A landscape made by walking | ANTHI-DANAÉ SPATHONI

David Hockney, Bigger Trees Near Warter Or/Ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique as exhibited in the Tate.


On the eighteenth century gallery walls, paintings are "hung like sardines"[1]. The Salon of 1787 at the Louvre, engraving by Pietro Antonio Martini, shows how paintings were presented at the Salon in the Louvre’s salle carrée: no less than four rows of paintings cover the walls, from top to bottom. The room is filled with hundreds of paintings of all sizes, "the "best" pictures stay in the middle zone; small pictures drop to the bottom"[2]. As O'Dorothy points out, traditional painting reveals an image that creates an isolated entity in a perspective system[3]. The perspective gives the illusion of the painting-window, "a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with deep space”[4]. The heavy frame around the painting is enough to create a discontinuity of space: "there is no suggestion that the space within the picture is continuous with the space on either side of it"[5]. Landscape painting is the first to disrupt this tradition. It gradually cancels perspective and thus creates "an ambiguous surface"[6]. Turner, Monet and later, Kandinsky are the first to break with the past. Monet in particular not only changes the pictorial space but also modifies the exhibition space where the work is located (such as his Nymphéas, 1914-1926, in the musée de l’Orangerie). This example was followed by the Americans.

Americans’ abstract canvas, a field filled with colors all over, grows in size. The pictorial space is flat, without illusion of depth (spacelessness) or weight (weightlessness). The painting is reduced to a wall decoration. Abstract expressionists understand the picture plane as an integral part of the gallery’s architecture [7]. This new conception of the easel painting influences the real space in which the artwork is exhibited. The picture’s space is not to be found only within the limits of the canvas, it also includes the place where the picture hangs[8]. Painters are interested in the area around the painting. Abstract Expressionists “followed the route of lateral expansion, dropped off the frame, and gradually began to conceive the edge as a structural unit through which the painting entered into a dialogue with the wall beyond it” [9]. Rothko's painting leaves the impression that his squares float in an open and infinite space. The effect of each canvas continues in the canvas next to and in the gallery. Pollock's painting has no beginning and no ending. In contrast to the "autonomous" painting of the nineteenth century[10], what matters is the continuity between paintings as an ensemble.

Seventeenth century’s presentation can no longer exist in the twentieth century. Traditional museum galleries stifle abstract expressionist painting. The installation photographs of the Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Betty Parson Gallery in 1950 show how inadequate the gallery is for the new American painting[11]. Rooms are too small, paintings touch the floor and ceiling causing a glare effect (see the illustration of Peter Arno, New Yorker, September 23, 1961). Museum galleries have to adapt to this new reality. The gallery space is transformed into a white cube. Without windows and natural light, "a gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. […] The art is free “to take on its own life”” [12]. There is nothing that could disturb the viewer’s experience.

How can this experience affect spectator’s comprehension of the artwork?  In order to answer this question, we would like to focus on pictorial landscape painting. Even though nowadays, the discourse on landscape usually concerns Land Art, a land-scape-artwork created in the nature (in site) or in the gallery (off site), our research deals with landscape as a pictorial genre. Through the study of Cy Twombly, we would like to prove that walking, as an essential part of spectator's artistic experience in the gallery space, is not only the main practice that contributes to landscape’s perception but, most importantly, a modality and a condition of the 20th century pictorial landscape.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) inherits Abstract Expressionists’ tradition and adopts the large scale of the frameless canvas (with rare exceptions). He is also interested in architecture. As it can be seen in his correspondence with Paul Winker, director of the Menil Collection, Twombly expresses his views on architectural matters concerning the construction of his gallery in Houston[13]. He is interested in space, architecture and light. The Cy Twombly Gallery corresponds in this sense to white cube. The ceiling is the source of light, the galleries are white and, if we find some windows, they are always covered with a white veil. The Green Paintings (1988) and Untitled Painting (1994) are representative examples of the painting and white cube’s dialogue. Apart from the Twombly Gallery, a room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art was conceived for the artist’s 50 Days to Iliam (1978). Art also meets architecture in the Brandhorst Museum in Munich, where another room was especially created for Cy Twombly’s Lepanto (2001). This is actually why we would like to draw our attention to this last group of paintings. Lepanto will give us the opportunity develop further the relationship between painting, exhibition space and artistic experience. The series consisted of twelve canvases will also help us study landscape presented in an abstract pictorial vocabulary.


