Nathalie Grenzhaeuser’s different approach to landscape painting

The Old Masters of landscape painting went out into the countryside or undertook long journeys where they made in situ sketches that in the studio were later the basis for meticulously composed paintings. Nathalie Grenzhaeuser takes a similar approach using the resources available today. Her ‘sketches’ are photos taken for the most part in remote places. Using digital editing, she creates compositions that point beyond the specific place and time, and give the original motif a universal validity. This occurs by means of selected retouching, mirroring, changes made to the alignment of objects or manipulations of the spatial perspective.

The digital manipulations also have their historical predecessors, for example the ‘Claude-Glass’. British travellers who in the course of the 18th century discovered more and more of the beauty of their country loved to look at nature through a convex, dark-tinted mirror that transformed the Scottish highlands into an idyllic, Lorrain-style Italian landscape.

Landscape painting is not the portrayal of existing landscapes, but rather provides a framework by which landscape can actually perceived as such. This is conveyed by an anecdote about the origin of this genre, which the painter Edward Norgate wrote around 1650:

“A Gentleman of Antwerp being a great ‘Liefhebber’ (Virtuoso or Lover of Art) returning from a long Journey he had made about the country of Liege and Forrest of Ardennes, comes to visit his old friend, an ingenious painter of that city, whose house and company he usually frequented. The Painter he finds at his easel – at work which he very diligently intends, while his newcomer friend, walking by, recounts the adventures of his long journey, and with all what cities he saw, what beautiful prospects he beheld in a country of a strange citation, full of Alpine rocks, old castles, extraordinary buildings, etc. With which relation (growing long) the prompt and ready painter was so delighted as, unregarded by his walking friend, he lays by his work, and on a new table begins to paint what the other spoke, describing his description in a more legible and lasting character then the others words. In short, by that time the gentleman had ended his long discourse, the painter had brought his work to that perfection, as the gentleman at parting, by chance casting his eye that way, was astonished with wonder to see those places and that country so lively expressed by the painter as if he had seen with his eyes or been his companion in the journey.” 1

Ernst H. Gombrich cited this anecdote in his essay “The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape” (1950). He suggests that it is the narrator’s “acquaintance with the painter’s work – we are free to interpolate – which attuned his mind to the sights of the trip. His enumeration of ‘beauty spots’ was already conditioned by the images he had seen before in the paintings of his friend.” 2

How independent of topographical reality this programming could be was shown by the exhibition Böhmen liegt am Meer (Bohemia is at the seaside) in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which was dedicated to the “invention of landscape around 1600”: “Artists such as Herri Bles, Pieter Bruegel or Hendrick Goltzius used their studies of nature merely as a starting point for new, fantastic landscape ensembles that primarily turn out to be constructions of individual fragments of reality”, which, according to the curator Thomas Ketelsen, “appear almost modern in view of the most recent digital working methods”. 3

However, when digitally edited landscapes based on photographs, are reminiscent of paintings dating back to 1600, not only because of the technique but also the aesthetic, it is indeed an anomaly. The overt collaging of different scenarios actually only occurs when the fictive, fantastic nature of the landscape is highlighted, and it is intended to appear as a product of the imagination. In order that a landscape be perceived and accepted as being a “copy” of nature, it must fulfil the demands of photographic representation, or what was in the past considered ‘true-to-life’. This principle applied as far back as the 17th century in Holland, as Bärbel Hedinger writes: “for the contemporaries of that period every landscape painting was considered successful if it merely conveyed the impression that it was entirely based on life itself, although this effect could by all means be created artificially.” What looks like an exact depiction of a Dutch landscape is ultimately a fabrication of the ‘natural’. The “supposed naturalism, or even depictions of realism, is in many respects an idealizing, poetic realism that alters the reality of experience, replacing it with fictions and lending it artistic accreditation.” 4

It was Jacob van Ruisdael who took poeticizing the furthest. He not only painted views of Haarlem that appeared topographically accurate, but also the ruins of famous Jewish cemeteries, which would be suitable for illustrating a spine-chilling romantic, late eighteenth century Gothic novel. Ruisdael inspired many Romantic landscape painters including Caspar David Friedrich.

