Landscape Composite: Remediating Landscape Paintings through Visual Effects


DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.26 | Issue 3 | April 2020

Sam Wilkins

Bath Spa University


Abstract


This multi-piece portfolio examines the development of ‘Landscape Composite’ (2016-) a series of single screen video composites that remediate, through visual effects techniques, existing landscape paintings in the pastoral tradition of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. This portfolio will present the development of the works culminating in the exhibition ‘Post Pastoral’ at Centre Space Bristol (2020).


It will consider the theoretical context surrounding the work, present the methodology in creating the works and consider the intermedial links between painting and visual effects by examining specific works in detail. In terms of process, ‘Landscape/Composite’ applies visual effects techniques to remediate and animate landscape paintings to create ultra high definition tableaux vivant video works presented on large scale video screens. It uses Terry Gifford’s (1999) Post Pastoral idiom as the contextual frame for the remediation. The project provides an original contribution to the emerging trend of artists’ use of visual effects techniques to reexamine painted images of the landscape and reconsider our cultural preconceptions of the landscape and concept of the Pastoral and the picturesque.


https://postpastoral.tumblr.com/



Research questions and aims


The Pastoral, as a concept, has been explored in literary and art theory but has not been explored as rigorously within new media and moving image making. Landscape paintings and landscape aesthetics are and continue to be used to drive new media and video art creation. This project aims to ask how can the remediation of pastoral landscape paintings using visual effects be used to examine our relationship with the pastoral? The project aims to examine how novel methods of remediation in the form of moving paintings or animated tableau vivant can be used to encourage an audience to examine or question their relationship with these traditional landscape images. It also aims to explore the interdisciplinary approach exploiting literary theory relating to the pastoral as the contextual frame for the remediation. The method used is a growing area in which established works are animated to recontextualise them and it is in this method that I situate the analysis.


Watermarked clip of ‘Landscape with Nymph and Satyr Dancing after Claude Lorrain’ (2020) Single Screen UHD Video


Context, compositing and the landscape


In his 2017 lecture on the Pastoral Malcolm Andrews undertakes an analysis of the 1943 poster of a shepherd in a landscape by Frank Newbould. He examines how the image was constructed using two distinct images; a photograph of the south downs and an image of a shepherd with his dog taken from the Times newspaper. He states:

The splicing together of the two different landscapes strengthens both theme and composition. It conveys a sense of a timeless rural world set in sharp relief from catastrophic convulsions (2017: 2).

The image contains a shepherd, a small country cottage, rolling hills and sprawling downland and 'composes a kind of omnium gatherum of iconic English landscape features' (ibid.). What he calls ‘splicing’ we would now term compositing; a term that is used by visual effects companies and image manipulators, students with Photoshop or HTML5 image manipulation software to combine images together. In this process they make a technical act - combining the images either realistically or not and an ideological act - bringing to pieces of media/text that were never linked together to create new meaning.


The technique and process is not new and intertextual play and remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 1999) continues to grow both as an academic field and creative process. Modern computers and software have made Hollywood level visual effects processes available to artists and amateurs alike and these ‘splicing’ techniques can now be performed with moving images with relative ease. Within film the manipulation of the landscape is common place with skies replaced, hills and mountains changed and made more dramatic and they use the language of the Capriccio [1] landscape painting regularly without critical thought or examination. In tandem artists now use these same techniques to create much more critically engaged reexaminations of landscape images.


Certain paintings are remediated regularly. In her 2014 article for Screen, Agnes Petho examines the prevalence of intermedial recreations of Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ she writes:

a number of experiments that interpret this as a challenge to bring properly to life the already lively picture or to animate the motionless figures. This challenge has been both artistic (to create and recreate similarly intriguing images of in-betweenness) and technical (to explore possibilities of media transpositions) (2014: 473).

Emily Allchurch utilises a similar method to recreate landscape paintings using photo manipulation software. She uses the capriccio technique to create fantastical landscape and architectural composites to explore modern cities and vistas, remediating Breughel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ (1563) in her series ‘Towers of Babel’ (2005 -2018).