The naval battlefield, Lepanto

Twombly is inspired by the historical narrative of the battle of Lepanto, this important naval battle in European and world history named after in the Gulf of Patras in Greece, where it took place. In 1671, on October 7, the fleet consisted of Venetian Spanish, Maltese, Genoese and Savoyard galleys, is confronted with the Ottoman navy. The Turks are defeated. The Western forces (the Holy League) reunited by Pope Pius V, considered their victory as a victory of Christians over Muslims. This historic battle will stop Ottomans’ ambition of expansion to the Atlantic. Twombly does not seem to have in mind a particular historical reference. As Varnedoe points out, the description of the battle is the subject of several testimonies that all refer to a spectacle both scary and beautiful. Several maps of the seventieth century have been preserved and show each sequence of the battle. Twombly’s reference could also be a pictorial one, the tapestry of Doria Pamphilj Palazzo in Genoa[14]. Lepanto was presented in 2001 at the Venice Biennale and today, is permanently shown in Munich.

Twombly builds the series entirely on two motifs. First, he uses the boat motif inspired by a Celtic model: the painter draws two lines of an empty shell, crossed by straight lines which form its masts and oars. In fact, from a historical point of view, the battle of Lepanto is the last battle where rowing boats are used[15] - they will be replaced later by sailing ships. Without knowing if Twombly had this detail in mind, his ships full of oars become an homage to rowing galleys. Boats fill eight out of twelve canvases. The painter lets his boats float on a sky blue surface. From one canvas to another, the number of ships changes. Most of them are partly covered by strokes of paint. Twombly takes advantage of the liquidity of acrylic paint that marks the surface before it dries: thin lines of paint, unable to resist gravity spread all over the painting. The paintings get emotional intensity. In Part II and III, yellow and red paint give the impression of explosions. In VII and VIII, boats are covered by dense and dripping black paint. In the last group of canvases, ships are red as if they were immersed in fire. The second motif used is red and yellow petals which suggest blood, flames or huge teardrops reinforcing a feeling of disaster and mourning. The painter invites us to a naval battle narrative and a chaotic war atmosphere.

It is impossible to describe the series without describing the space that hosts it. Its installation is part of the work: the room is a semicircular polygon that allows a panoramic layout. Adapted to the white cube rules, as soon as the spectator enters the room, he is captured and astonished, not only by the paintings’ size, number and intense colors. He is also impressed by the dimensions of the room itself which create the ideal conditions for the work’s presentation.

Due to this space and painting dialogue, a visual appreciation of the paintings is not enough. In other words, paintings cannot be treated as traditional landscape paintings, as a mere object to contemplate, what Berleant would call a "panoramic landscape"[16]. According to the philosopher in the latter, as in any other traditional painting, space is produced by the conventions of linear perspective. Therefore, landscape presents a certain independence: within the borders of its framework, it exists autonomously, without trying to exceed its limits, it is a complete and objective totality, without the need of external intervention[17]. It offers the viewer a completely and exclusively visual experience. In order to appreciate the painting, painting requires that the spectator contemplates it from a distance. The viewer has his own space which is separated and distinct from the one on the canvas. This distance between him and the contemplated scene is preserved[18]: the viewer is excluded from the represented time-space. He is a remote observer disengaged, as Berleant would put it. It is a landscape to look at, without ever being able to set foot there.