Romantic topoi also play a formative role when previously unknown regions are incorporated into the picture. Carleton Watkins is considered to be the photographic explorer of the American West. “In 1861 he explored the Yosemite Valley, which was recently discovered in 1856—and using large plates, he captured the romantic sense of the sublime, magnificent untouched nature evokes in the modern viewer.” 5 No one had seen the Yosemite Valley before - but in order to perceive something, a model of perception is required. In 1878 Watkins photographed the “Agassiz Column”, an oblong, huge projection of stone that is located in the foreground of the picture like one of Friedrich’s trees. It is improbable that Caspar David Friedrich had a direct influence here, because for decades he was almost forgotten in Germany following his death in 1840. Nevertheless, Watkins also had pictures ‘in mind’ that ‘framed’ the pictures of the places he travelled to, and for which there was no well-established pictorial tradition. This also applied to the Dutch painter Frans Post, who participated in an expedition to Brazil between 1636 and 1644. His South American landscapes look like Dutch landscapes, in which palm trees and exotic animals have gone astray.

Such transferences can be found time and again, and Lucius Burckhardt aptly writes: “What do discoverers discover? They doubtlessly discover strange plants and animals, as well as interesting geological formations, coasts, mountains, waterfalls. However, what they doubtlessly do not discover are new landscapes because a landscape follows a predetermined code, it is a culturally developed perspective of something we have all already seen.” 6

Does Nathalie Grenzhaeuser discover ‘new’ landscapes when she sets off for the wintry, barren Spitsbergen region or the vast coast of Australia? Or does she also follow existing codes? What do we see in her pictures? A ruinous wooden construction and other planks and boards in a wintry landscape (Treibgut / Flotsam, see p. 7), a windowless building standing alone in desolate surroundings, the function of which remains ambiguous (Winkelstation / Corner Station, see p. 13), a conveyor plant behind high piles of snow (Schmelze / Melt, see p. 15), a harbour bay with industrial facilities in the background (Port Augusta Coal, see p. 39), a crater that is obviously the result of coal mining in the midst of a mountain range (Leigh Creek Coal, see p. 43) or a scarcely discernable entanglement of conveyor belts leading in all directions that involuntarily reminds one of a rollercoaster (Port Headland Iron Ore, see p. 61). This photograph shows particularly clearly how the original motif is transformed by duplication and the addition of different lines of vision, into a kaleidoscopic, fragmented space that cannot be restored to any kind of uniform perspective.

At first glance this appears to be different, in the case of Big Bell Loop (see p. 69). Initially, the only unusual thing appears to be the large number of attic-storey insulating mats lying around on the floor of the partially destroyed building. However, the closed space we seem to look into is not the one that was visible in reality. A closer look reveals individual motifs that reappear in another part of the picture, followed by the realization that it is a diagonal reflection; in other words, the pictorial plane is quasi folded in upon itself.

Such methods of doublings and duplications can be compared to manipulations of the natural outdoor environment, of the kind made by Robert Smithson in 1969 with his Mirror Displacements. Instead of looking at nature in a mirror, for example through the Claude-Glass, he positioned mirrors in different alignments in the countryside, so that the reflected sections of the environment supplemented and duplicated the natural surroundings but at the same time tended to merge with them. Nathalie Grenzhaeuser sets the mirrors inside the picture itself so to speak, making it even more difficult for the viewer to differentiate between the various planes.

If one is attuned to the perceptual pattern of “Land Art”, associations with other works by Robert Smithson arise when viewing Grenzhaueuser’s works. Andamooka Opal 1 (siehe S. 49) for example, is reminiscent of the circular shape of Spiral Jetty. The machinery in the pit is also reminiscent of the construction vehicles digging and filling earth in order to create the spiral in Smithson’s Film about Spiral Jetty.

The internalized “codes” that Grenzhaeuser’s pictures evoke are not predominantly the pictorial compositions by Claude Lorrain or other landscape painting classics. In this sense, her approach is clearly different from that of other artists in her generation such as Beate Gütschow, who some years ago also presented photographs to the public that had undergone careful digital editing. Gütschow’s landscape motifs with their subtly-contrived groups of trees, views into the distance and small figures are evocative of paintings by Lorrain or John Constable. The works are based on photos taken during forays into the North German countryside and collaged together to create fictive landscapes. Another difference to Grenzhaeuser’s works is that Gütschow’s cannot be ascribed to real locations.