In the work ‘In Pursuit of Venus-Infected’ (2017) by Lisa Rheihana a twenty five metre long multi screen projection uses this approach to remediate the nineteenth century wallpaper - the famous multi-blocked ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’(1806) as designed by Jean Gabriel Charvet. She animates the work and remediates through the postcolonial lens, by filming tableau vivant of the native Moari figures against green screen and then compositing them into one giant gently scrolling film that examines the colonial bias of the original work and creates a new technical achievement that was well received at the 2017 Venice Biennale.


Landscape, the pastoral and remediation/intermedial approach


On defining the pastoral, Terry Gifford (1999) identifies distinct idioms in examining texts made of the pastoral; pastoral (idyll), anti-pastoral and post-pastoral. He finds that works in the post-pastoral mode critically engage with and reflect on both how the pastoral has been used to present these ’idylls’ (pastoral) and works that represent the reality of the hardships and strife of actually working in the rural environment (anti-pastoral) and finds writers and artists who create works that examine the tensions that lie in these representations.


There is an interesting tension in taking painting works that sit firmly within the idyll tradition of the 18th and 19th century and using the post pastoral approach to remediate them for new audiences. These paintings as acknowledged in the introduction to the Art and the Environment Conference (2017):

The British countryside, largely mediated by the visual representations of eighteenth-century landscape painters, has now become artistic heritage, part of a national identity.

By utilising Gifford’s idiom this re-examination of the landscape paintings can be framed in a way that exploits Petho’s challenge by exploring both the technical act of animating the painting but also in the artistic act to create challenging and ‘intriguing images of in-betweenness’ which I will now examine in more depth.


Method


Utilising Christopher Frayling’s model for art and design practice research (2003) each work begins with research ‘into[2] art history with the identification and examination of specific landscape works. For this series works are generally British (but not always, I also choose works that were popular with British buyers and present often Italianate idylls, capriccios and rural fantasies that were popular at the time) and usually of the 18th and 19th century and sit in the idyll tradition. Aesthetic analysis is made through content analysis through the post pastoral lens.


The research ‘through’ practice then begins. Each work begins as a high resolution download. The work is digitally ‘cleaned’ using photo manipulation software, where all elements such as people and animals are removed. I then begin a process of iterative experimentation of compositing elements onto the work. The elements are taken from online video searches, still images from newspapers and online search engines and animated 3D models are made and animated . They are then cut out from their backgrounds using chroma key techniques, luma key techniques, rotoscoping and manually cutting them out using the digital manipulation software. These are then composited onto the painting, animated, scaled and colour corrected so they ‘sit’ in the works using standard compositing techniques, elements such as weather conditions are also added and animated.


Analysis of the work 'Wivenhoe' (2016)


Watermarked clip of ‘Wivenhoe’ 2016 Single Screen HD Video


The first work created was ‘Wivenhoe’ (2017) which was screened at ‘We Make Stuff, Holburne Bath’ (2017) and ‘Imagined Faraway Lands, Caraboo Bristol (2019) and uses the John Constable painting of Wivenhoe Park (1816). The work was painted for the landowner Major General Francis Slater-Rebow and shows his estate in Essex and was an important early commission for Constable. The estate now belongs to the University of Essex and has been repurposed into a modern university campus. Constable’s idyllic view contains some men fishing and Slater-Rebow’s niece riding a pony and trap. The differences and contradictions represented by what the image was and what this particular landscape now is intrigued me. I was particularly interested in the repurposing of large country houses and this drove the choices of the narrative elements for the tableau vivant. I populated the scene with many of the aspects that have been preoccupying me; joggers, sleeping migrants, a wind turbine, tourists, businessmen and women, maypole dancers amongst other narrative elements. The work was made with a free reign and it allowed me to combine the animation and compositing techniques and began the process of the contextual frame of interrupting the idyllic view.


Watermarked clip of ‘Reaper’ (2016) Single Screen HD Video


Analysis of the work 'Reaper' (2018)


Reaper is the second work created in the series. In the work ‘Reaper’ (2018) Benjamin William Leader’s painting of February Fill dyke is used. It was painted in 1888 and was relatively poorly received at the time, but has over time developed a following and has become a popular painting of the British idyll tradition. Kenneth Clark in ‘Landscape into Art’ makes a comparison between the work of Leader, held by the public a ‘perfect truth to nature’ he compares it to Monet, Sisley and Pisarro (working at the same time both in France and here in England) and sees a contrast between true and false naturalism. Clarke (1984) states:

even in reproduction we see there is none of that unity of atmosphere, the general envelope of light (to use Corot’s word) which is the essence of true naturalism. But then there is no unity of any kind, Nature has not been perceived as a whole, but described piece by piece. Leader still thinks of the world as made up of a number of things which have to be treated separately (170).