Unlike panoramic landscape, from the first moment a visitor enters Lepanto’s room, he has to determine the subject, figure out the narrative and associate it with the historical events. In order to make this intellectual effort, a new mode of perception is required. Berleant proposes another type of landscape that he calls participative. This term is applied to landscape that invites the viewer to come closer, enter the pictorial space, become a part of the artwork:  discuss with the characters, continue their activities, follow the path painted by Guardi in his painting Piazza San Marco, as Berleant suggests[19]. Therefore, pictorial space and observer's space form one continuous and homogeneous whole[20]. The person in front of the canvas engage directly in the action: he no longer has the role of a mere spectator but that of a participant. This mode of perception, the participative mode, corresponds more than ever to the needs of contemporary painting spreading in the white cube. It seems the only valid mode of perception which could give us access to Lepanto. However, in order to approach Twombly's painting, the notion of participation should be reconsidered. As there are no more activities proposed by the canvas to take up, space suggests activities to the spectator as a part of an entire artistic experience that he has to grasp. Observer’s role becomes more decisive for landscape.

In the Brandhorst white cube, pictorial, gallery and visitor space are assimilated. This continuity allows to go from the canvas to the gallery and vice versa. This environment created by the work of art and the gallery room provides firstly a visual experience. Paintings invite the viewer for an observation from a close range in order to perceive them in detail: he must approach to discover all shapes, colors, lines. Indeed, space itself encourages visitor’s experimental moving around each painting. "The picture, no longer a passive object, issues instructions"[21], directs spectator’s body. The latter no longer asks himself only about the meaning of the painting, but wonders: "where am I supposed to stand? "[22]. By walking around the gallery space, his experience becomes physical as well. His kinesthetic perception modalities and his vestibular system are activated: “the kinesthetic sense involves muscular awareness and skeletal or joint sensation through which we perceive position and solidity by the degree of resistance that surfaces project: hard, soft, sharp, blunt, firm, yielding. And we grasp body movement indirectly through the vestibular system: the awareness of climbing and descending, turning and twisting, encountering obstruction and free passage”[23]. This experience of the body in the gallery space allows him to become aware of this environment and measure himself to space, paintings and other visitors of the museum. Although, ideally, viewer should experience the work alone, without being disturbed by other visitors who may be a source of noise or even a physical obstacle[24].

Combining those two activities, walking and observing, spectator can now perceive the series as a whole. By moving from the first to the twelfth canvas, the viewer follows the unfolding of the series in the room, he can "read" it from left to right, as in the Western writing tradition. At first sight, the series does not present a linear narrative, or not even a narrative at all. There is no beginning and no end; there is neither winner nor defeated[25]. We realize that Twombly interrupts his narration to bring in the petal-canvases. Every two or three paintings of boats, a canvas of petals (four in total) break the continuity. Thus he creates three distinct groups of boat-paintings which evoke a seascape but not yet a naval battle; we can only distinguish boats on a blue background "attacked" by painting.

Twombly functions like a filmmaker: he organizes the series into cinematographic sequences. The paintings look like episodes, different moments of the same scene, showing the evolution of the battle, from the first moment of the conflict to the complete destruction of the Ottoman navy. However, the viewer can understand the evolution of the story only if he follows the space and paintings’ instructions. The cinematic episodes are organized in a coherent and continuous story but, it is up to the spectator to create the film. He has to unite each one of the episodes, combine them with his knowledge and the historical context and then, position both fleets in front of him. The confrontation is therefore evoked by the spectator who transforms the gallery’s real space into a battlefield. As the large canvases surround and encompass the viewer’s entire field of vision, he becomes part of the “environment in an interpenetration of body and place"[26]. The spectator ends up in the picture[27]: in the time and place of the space, he is part of the naval battle.

The seascape evoked by the canvas is materialized, it has a physical presence in the gallery space as an extension of the pictorial surface. By borrowing the neologism of Gibson, affordance (what the environment can give to an animal, what it can offer (afford) to the observer[28]), landscape is the affordance of the white cube. Thus, landscape can only be afforded with and through this contribution of the viewer: there is neither battle nor landscape without his presence, his involvement creates everything. If the viewer has always been a condition of landscape’s existence ("no landscape without spectator"[29]), his experience of space becomes a necessary condition for landscape’s perception: there is no landscape without walking, without experiencing the space. Wrapped visually, intellectually and physically, he is not a mere spectator but a walker, an explorer and an observer, an active agent who both creates and is part of the work, a committed participant who must remain active and in motion[30] ; landscape becomes participatory.


