed to a great extent. Time not only plays an influential role in this gradual development of art over years, the timeline of an individual artist too surely influences his art practice.

One such form of painting that has been experimented with on a large scale resulting in its transformation and simultaneously is a result of every artist's personal identity and experience, is landscape painting. Landscape is closely related to human life. Rather, human life exists in a landscape. From being born in a landscape and growing in it, to finally trying to take control over it, such is man's journey.

 Watercolour landscape by Gaganendranath Tagore

Before any medium undergoes a physical process, artist goes through a psychological process that leads him towards his artwork. The audience though do not always understand both these steps and get pure experience of the final outcome. Each artist working in any genre somewhere peeps into his past during his former step towards creation. The memories and observations of an artist play a vital role in his creative process. This is where on many occasions landscape  is placed in his painting or any work of art; it being always there from his birth to his present, changing with time like him and playing the role of a background to his life.

In visual art there are genres like landscape painting or landscape photography. But the presence of landscapes in other creative fields has been noticeable. Poetry has always been in fore front when it comes to the descriptions of places to convey mood of a particular space, at a particular time. But going further, the relation between a character's memories and landscapes have been beautifully highlighted in literature and films.

In the Marathi book 'एक होता कार्व्हर', the translation of  biography of George Washington Carver, author Veena Gavankar has thrown light on the same subject multiple times throughout the book. Describing how Carver reacted to the memories of his birthplace after moving away from there, she writes,

'Sometimes the memories of landscape of Diamond Grove ( birthplace of Carver) and Ozark hills troubled George. He was disturbed by remembering his small flowering plants. To get rid of this, he used to sketch those trees, flowers, rivers, rabbits, squirrels, etc. on the paper. He later stuck those sketches in his books, notebooks and on his table to feel he was there.'

 Painting by George Washington Carver

Talking about films, Swades: We the people would be on of the best examples. Mohan the main character of this film, who works in NASA, comes to India after a long period of time to meet the babysitter who had looked after him when he was a child. He meets her and other people in the village she lives. The vibrant Indian landscape, myths and stories there fascinate him. Later he goes back to America but the memories of people and landscape back in India make him restless. This is depicted on screen by flashing images of the same. Finally he takes decision of resigning and returns to India.

 Stills from film Swades: We the People ( Mohan played by Shah Rukh Khan remembers India)

In a book or a film where some kind of journey takes place, this relationship of man with the landscape that he has come across and which means something to him has always been important. It does not always pull the character back as in both the above mentioned examples, but sometimes pushing the characters to move forward in their tough period.

One with this kind of narration is The Lord of the Rings trilogy written by J. R. R. Tolkien. A film series inspired from the book with the same title is directed by Peter Jackson. In this series Frodo, the central character walks on a quest with eight other people to destroy a ring possessing some exceptional powers. The task is to be done far away from Shire, place where Frodo was born and lives. Due to some reasons they get divided after covering a certain distance. Frodo and an another character Sam continue the journey together. Later when Frodo feels like giving up the quest, Sam talks to him, giving him strength. Sam asks him,

" Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom; and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket; and they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields; and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”

Frodo answers of not remembering anything due to burden of the ring. But gets strength to move ahead. In the end, after many difficulties and a tiring road, they are able to destroy the ring. Finally Frodo is free from the burden. After completion of this task first words Frodo says to Sam are,

" I can see the Shire, the Brandywine river, Bag end, Gandalf's fireworks... the lights in a party tree."

 Stills from film The Lord of the Rings ( Landscapes of Shire)

Such is human bond with landscapes. In an English movie Inception, small part of story narrates the impact of places from past or present of a person on his subconscious.

Finally coming back to painting, painters many times try to evoke the sense of colours, textures, light, feelings, images, etc. from their past through the medium they use.  Colour is said to be one of the most sensitive elements in painting. It is because of its ability to depict mood, atmosphere and emotions. An art movement, based completely on colours and textures has already taken place in the history.

S. H. Raza, India's one of the celebrated artists drifted from realistic landscapes towards gestural expressionism in the mid twentieth century. His paintings from that period evolved from memories of his childhood. His interview conducted by Bartholomev, published in Lalit Kala magazine 23, clearly shows the direct relation between his memories and his paintings. As stated by him, the most tenacious memory of his childhood was the fear and fascination of Indian forests in Madhya Pradesh. Nights in the forests were with almost no humanizing influence while the day break on the other hand was a feeling of security. On the market day with radiant sun the village turned in to a ' fairy land of colours' for him. Impressions of both these aspects of his life as a child, the dark night followed by bright colourful days can be seen in his paintings of series Village from 1950's. 

S. H. Raza, Clocher du Village, Oil on canvas, 1958, 57 3/8 in. x 44 5/8 in.

These were just a few examples. A lot of artists for sure gain inspiration from landscapes. It is quite obvious to remember a person or an animal who reacted to your actions. But why do we remember the landscapes, architectures or other similar stuff with similar intensity of affection? I think, it is because of their capacity to make us feel something very strongly. It is we and our senses who unknowingly and  continuously are reacting in this case.

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