Ravilious and Rembrandt at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Place in our modern world has been usurped by space, extended space, we’re always looking beyond the boundaries, for the next place along the line, rather than exploring where we stand….

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is all about place, about the artist’s acute sense of landscape, and all the man-made items (fields, chalk figures, fences, ships, propellers…) which give each landscape its identity.  I’m reminded of Finlay MacLeod’s wordlist drawn from the Isle of Lewis (see Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, pp16,17): recording a living landscape woven through with the workings of man over many ages.

Ravilious is painter re-creating landscape, but the sense of place is almost palpably real.

Also in the Dulwich gallery is Rembrandt’s A Girl at the Window. This is enigmatic, extraordinary, a simple place, by a window, real, and yet imagined. Place needn’t be landscape!

Barbara Hepworth (exhibition at Tate Britain, summer 2015) identified not with a specific landscape, but with the forms of landscape, the Yorkshire hills of her childhood, and the hills and tors and megaliths of west Cornwall. Place is internalised and abstracted, but the sense of connection remains, and Hepworth’s work is all the more powerful if we’re aware of that Cornish link.

Also at the Tate just at the moment – Tracey Emin’s bed. If ever there was ‘place’ it’s this… but it’s momentary, woman-made, personal. And with no connection with any external landscape. Place without history and connections other than what we can glean about her own life story. Very much a place for our own time.

She was asked by the Tate if she’d like to choose two paintings to place on the wall near her bed – a curious kind of installation, and all the more so given that she chose two Francis Bacon paintings, one of a woman slumped over a settee, the other of a dog. The images are cerebral, disturbing and simple, they have no history, and the dog indeed needs a circle drawn around it to give it any kind of ‘place’ at all.

We need a place outside ourselves, place with history and with future, place where we’re part of a continuum. Ravilious and Hepworth do of course freeze place in time, but at the same time they open our eyes as observers, they enhance the experience of place. And as they moved on, to the next painting, the next sculpture, so do we as observers.

But in the case of the Rembrandt I have to admit I’m loathe to move on! There’s something in her gaze, and we don’t know who she is… There is history there, and a future, an enigma we’ll never resolve.

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