A tour past the old masters, pastoral landscapes and traces through paint
I am sucked in by a panorama. My mind is filled with memories of a landscape I once dwelled in. I’m exploring the environment on the canvas like a traveller, working my way through the painted landscape. My eyes walk the relief of the skin of paint, scan its lines, directions and structures, meet colours and layers as if they were walking feet. I come across a series of close-ups and have to retreat, looking for subtle distortions in the rhythm of the whole. Just as quickly I have to take a step forward again, closer to details, thirsty for more of that indefinable atmosphere. This is how I experienced an unguarded moment during a recent visit to the studio of Yves Beaumont (b. 1970, Ostend, Belgium).
Ever since his debut this artist has steadily explored ways of translating the timeless power of nature to canvas in a contemporary way. When we take a brief look at the rich European history of landscape painting, it is obvious that this is a tricky mission. There are alternating periods of realism, idealisation and romanticism. Beaumont especially has an affinity with the latter. There we see Ruysdael and Rembrandt, who were the first to break through straightforward registration and season their 17th-century landscapes with pathos and melancholy. Constable, C.D. Friedrich and Turner built up the drama even more in the beginning of the nineteenth century, making the romantic landscape the mirror of the soul. In the late nineteenth century, the emphasis moved to experiencing nature itself. The Barbizon School and the impressionists focussed on the idea and/or feeling that came to them ‘en plein air’ during their observations and tried to find a visual language that could catch the fleetingness of their impressions. The “Mont Sainte-Victoire’ series of Cézanne with its powerful lines, Mondrian’s ‘Apple Tree’ series, which evolves towards an ever more extreme abstraction, the angular Flemish expressionist depiction of the countryside and the unruly and tactile subtleties of Raoul De Keyzer are some examples of how the artistic view on the landscape increasingly alienated from reality as the twentieth century progressed. The landscape became an individual interpretation and appeared in its poetic form.
To discover this different, rather more detached dimension, one merely needs to give a subject slightly more attention than the usual quick, passing glance. Then the branch suddenly becomes a vein that meanderingly melts into a rippling surface of water. Cracks in the ice hide the thickness of a layer of frost, give the impression of depth and fade into infinity. The glint of light reflecting on the surface of the ocean grows along with a wave and becomes a panorama. The line of a chalk cliff stands out against its backdrop, but is abruptly swallowed by the abyss a bit further on. It is stimuli like these, bordering on the spiritual, that feed Beaumont’s imagination. This poetic dimension, stripped of the sentimental overtones of romanticism and freed from the torment of the sublime experience, is experienced most clearly in those vast and desolate areas where nature is still unspoilt, but the private mystery behind the organic overgrowth of a dark forest or the structure of a fragment of bark can fill the artist with a hint of melancholy as well.
Is Beaumont driven by an unstoppable urge to be free? Does his active mind find peace and harmony in the tristesse of the desolate scenery? Does the artist occasionally enjoy being overcome with a bittersweet nostalgia? Whatever the case may be, the documentation he assembles while he is there shows that the first impressions are complex and layered. Photos are shrouded in suggestive openness. His studies are more baroque and organic than the final result on canvas.
Back in his studio, he can channel this experiential chaos. He critically reflects on the view, interpretation and memory of the landscape he has so closely observed. He strips away specific details and begins to develop a more universal synthesis. In this synthesis he incorporates not only his view on the perceived image, but also a very conscious reflection on the act of painting itself. How and where can paint be added or scraped away? Can a new layer of paint cover another one, or should it be kept transparent to preserve the organic flow of colours and shapes underneath? Is another layer even necessary? The act of painting leaves traces. The skin of paint slowly acquires its definitive relief. With intuitive gestures and careful precision he makes small adjustments to the process of distilling and crystallising that which is important. He patiently traces the boundary between the barely recognisable reality of a forest and the abstract chiaroscuro of four black and pale green triangles. A black line on a bare white canvas could be a geometric abstract work, but acquires concrete meaning as a horizon within the context of his oeuvre. The height of a horizon is shifted from high to low and back. The artist keeps pondering until he finds the balance between reality and pictoriality. The image he creates should allow the viewer to feel, to approach the way he himself has experienced the original landscape.
As Beaumont’s work evolves, we can see the internal connections surfacing. His alternation between wide panoramas that show the landscape in its infinite vastness and close-ups that focus mainly on the structure of details in the landscape suggests an eclectic approach to the overall theme, but out of these micro-views and macro-perspectives emerge images with a strong formal relationship. A group of tree trunks in a dense forest could be the mirror image of reeds in close-up. The capricious structure of olive branches generates a visual echo of the waterfall we saw in his earlier work. Subjects, views and ideas are reused. Picture elements are adjusted. The morphological language dances back and forth on the thin rope between figuration and abstraction. Paint becomes a new skin, with different imperfections and emphases. We see variations on a theme appearing. The timelessness of the landscape, that dual spirit of awe and admiration, of both being a tiny part of a totality and seeing the whole, the identity of the artist who takes a firm grip on the subject matter and a straight course along artistic choices, make the multiplicity of Beaumont’s work consistently fascinating.