What Clark sees as a weakness - I propose as an interesting metaphor of how we perceive the landscape now - Nature has not been perceived as a whole but described piece by piece. What Clark describes is what in visual effects is termed a ‘composite’. It is this idea of ‘false naturalism’ that holds my attention as I would argue all composite works are false naturalism (even within high budget movie making, realistic composites are made to drive either narrative or aesthetic visions that are in themselves ideological acts).


'Reaper', although confused overall in its symbolism and use of metaphor began the important examination of the idea of compositing as both a technical and an ideological act. As Lev Manovic states:

Although digital compositing is usually used to create a seamless virtual space, this does not have to be its only goal. Borders between different worlds do not have to be erased; different spaces do not have to be matched in perspective scale, and lighting: individual layers can retain their separate identities rather than being merged into a single space; different worlds can clash semantically rather than form a single universe (2001: 18).

'Reaper' examines this false naturalism in various ways, especially the blunt replacement of a bird with a full size MQ-9 Reaper Drone deliberately drawing attention to its uncanny falseness. The drone is lit using the painting itself, and sits well in the painting (is realistically composited) but presents two aspects of the idea of viewing and being viewed and as Manovich states creates an interesting clash of semantic worlds.


Reflection and development


Both works were presented at the ‘We Make Stuff’ (2017) public symposium at the Holburne Museum in Bath. Having presented them, received feedback and reflected on both the method and the content I began to question certain aspects; both the symbols used, the theoretical frame and the method of creation. At this point I paused the practice elements and having recognised certain contextual weaknesses in relation to the literature I returned to Frayling’s research ‘into’ art. This pause in practice became a key moment and by exploring and expanding the reading in a much more considered and interdisciplinary way the practical research could then continue to develop and certain motifs and themes began to emerge.


Kenneth Clark’s ‘Landscape into Art’ (1984) identifies specific modes of presentation of landscape art around themes; fantasy, topography, symbol amongst others. Clarke identifies the symbolic mode, commonly used in mediaeval paintings which show within a single landscape painting multiple temporal narratives or multiple moments from individual narrative in a single work. This helped cement the aesthetic approach by situating the new video works firmly in an aesthetic space that has a fixed viewpoint of a landscape that contains multiple simultaneous temporal narratives within that space. This was most common in medieval paintings and can be seen here in The Thebaid, Fra Angelico, (c1420).


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angelico,_tebaide.jpg


Having reviewed the narrative elements of Reaper and Wivenhoe and incorporating the reading on pastoral and landscape art I realised that there were certain ways I could both approach the method and the content. In their article ‘The Role of Landscape Art in Cultural and National Identity’ (2020) Wen and White comment “In the majority of (John) Constable’s most-recognized works there are a number of human figures carrying out everyday tasks; it could be argued that Constable’s art combines landscape and genre subject matter. But it is a ‘tamed’ countryside that is depicted” (p11). The use of figures performing tasks in various thematic acts to interrupt and dislocate the viewer of the ‘tamed’ landscape in the post pastoral mode was thus identified. These are:


Joggers, cyclists and walkers. These represent the urban ‘other’ within the space - the urban interloper using the space as a leisure playground. Critical creative examination of this can be seen in the work of Simon Roberts in his series We English(2007-08), In Ben Wheatley’s film ‘Sightseers’ (2012) and Hope Dickson Leach’s ‘The Levelling’ (2016) and Ross Raisin’s novel ‘God’s Own Country’ (2008).


The farmer/shepherd and sheep/livestock. Men and women at work in the countryside are nearly always used in Arcadian works and would form a key symbolic point and are essential to the idealised Arcadian view. However by exploiting the anti-pastoral mode they can be updated and exploited in new ways and sit uncomfortably alongside the other themes.