Walking in David Hockney’s landscapes 

In figurative painting, walking can still be an essential part of landscape painting’s appreciation and perception. In this case, walking can be an experience suggested by the painting, taking place in the canvas’ pictorial space (activity/invitation to the spectator to walk along the painting) David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, 1980, could be a characteristic example. The artist, who has spent his entire life painting landscapes, paints a monumental picture (218.44 × 617.22 cm) to present the road or more precisely the drive from Hollywood Hills to his studio[31]. The canvas looks like a childish drawing or a collage of colored papers where each motif is added independently. No convention of traditional and figurative representation is presented. The perspective vanishes, the horizon is replaced by a serpentine line which, instead of stabilizing the composition, sets it in motion. This is how he smashes traditional perspective and engages in a new representation of space. The landscape is just a set of colorful lines, curves and brushstrokes. As most of large scale twentieth century paintings, an important space is created in and around the painting which involves spectator's participation and a certain time to contemplate it. The viewer is invited to follow the wavy line from one end to the other and to walk on it. Hockney’s personal experience of driving, now becomes a space-time experience offered to us. These two notions, experience and active spectator, become important aspects of Hockney’s landscape in the years to come. In the 90s, he continues to paint roads (Garrowby Hill, 1998) that appear to us another example of what Berleant defines as "participatory landscape". Hockney seduces his viewer inside the canvas. The spectator must participate, take the path to the end, until he gets lost in the hills of Garrowby.

Walking can be a part of aesthetic experience offered by the gallery space and the figurative painting as well (walking around the painting) as seen in the Twombly’s abstract paintings. In 2007, Hockney presents the largest painting he has ever painted up to now (16x4m), Bigger Trees Near Warter Gold / Or Painting sur le motif For The New Post-Photographic Age. As the title reveals, the painting is done sur le motif, outdoors. Yet in order to get there, Hockney used digital photography and other photographic techniques that allowed him to create a painting of such imposing dimensions[32]. The resulting picture of trees seems unnatural, flat, artificial, childish and, at the same time, a real space created in the white cube to evoke the landscape and offer its experience to the viewer. As it is the case of abstract landscape, the viewer is placed in the landscape and walks around it.

After embracing those aspects of spectator’s aesthetic practice, walking is proved not only to influence viewer’s approach and attitude towards the work of art, but also to determine the understanding of the painting. In particular, as far as abstract and figurative landscape painting is concerned, walking becomes a modality of a new contemporary landscape and a necessary condition to its perception; in other words, paraphrasing Richard Long, landscape is made by walking.



Anthi-Danaé Spathoni has recently obteined her PhD in Aesthetics and Art History in the University of Rennes 2 (France). Having studied literature and art history in Greece and France, she is former visitor scholar at the University of Texas (under the supervision of Mr. Richard Shiff) and at the Universität der Künste Berlin (under the supervision of Ms Martina Dobbe). Her research focuses on the work of Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter and treats the idea of landscape in abstraction in a multidisciplinary context, art history, poetry and photography.


[1] O’Doherty B., Inside the white cube, Larkspur, Ca., Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Lapis Press, 1976, p. 19.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] “Each picture was seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbor by a heavy frame around and a complete perspective system within. Space was discontinuous and categorizable. just as the houses in which these pictures hung had different rooms for different functions.” Ibid., p. 16.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 19.

[6] Ibid., p. 19.

[7] Donnell R.Z., « Space in Abstract Expressionism », The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1964, vol. 23, no 2, p. 239‑249, p.240.

[8] O’Doherty B., Inside the white cube, op. cit., p. 39.

[9] Ibid., p. 27.

[10] Ibid., p. 34.

[11] TEMKIN A., “Abstract Expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art”, Temkin A. et Museum of modern art, Abstract expressionism at the Museum of modern art: selections from the collection :, New York, Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Museum of modern art, 2010. 18.

[12] O’Doherty B., Inside the white cube, op. cit., p. 15.

[13] Paul Winker claims that as well in the Pompidou 2016 exhibition catalogue; Storsve J. (dir.), Cy Twombly, Paris, France, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, DL 2016, 2016., p. 56.

