The Landscape of Emotion
René Magritte and I share a good cry over les temps perdus.
For twenty years I sat in a favorite spot in my former home, in Pennsylvania, next to a big kitchen window overlooking our backyard and the woods beyond. From that vantage point I watched the landscape go through the transformations of spring, summer, fall, and winter. I also enjoyed the subtle shifts from dawn to full morning, from afternoon glare to softer sunset, from snowstorm to thaw to spring green. From that window I watched the seasonal birds come and go, children grow up and then run off to NYC and Denver, and my own father play with those grandkids and then disappear from the scene forever.
When my wife and I decided to leave that house for points west, I especially savored the dwindling moments I had to sit in that kitchen window and say goodbye to a peaceful perspective I enjoyed for a broad swath of my adult life. Through the usual turbulence of career and family, my perspective remained steady. The view was never quite the same twice, and there were astonishments of light and color and climate; animal visitors such as squirrels, foxes, rabbits, and deer; blooms that burst and faded; and bird migrants who were blown into our yard by far-off storms. I watched all of that through a window frame that divided the scene into twelve equal rectangles.
When I began taking painting classes ten years ago, I saw the view through new eyes. I realized that in effect, the scene had been divided into a dozen individual landscapes. My “ah ha!” moment, when I decided to paint two decades of observation into one frame with twelve parts, came while viewing the work of René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist (1898–1967) who invested his landscapes an eerie sense of emotion.
The artist came by that tendency at an early age. The future painter’s mother drowned when her son was fourteen — an apparent suicide — and by his nurse’s account, the boy was present when they pulled her body from the river, her face obscured by the white gauze dress she was wearing. That disturbing image of a face covered by fabric would later recur in his paintings.
Whether or not his nurse was mythologizing the moment (as many have suggested), the boy grew into a man who often mixed surreal elements into his landscapes. He also mixed surreal landscapes into his portraits. The effect is often nightmarish, but at times he softens it to express a deep yearning or haunting appreciation for the place he’s painting.
I was particularly inspired by his painting “The Human Condition,” where the Magritte’s canvas-within-a-canvas melds impossibly with the seascape he’s painting….
and “Empire of Light,” where he depicts a dark streetscape underneath an impossibly bright daytime sky.
In both paintings, he adds powerful emotion to an exquisitely rendered landscape, an approach that seemed so right to me as I looked out on my backyard scene for the last few times.
I set up my easel in the kitchen, sat in my usual chair, and I painted from nature, from photographs, and from memory, as I tried to capture and meld many aspects of my 20-year-long view.
I hope my painting conveys something of the way I cherished that view, along with the variety of colors and light and mood that it presented to me every day. I’m no Magritte, thank goodness; I’d need help carrying all that baggage. But like the Belgian master, I too look on a landscape with emotion, and in this painting, I tried to convey its power by breaking conventional reality into a dozen visions that seem to exist concurrently. Memory and reality blend to sum up my long relationship with this view and the home it represents.
After our move to Colorado, all I have left of that place — aside from the memories — is my rendering of the view, so I’m grateful I took the opportunity really study it. I also appreciate having a mentor in Magritte, how showed me how a landscape can be a testament loving something, and then losing it forever.
That’s the human condition.