Places for being happy

Is it possible to carry out observational painting, landscape painting, in a studio? Of course it is: you just have to focus on what you are trying to do with this particular form of painting.

In the days of old, a landscape was something in the background of a fighting army, through the window behind the Mona Lisa, or around Christ's passion. The painting had a main focus: an important depiction of human activity or features; a landscape quintessentially was used to mark an atmosphere, yet its very existence strived to remind the viewer of the fact that what was depicted took place in the world.

The primary elements of paintings - biblical figures, and costumes and objects related to people, were strictly defined; they were iconography, and learned viewers were able to read the images. There was no need to interpret a landscape on a literary level; it was used for emphasising - in a more subconscious manner - the spirit in which the painting was to be viewed. Although the presence of the landscape sought to remind the viewer of the fact that the depicted actions really took place in the world, it was not the idea that the painted landscape could have been used as an instrument of orientation in reality. In most cases, landscapes were painted from memory: from the memory where the feeling of looking in the world was stored. The strict codex within the image did not include the point that revealed the painter's own personality.

When landscape painting became an independent form of art, it still was not meant to refer to a single location, an address in the world. It showed the best place, the optimal, the ideal, the objective. The landscape in a painting was better than any landscape in the world. The painting was assembled from separate elements, sketched at different times. The landscape was, above all, a pastoral, a rural landscape, nature that was to some extent "cultivated", surrounding and filling everything on the pictorial plane. An individual element to catch the gaze in order to fulfil the old laws of painting was often felt to be necessary: a shepherd, a cart or a ship in the horizon might suffice.

But it may well be that what feels the most extraordinary and beyond words when looking at a purebred landscape painting is the fact that there is no focus, no centre where everything comes together. In the middle of the landscape and as the primary object of being depicted is a void: an area that is only revealed by an external factor, delineated by the surrounding canopy or the pigments of the earth or the water. A void that swallows the viewer.

When artists began to paint landscapes as recognisable locations that were different from other places, in the spirit of the Zeitgeist that strived for scientific classification, the ideal objective was an accurate depiction that yet managed to highlight the benefits of the object. Places were named, and when they were assigned a location they were also culturised, arriving a little closer to the human system rather than the opposite. It was part of the same trend when artists realised that there were also landscapes in cities. They soon found out that these were also in high demand. Recognisable, accurately depicted urban places attracted many buyers. Indeed, the identity of an urbanising, modernising person was linked to detailed locations that carried personal meaning.

Landscapes were observed to the extent that they became a touchstone for artists: it was thought that everything a painting could express could be expressed through a landscape. The painter went to the landscape, and painted what he saw, at one go, into a finished painting. The landscape defined the elements in the painting, and the contribution of the artist was crystallised after the act of painting, into the manner of observing and emphasising certain elements more intensively than others. A good painting was to show good taste and judgment. This was so commonplace that even today, if we wish to imagine an artist, what we get is often the archetypal artist painting the riverside and the play of the sunlight on the church facade in the open air, with his brush on a canvas in an easel. The beret is great headgear if you consider the changing weather conditions: there is no rim which the wind might catch.

The "interpretation" of a landscape through painting was totally relevant and an honest artist's job, the art of conveying viewing - but there was also a poorer standard of landscape painting. Some artists succumbed to serial production, creating tourist paintings. The good can be separated from lesser quality by focusing on the choices made by the artist when depicting the landscape. The first criterion is, of course, that the artist has managed to present the object as something of interest also as an image. In addition, you can observe whether the artist repeats the same effects as a standard solution. Thus, we become more interested in the choices made by the artist, their "interpretation" rather than the landscape depicted. Today, this subtlety of interpretation and discretion, the divergent and original implementation, seems to gain even more emphasis, as there can be any number of digital snapshots of the landscape object, and before that, as numerous analogous snapshots - which all look almost the same.

The process of landscape painting returning to being the emotional instance of the artist or the viewer subject, instead of analysing the characteristics of a given object, is such a strong revisit that even abstract expression is quite easily described as "landscape-like", particularly if it lacks a single central focus. We can talk about mental landscapes. The mind that experiences and the landscape are indeed comparable. The landscape is expecting to be fulfilled.

Can you get to landscape painting today?

As a contemporary painter, Maaria Märkälä has dropped herself somewhere around here in the story of landscape painting. As Märkälä decided to make the visual arts her career only after taking her time and thinking about the possibility, she must have pursued a clear desire to paint, especially landscapes; she must have felt that she has something to contribute to this particular tradition. A young art student often wants to be an artist in some way, without quite knowing yet how; experimenting with genres and materials may take most of their years of study.

Yet she is closely attached to the observational tradition of the visual arts. Depicting what you see and experience is enough for a visual artist to make a job. It helps if you know how to get thrilled by what you see. Berlin made a big impact on Märkälä early in her career as an artist. And when we view the paintings, it may well be possible that we can share some of the thrill of what Märkälä experienced in the city she loved.

When working in Berlin, Märkälä rented a car and drove around, stopping whenever she saw something she wanted to paint. The city was not yet familiar to her, so she did not select an object by locally known historical or social value, or any pre-defined artistic theme. Instead, she chose an object for its potential to convey an emotion that escaped words, something she felt.