Folk rituals, eerie folk, paganism. This represents an interest in ‘folk’; folk traditions and folk horror and includes archetypes of the urban young’s projection and desire for a return to traditional country values. These include elements such as the Green Man, the may pole and maypole rituals, music festivals and other traditional festivals such as Beltane and solstice celebrations; what writers such as Robert McFarlane have described the growth of the ‘Eerie Pastoral’.


Immigrants, gypsies, peasants and homeless. These are a different form of ‘other’. The portrayal of homeless, vagrants, travellers and gypsies can often be seen in the works of Constable and others, but nearly always in nostalgic and non intrusive ways. By using these images it enables the exploration of themes around migration and became the core driver for the work ‘The English Garden’.


Analysis of the work 'Flood' (2020)


‘Flood’ 2020 Single Screen UHD Video


“Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood by John Constable 1814-17” forms the basis for the work Flood. The painting was chosen as I was looking for a representation of a river in flood to create a work loosely based on the 2014 Somerset floods. Even though in flood the Dedham Vale is still presented in ‘idyllic’ terms, no one seems to be adversely affected, the cattle graze, unperturbed in the foreground. I wanted this work to explore two aspects in relation to Gifford’s modes: that of the anti-pastoral; the people affected and the hard work that then goes into managing an active flood. More broadly I wanted to address floods to interrogate the post pastoral mode to encourage the viewer to consider the way climate change is affecting our perception or more importantly interrupting our view of such pastoral scenes.


Individual narrative elements that I had previously collected were utilised such as the story of Somerset’s ‘King Canute’ who attempted to build a moat around his newly built house and it is this house that sits in the middle distance, the earth movers working in vain to stop the flood. The workers in the foreground building the sandbag walls were played by myself and were shot using green screen.


The work functions in an interesting space between the post pastoral/anti pastoral modes as it encourages or confronts the viewer with the hardship and drudgery of the current climate situation. It also asks questions around land management and ownership with the homeowner now having to build his own moat and rampart (in the 21st century) to try and protect his property. The importance of the development in the practice here was the simplification, or focussing, of the use of the metaphor and symbols used and a concentration on the theme which allowed space for such complex themes to be explored in a much more considered way.


Analysis of the work 'The English Garden' (2020)


‘The English Garden’ 2020 Single Screen UHD Video



Jacob Philipp Hackert - Landscape with Motifs from the English Garden in Caserta (1797) forms the basis of the work ‘The English Garden’. Returning to Gladwell’s quote of works creating an “omnium gatherum of iconic English landscape features' and Clark’s ‘false naturalism’ this painting created in Italy, by a German of a garden started by an Englishman (Lord Hamilton) for the Italian royal family represents for me a perfect example of the composite landscape. It contains an imagined view of a re-imagined landscape in the English garden style with fantastical capricci features.


For the work the foreground lounging ladies and cattle have been replaced by a composite digital matte painting of the ‘Jungle’ camp at Calais. All of the tents featured have been taken from press images at the moment of the clearance of the camp in February 2016. It combines the idyllic view with the interrupted view and uses subtle animation of nearly every aspect from the trees swaying the wind to the fire burning in one of the tents. The combination of the original Hackert image with the specificity of the familiar yet unfamiliar view of the tents (viewers have sometimes mistaken it for a music festival) the new medium creates a sense of what Petho terms intermedial ‘in-betweenness’. She writes “Speaking of intermediality in Deleuzian terms is facilitated by the fact that intermediality has usually been described as a ‘dynamic relationship’ between media rather than a simple assemblage of media coming into contact. Theorists often describe it as a performative act, a process and a ‘displacement’, a ‘dislocation’, ‘transitory’ or ‘interim’ experience” (p474). This metaphorical and literal displacement is at the core of my current approach by this time. By concentrating on specific visual themes, in this case migration and geographical displacement and combining this with the intermedial remediation methodology it creates and supports the metaphorical space for the interim experience.


Conclusion


Post Pastoral Exhibition Still


The works culminated in the exhibition ‘Post Pastoral’ (2020) at Centrespace Gallery Bristol. Shown together the works showed both the development of the method and also the culmination of the theoretical/contextual post pastoral frame.


