2011 Festival of Ideas - Keynote: Do Landscapes have Identities?

Within the interlinked 'modern' worlds of Europe, America and their empires, landscape painting slowly rose to a position of dominance among the genres. This no doubt meant that landscapes, painted and actual, were recruited to serve the interests or epitomize the wishes of states and peoples. 'National' landscapes were called on to confirm, and intensify, the naturalness of imagined communities. This lecture, however, looks primarily at aspects of landscape painting, conceived as a serious practice, that resisted or eluded this kind of ideological recruiting.

Taking its cue from Constable's famous remark that the landscapist was engaged in making 'something out of nothing', the lecture examines the genre's repeated preference for the non-descript, the unenclosed, the left-over and the insignificant. It argues that a central, difficult strand of landscape painting took Nature's 'non-identity' as its subject -- meaning the material world's strange mixture of familiarity and otherness, 'humanness' and non-humanness. Cezanne may be taken as the great exponent of this approach (and it is important that the Provencal countryside he painted had a long Greek and Roman history, and was subject, at the very time he was working, to various kinds of ethnic and nationalist myth-making), but the lecture will aim to show how fundamental to landscape painting as a whole, in the nineteenth century, was a taste for wilderness and ordinariness -- for the intertwining of the two characteristics, in ways that challenged even the portentous infinities of the 'sublime'.

Professor T J Clark's participation is made possible with the support of the Australia Council through its International Visitor Program.