From its birth over a hundred years ago and gradual decline to the present day, the life-breath seems to eventually been taken from the movement ‘plein-air’. The demise, fostered by neglect on the part of the established contemporary art world, and what is probably worse, the hijacking of the genre by commercial graphic designers has taken that last great humanist artistic challenge and subverted it to match the emptiness that represents the core of much contemporary art.
Plein-air painting, defined here as working in the open air, relies on direct perception. It therefore has no need for the literary, or conceptual, intellect that plays such an important role in most other contemporary art. Without the literary level of interpretation, plein-air work must rely solely on the painted surface to convey a meaning. The plein-air image must exist on an emotional, pre-linguistic level if it is to hold any meaning at all.
The 19th Century Plein-Air movement represented an important shift in the history of painting: a revelation of meaning and aesthetic depth without reliance on anything but the picture surface and translation of the landscape in front of the artist. This point of conscious deliberation gave new impetus to the painted mark as gestural expression. The prescribed meanings and structures of the institutional art academies were overcome, restoring the capacity of the painted image to express direct, emotional depth. Over the next century, from this starting point, experimentation and the need to break down older structures of meaning extended boundary lines in terms of the way we understand painting. Rich new techniques and possibilities for using paint evolved because the conscious act of looking created an understanding of the purely abstract forms of painting.
Eventually, this very process of understanding conjured the literary imagination and started to bury that initial freedom beneath a new literary web of imposed meaning. Contemporary painting, within the dominant genre of conceptual art, has become prescriptive and relies on a very developed art community structure for success or failure. The picture ‘or objects’ only meaning is the framework of belief that is created through critical interpretation. Analysis and commentary become the justification for the work, the translation of the image into written language becoming more important than simple visual interpretation, the ability to look from subject to object and, in truth, a realization of the abyss of self-hood that we are all trying to so desperately avoid. The result of imposed meaning is a barrier to the act of looking, leaving the viewer unable to develop a creative, personal relationship with the work. Once again we can see a new Academia reigning over the way we experience art.
Purely perceptual painting is currently placed outside of the art academy structures, and is the low art counterpoint to the glorious and triumphant modernist experiment. (This fact is also reminiscent of the place Alla-Prima painting occupied when compared to its High Art counterparts on the walls of the fashionable, 19th Century, French salon.) The worst of this, again is that many so called plein-air painters are actively re-enforcing their low art image actively purporting an anti-intellectual bias, but in its most naive sense.
But the point and the analogy, even within the many points of conflict in this short dialogue, is the fertile ground and potential that this situation creates to look at plein-air in a fresh and meaningful way. The plein-air movement spanning our great Modernist experiment, the open air painting technique with all its deceptive simplicity is now liberated from strictures of a traditional framework of meaning. The irony being that plein-air has the potential to hold the abstract mark, an emotional dialogue crafted through gesture, that most contemporary painting has lost the ability to do!
One thing can be said, within all movements and ism’s, when painting comes from the heart, and taps into this fundamental emotional energy, something truly exciting and memorable happens. It can also be said that when a particular movement taps into this ground swell, all barriers of intellectual meaning are broken and the work becomes truly democratic and capable of appreciation on the highest to lowest levels of understanding.
The massive interest in plein-air painting at the hobby level, and the increasing publicity given to a lively and growing movement is starting to attract the occasional serious painter. Many landscape painters have also worked over the years with a certain will to give us their particular vision of the world; often outside of that area of comfort where the excepted ism’s of the day are nurtured by the art market. These painters have picked up the dialogue in the wake of a vacuum of meaning in our current generation. This has not happened in a preconceived fashion, but like the hobbyist’s fascination with the landscape, a spontaneous outpouring of creativity. It is hoped that the cynical ‘picture’ and ‘object’ makers are shown up for the savvy businessmen and cultural wreckers that they really are and we can get back to a serious dialogue within the arts as a foundation for any continuing relevance of the visual arts.