It is hard to believe that place, especially one’s own place, isn’t important to everyone, although we might all focus on different aspect of place. For me, place is inextricably linked with the natural environment, the change of seasons and the weather. For Frank Auerbach, it is the urban environment of London, for Giorgio Morandi, it was his studio filled with familiar pots and jugs and for Emily Kame Kngwarreye, it was her ancestral homeland of Utopia, north of Alice Springs, both its physical landscape and her community’s deep cultural relationship with the land.
Her initial works on canvas, when given acrylics at the age of 80, were dot paintings in the aboriginal tradition of ceremonial body art or sand drawings used to tell tales of ancestors and the ‘dreamtime’ or transmit life lessons. Without a written language, aboriginal peoples developed pictograms used in their story-pictures to depict people, animals, plants and landscape features. This gave Emily a visual vocabulary with which to speak about her her place and everything within it. Dots were introduced when the ‘white man’ arrived to hide or obscure the underlying sacred symbols (Kate Owen Gallery, 2017).
Emily’s paintings move beyond this symbolism to a less traditional interpretation of her landscape in ‘Earth’s Creation’ (1994). She has still used dots but in swirls of vibrant colours which represent the greening and flowering of the landscape after the rains. In her final works, the landscape is reduced to broad, soft, swathes of colour, sometimes vibrant but sometimes muted. All iconography, symbolised or not, has dissolved away into colour and emotion.
This development has similarities to Morandi’s enquiry into his collection of artifacts, and his still life paintings remind me of landscapes; when he groups them together in flat planes, touching but not overlapping, the objects loose individual character and become part of a panarama. His intense enquiry over many years in to the same artefacts resulted in a greater and greater loss of detail. He was experimenting with how much he could leave out and still capture an essense.
O’Keefe had a similar absorption in the landscape of New Mexico around her Ghost Ranch and a similar delight in the intense colours produced by clarity of air and changing light in the desert. In her paintings, the desert isn’t rocky, but fluid and plastic. Her favourite subject was Pedernal Mountain, “It’s my private mountain,” she once said. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” (Sooke, 2016).
I am a keen walker and over the years have camped, walked and climbed in some stunning mountainous locations which have tugged at the heart with their isolation and beauty. The Cuillin Mountains of Skye (here painted by Alexander Goudie) appear in my prints repeatedly, although there was a twenty year gap in my visits. When I finally returned there last year, it was very emotional. I envy people who are able to access readily the landscape that inspires them. My garden, enclosed by high trees, is my proxy for the wilderness.
Kate Owen Gallery, (2017). [online] Available at: https://kateowengallery.com/page/Aboriginal-Art-Symbols.aspx [Accessed 22 May 2017].
Sooke, A. (2017). How Georgia O’Keeffe left her cheating husband for a mountain: ‘God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it’. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/how-georgia-okeeffe-left-her-cheating-husband-for-a-mountain-god/ [Accessed 22 May 2017].