That is why Märkälä's method of painting, reminiscent of expressionism (one of the centres of which Berlin happens to be) is consistent; the thick, almost edible, colour in her paintings manifests that the painting is not trying to hide in the background. The paint as a substance, the form of which reveals the speed in which it was spread, manifests in every fraction of a second of the viewing session that what we see here is a part of the world reconstructed with paint, possibly improved: witness the miracle of the illusion. The magician shows her tricks, and, oddly enough, this is exactly what makes the trick so impressive, as in puppetry when the puppeteers are visible.

Märkälä composes her works so that something is often framed beyond the border of the canvas; she hints that the world does continue outside the image, but on the other hand, there is often a more focused object of gaze in her paintings. In this way, the work indicates how observation entails a cognitive feature. We know almost before seeing it that we are watching a "chair", a tree, a certain person, or the Brandenburg Gate. Only after that - if we are fortunate - we may notice how the object also has colour in addition to having a name and a significance, and how the light falls on it.

By emphasising light, which, halted by the thick paint substance, muddles the clearest, stereotypical observation of the form of the object, Märkälä reminds us of the dependence that viewing, experiencing, comprehending and, ultimately, "understanding" have on optical matters dependent of the mechanics of the senses; we are physical beings, not merely thoughts.

Märkälä has painted outdoors, in front of the object. In this way, the object is constantly feeding directions for the artist with regard to arrangement.

Today, Märkälä constructs her paintings in the studio. This enables her to make larger paintings than would have been possible even moving about outdoors. But, at the same time, she is dependent on memories of the landscape stored inside her head during, say, a bike tour. Thus, there is no clear instructive framework readily available for observation in front of the painter. Painting a landscape is no longer an act of comparing the image to reality, and it may also be of some importance that the painting can now be horizontal rather than a window "replicating" the landscape alongside. Painting becomes a somewhat freer construction, following the structures of the landscape; structures which Märkälä masters with such fluency. Varying this aspect may result in construing emotions more freely. The messages conveyed by the painting are like these: light, space, colour, reflection, air, wind, temperature.

Paintings created in a studio may contain several layers that the viewer knows nothing about; in the bottom there may be, for example, bursts of frustration familiar to everyone, forming a base for the landscape. Märkälä wants to paint, to bring out the good on the top, so the process must end in something hopeful, full of oxygen and life, light, even what is beautiful.

Märkälä does not deny a certain amount of stylistic tradition that links her to historical expressionism, but she wonders if it is the expressed emotion that separates her from the tradition, as for the most part these have been negative, mapping wrongness or anguish.

Space is everything

When we are at the edge of a landscape painting, which is what Märkälä seems to be approaching, the thing being depicted, that is, the space forming in the landscape, cannot be expressed by anything other than what surrounds it, what delimits it and what is left outside it. Looked at the other way round: Märkälä's landscape paintings do not primarily depict the foliage, the surface of the earth or water, or the piece of sky that the colours on the painting surface denote, but the space that emerges in between and because of these elements. In addition to this, there are all the various optical laws of painting: certain colours, generally perceived as warm, seem to approach the viewer, while cooler colours retreat deeper, further away.

The landscape is, almost by definition, the space into which man is entering next. And as man enters that space, the landscape becomes something else. Yet a painting has the ability to retain the landscape in that very moment of entering it. Good landscape painting is one of the most dynamic types of image, and one that it is difficult to tire of. You step into it through your eyes constantly, endlessly. However, a painting needs to be composed, you cannot "take" a painting in the same way as you take a photograph. Therefore, the space emerging in a painting is of a special type, as it is at the same time a "space gift" offered by another human being.

Painting with a knife is construction with colour; it is like building a wall in the sense that it involves placing lumps of material in layers. One gets a feeling of concealing and walling something up, while something else is being revealed. This is one of the most characteristic features in all painting work, starting from that of a house painter - even though this is often forgotten in art painting. A logical consequence of this technical aspect of painting, and a justified phase in the history of the artist's career, was Märkälä's wall paintings. These paintings did not just present a plaster-like surface (in which city would a wall be more appropriate than in Berlin?), but they were the plaster-like surface, the kind that they depicted. There is no colour-optical illusion of depth, only a gaze-stopping surface onto which one can, of course, project things - like onto a landscape.

But, ultimately, the very idea that a painting is a version of a seen and experienced place in the world lies at the very essence of visual arts, to the extent that any theorisation is likely to get stuck in a rut.

To Märkälä, the world includes objects, good ones that simply must be depicted through painting, not least because they make such good paintings. The city is man-made, nature is not. When Märkälä paints urban nature, she paints that most difficult, and most inaccessible, human predicament: being simultaneously a culturally and naturally, "genetically" bred creature. Painting from observation is an activity that falls in the middle ground between careful composition on one side and a quest for "pure", that is, highly non-conceptualised perception on the other. The essence and subject of painting seem to be tightly bundled into one, in the complex, and therefore, to us, endlessly fascinating and beautiful, no-man's land between culture and nature. Reproducing what one sees through painting or drawing is really a sign of being alive. Märkälä seems to be painting a lot, and it is her painting that shows a human being in progress.

Pessi Rautio

The Editor-in-Chief of Taidelehti