[14] Ibid.; the tapestry was designed by Lazzaro Calvi and Luca Cambiaso in 1581-82. Like in Twombly’s version, the story is told through six large tapestries that cover the walls: different episodes summarize the whole operation: I) The Departure from Messina, II) The Navigation along the Calabrian Coastline, III) The Line-Up of the Fleets, IV) The Battle, V) The Christian Victory and the Flight of Seven Turkish Galleys, VI) The Return of the Fleet to Corfu.) A characteristic of the tapestry is the boat alignment. The tapestry shows boats of different sizes in perspective, another point shared with Twombly. The tapestry that represents the battle is full of boats. In the fourth, we cannot precisely distinguish each boat, as is the case in the eighth panel of twomblian Lepanto where the boats are covered by paint.

[15] See Stevens, William Oliver. A History of Sea Power. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942

[16] Berleant A., Art and engagement, Philadelphia, Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Temple University Press, 1991, p.63.

[17] Ibid., p. 64.

[18] Ibid., p. 63.

[19] Ibid., p. 66.

[20] Ibid., p. 70.

[21] O’Doherty B., Inside the white cube, op. cit., p. 55, 61.

[22] Ibid., p. 55, 61.

[23] Berleant A., « L’art de connaître un paysage », Diogène, traduit par Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, 26 avril 2012, no 233‑234, p. 74‑90, p.79 ; for the English version : « The Art in Knowing a Landscape », Diogenes 59(1-2):52-62, August 2013.

[24] Particularly, the room in Brandhorst has only two benches, arranged far enough from the canvases to leave the space open. This allows the viewer to be absorbed by the experience.

[25] Howard R. et K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: Lepanto, New York, Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Gagosian Gallery, 2001. 37.

[26] Berleant A., « L’art de connaître un paysage », Ibid., p. 79

[27] Ibid., p. 39.

[28] « The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides, furnishes, either for good or ill”, Gibson J.J., The ecological approach to visual perception, New York, Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Royaume-Uni de Grande-Bretagne et d’Irlande du Nord, 1986.,p.127.

[29] According to the french dictionaries of the 17th century as the study of François-Pierre Tourneux shows, landscape is defined as « étendue de pays que l’on voit d’un seul aspect » (see « De l'espace vu au tableau ou les définitions du mot paysage dans les dictionnaires de langue française du XVIIème au XIXème siècle » in ROGER A. (dir.), La théorie du paysage en France, 1974-1994, Seyssel, France, Champ vallon, 1995, mainly p. 196- 198). As Pierre-Henry Frangne and Patricia Limido remark « que l’on voit », that we see it, means that “there is no landscape without viewer” (Frangne P.-H. et P. Limido-Heulot (dir.), Les inventions photographiques du paysage, Rennes, France, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2016, p. 9.) The subject that sees is a condition of the landscape itself.

[30] As seen in Gibson, perception presupposes an active observer in movement; Goldstein E.B., « The Ecology of J. J. Gibson’s Perception », Leonardo, 4 janvier 2017, vol. 14, no 3, p. 191195, p. 192.

[31] Actually, Hockney proposed to his friends a ride by car accompanied by music. He used to follow the rhythm and drive adapting his speed. That was a landscape experience with music. (Maidment S., D. Hockney, B. Bolt, L. Bowen, E. Devaney, et M. Gayford, David Hockney: current, Melbourne, Vic., Australie, National Gallery of Victoria, 2016., p.35).

[32] “Working in stages, Hockney sought directness and spontaneity by painting en plein air but inevitably limited the number of canvases he could work on at any one time. As they were worked on the individual panels were photographed and the photographs made into a computer mosaic, to allow the artist to chart progress on the composition as a whole as he only had space to display six to ten canvases together in his small studio in Bridlington. The canvases were variously reworked, transported back and forth from the studio to the site for subtle modifications that would enhance and strengthen the complete composition.” http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-bigger-trees-near-warter-or-ou-peinture-sur-le-motif-pour-le-nouvel-age-post-t12887 (accessed 05/4/2018).