Even if there are no direct art-historical references in Grenzhaeuser’s work, this does not mean that her vast, barren scenarios, which often have no interior compositional framework, do not respond to this echo. The flat, Dutch landscapes produced by Philips de Koninck in the seventeenth century could be mentioned here, as well as the radical emptiness of the pictorial space in Friedrich’s Mönch am Meer (Monk by the Sea). The “romantic” feeling of sublime size and vastness, which is evoked by Watkins’ first photographs of the American West has increasingly been communicated by cinema in the twentieth century: The road movie as a source of images has become more formative than the art-historical supply of motifs, which also travels along in the background on the endless journeys along the highways.

This also applies to the photographer Richard Misrach, who in his work explicitly makes reference to the tradition of American Romanticism. In his Desert Cantos series produced in the 1990s, Misrach uses opulent colours to draw attention to landscapes in the Midwest of the US, in which military exercises and nuclear tests are carried out, of which the public still frequently knows nothing. The captivatingly beautiful scenarios are contaminated and no longer come into question as living space. Misrach’s over-aestheticizing quasi duplicates the framework that the established, customary forms of perception have long since created, which range from the classic landscape painting to the photographic motif and the film set. And this film set can be deadly. Taking part in Western productions that were filmed in regions polluted with radioactivity meant a much higher risk of cancer.

The way Misrach combines the documentary aspect pertaining to the ecological problems with the deliberate introduction of visual patterns is in many ways comparable to Grenzhaeuser’s approach. However, Misrach’s photos remain more or less “documentary” because the means of aesthetic orchestration remain limited to “highlighting” selected motifs.

His pictures are not collages and Misrach also forgoes the use of atmospheric dramatisations, such as those created by Nathalie Grenzhaeuser, for example with a mystically glowing sky which gives Die Arche (The Ark, see p. 25) a very different appearance, to the one Grenzhaeuser encountered in Spitsbergen itself. This kind of intervention in the form of retouching was very popular at the end of the nineteenth century when artists attempted to transfer the nuances and fuzziness of atmospheric painting into the medium of photography. This produces a “partial revelation of the illusory space, which for this purpose is transformed into an ambient space“. 7

Among the documentary photographers, it was Frank Hurley—who Nathalie Grenzhaeuser specifically cites as a reference—who often added dramatic collaged and retouched effects to his photos taken on expeditions during the two world wars. One may, however, also think of a painted sky, of the kind that crowned the scenario of a western or a historical film in early studio productions, creating ambience but never being able to deny its origins as stage scenery.

Nathalie Grenzhaeuser never abandons the fragile balance she creates between the documentary, the image indebted to the place it portrays and the autonomous nature of the aesthetic orchestration. Her pictures on the one hand show a real location while on the other, reveal the pictorial traditions and codes that always framed motifs that had never or rarely been photographed before. Even if her photographs can be considered far more ‘true-to-life’ than the landscape paintings by the Antwerp painter, who had always pre-programmed his friend’s perception; the fact that we always already have pictures in our minds when we see landscapes has by no means changed. And among the artists who constantly draw our attention to this fact, Nathalie Grenzhaeuser has the subtlest approach.

Ludwig Seyfarth
Published in Trespassing, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2011.


1 Ernst H. Gombrich, Norm and Form, studies in the art of the renaissance, London 1971, p. 116.
2 Ibid, p. 117.
3 Thomas Ketelsen in : Böhmen liegt am Meer. Die Erfindung der Landschaft um 1600, Exhib. cat. Hamburger Kunsthalle 1999, p. 8.
4 Die kleine Eiszeit. Holländische Landschaftsmalerei im 17. Jahrhundert, exhib. cat. Altonaer Museum Hamburg 2002, p. 11.
5 Francoise Heilbrun, in Michael Frizot (Ed.)Neue Geschichte der Fotografie, Köln 1998. p. 165.
6 Lucius Burckhardt, Warum ist Landschaft schön? Die Spaziergangswissenschaft, Berlin 2006, p. 121.
7 Wolfgang Ullrich, Unschärfe, Antimodernismus und Avantgarde, in: Peter Geimer (Ed.), Ordnungen der Sichtbarkeit. Fotografie in Wissenschaft, Kunst und Technologie, Frankfurt am Main 2002, p. 392.