The method of using visual effects to remediate paintings can be effective. It is clear and obvious that artists will continue to find inspiration in art historical painted images, but the use of visual effects to do so is growing rapidly and worthy of further study and consideration. New and novel production methods allow audiences to engage with this and this method allows both audiences and makers to read and make new visual realities through the remediation techniques. By combining this method in an interdisciplinary manner the meaning and ‘baggage’ that comes with landscape painting around nation and identity formation, hegemony and false imagined idylls can be explored in bold and relevant ways. These then form part of a broader reexamination and recontextualisation of all aspects of the ‘pastoral’ from perspectives of decolonisation and ownership and a reappraisal of such flawed idylls.


Comments from viewers of the exhibition support this and points such as the works were 'making me think about what was consciously left out of the original images', while another commented 'It makes me really aware of the idea that even now we are clinging to this idea of Britain or what the landscape, countryside means . . . . there is something quite beautiful about them as well, even if the themes are quite sinister, pointing to the darker underbelly of society now as opposed to then, but how they are still joined.'


The continued use of intermedial method and theory to drive practice has real benefits. It is possible to use the literary theory of the pastoral to create and examine visual art works and keep addressing the concept of the pastoral in a considered way, while using the intermedial approach to explore sense feelings of displacement, dislocation and create challenging and exciting interim experiences. To develop the project, avenues of collaboration are now being sought with institutions both city and rural with landscape painting in their collections. The method can also be expanded outside of the pastoral contextual frame to either drive practice or be used as an analytical tool.


References


  • Andrews, M., 2017. English Landscape: The Picturesque - Professor Malcolm Andrews. [online] Youtube. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa8bw_ARgf0> [Accessed 10 November 2019].

  • Bolter, J. and Grusin, R., 2003. Remediation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

  • Chatel, L., Gould, C. and Mesplède, S., 2017. In: Art and the Environment in Britain, 1700-Today. [online] Available at: <https://artenvironuk17.sciencesconf.org/> [Accessed 7 July 2019].

  • Clark, K., 1984. Landscape Into Art. New York [etc.]: Harper & Row, p.170.

  • Frayling, C., 1993. Research in Art and Design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1).

  • Gifford, T., 1999. Pastoral The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge.

  • Manovich, L., 2001. The language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT

  • Petho˝, Á., 2014. The garden of intermedial delights: cinematic ‘adaptations’ of Bosch, from modernism to the postmedia age. Screen, 55(4), p.473.

  • Wen ,X., & White, P., 2020. The Role of Landscape Art in Cultural and National Identity: Chinese and European Comparisons. Sustainability School of Design, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Shanghai & Department of Geography, University of Sheffield (p11)


Artworks

  • Allchurch, Emily. 2005-2018. Towers of Babel [online] Available at: https://www.emilyallchurch.com/gallery/babel-towers/ [Accessed 08 July 2020]

  • Angelico, Fra c1420. The Thebaid. Jpeg image of Tempera on wood painting, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angelico,_tebaide.jpg

  • Constable, John. Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood from the Grounds of Old Hall, East Bergholt. Jpeg image of oil painting. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dedham_Vale_with_the_River_Stour_in_Flood_from_the_Grounds_of_Old_Hall,_East_Bergholt_by_John_Constable.jpg

  • Constable, John. 1816 Wivenhoe Park. Jpeg image of oil painting. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wivenhoe_Park_(painting)

  • Hackert, Joseph Philip. 1797. Landscape with Motifs from the English Garden in Caserta. Jpeg image of oil painting. https://www.lempertz.com/en/catalogues/lot/1153-2/2503-jacob-philipp-hackert.html

  • Williams-Leader, Benjamin. 1881. February Fill Dyke. Jpeg image of oil painting. Birmingham City Art Gallery.https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/february-fill-dyke-33694

  • Reihana, L., 2017. ‘In Pursuit of Venus-Infected’ 24ft Video projection (Available at: http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/infected-1[Accessed 6 Jan,2020)]


Notes


[1] A Capriccio in painting combines a landscape with often idealised and fantastical architectural features to create a new and imagined fantastical landscape.


[2] In his 2003 work ‘Research in Art and Design’ Christopher Frayling identifies three distinct research methodologies in Art and Design which form a useful structure for approaching practice research