The Landscape of the Heart
For many people there is, so to speak, a landscape of the heart. Generations of Northern Europeans have found their ideal on the shores of the Mediterranean in a Claudean paradise of golden light and rippling water. But there have also been those who found their spiritual homeland in the north, among fjords, seals, black rock, ice and snow.

William Morris, the 19th Century craftsman, designer and political theorist was one such; he never made the customary artistic pilgrimage to Italy, but instead made the great journey of his life to Iceland. Another contemporary example is the painter Mark Thompson.

Born in the dead flat plain of the Fens in Eastern England - he began as an abstract painter. But eventually, he found that his true preoccupation as a painter was landscape. (There has always been a close connection between landscape painting and abstraction, of course - Mondrian and Kandinsky found their landscapes turning into abstracts, Thompson’s evolved in the opposite direction). In recent years he has spent a number of months each year travelling - in northern places such as Norway, Finland, Iceland and Alaska. His purpose, he explains is ‘to go out into the landscape - being a sponge, soaking it up.’ The terrain he seeks out is characterised by its remoteness, and emptiness. Not only is it deserted, there is little sign that the hand of man has ever made a mark on it.

On returning to the studio, he starts to paint. But his object is not to depict a particular place, rather - as he puts it - ‘to find a place’. While travelling he makes photographs, drawings and above all written notes of what he sees. But the process of painting begins in a way that suggests an abstract expressionist such as Jackson Pollock rather that a topographical artist. There is, he says, ‘a lot of throwing the paint around, and a lot of pouring’.

Through that physical moving of the pigment, he tries to find the place he is looking for. ‘There’s always a picture inside your head, an internal landscape that you are trying to find an equivalent to in the external world’. So the result is in part a reconstruction of what he has seen, in part a discovery of the ideal he is searching for.

That method of working - reconstructing landscapes from memory back in the studio - is reminiscent of the german Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, a master of the past whom Thompson greatly admires. Friedrich was also born in a flat landscape - the Baltic coast, rather than the Fenland - and went on to paint more mountainous regions, in his case the peaks of Eastern Germany. Friedrich also made studies on the spot, but painted his final work in a bare studio with a view only of the sky, closing - it was said - his bodily eye so that he could bring into the light of darkness what he had seen in darkness.

Thompson’s painting is related to the drips and spatter of gestural abstraction, but also to the sublime tradition of landscape painting to which Friedrich and Turner belonged. In that tradition the viewer is confronted by the immensity and emptiness of the world - not by a real place, nor an unreal one either. What Thompson does, he says, is all ‘to do with the filter of memory’. What remains in the memory. Perhaps that is the essence of what has been seen, but also what was being sought out, the landscape of the heart.       

Martin Gayford. ESSAY
Wednesday, 1 May 2002