COMPTON VERNEY.- Bringing together Old Masters and contemporary artists whose work spans nearly four centuries, Creating the Countryside is a provocative exploration of the artistic, social and political forces that have informed notions of our green and pleasant land.
The rural idyll occupies a deeply rooted place in the collective imagination, but rarely have we stopped to think about where these ideas originate and why they endure. Creating the Countryside distils our myriad fantasies of rural life and landscape, as historic works sit alongside contemporary pieces by painters, photographers, sculptors; even video game makers.
Drawn from galleries and private collections across the UK, works by artists including John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs are joined by pieces from Grayson Perry, Mat Collishaw and Anna Fox/Alison Goldfrapp to present innovative pairings which offer new perspectives on our relationship with the countryside. The exhibition also features newly commissioned works by Delaine Le Bas, Rebecca Chesney, Sigrid Holmwood and Hilary Jack.
By creating a series of encounters between historic and contemporary works, Compton Verney curator Verity Elson, together with Dr Rosemary Shirley of Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, are hoping to expand the traditional view of the countryside and draw attention to the complexity of what is before us, revealing how so often our vision is culturally directed. From high art to propaganda, Constable to the country cottage jigsaw, these representations of the countryside all contribute to our understanding of the rural.
"As more of us live in towns and cities, the idea of the countryside as a restorative place of escape shapes the popular image of the landscape" says Elson. "The exhibition offers the opportunity not only to explore where these associations come from and how they have been expressed by artists over the centuries, but also to think about how these imaginative connections to the countryside are reflected in the world around us, whether that's in advertising, nature writing, magazines or on television."
The exhibition opens with The View which explores how artists have framed the pastoral, from the earliest work in the exhibition, Claude Lorrains exquisite c.1645 drawing Youth Playing a Pipe in a Pastoral Landscape (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford), to Mat Collishaws Hollow Oak (1995, Tate). The ideal that Claude created became the enduring cultural framing of the picturesque and later informed the landscapes of 'Capability' Brown whose own natural landscape forms the backdrop to Compton Verneys exhibition.
The quintessential pleasures of the countryside are explored through works as diverse as Toile de Jouy fabrics and the country cottages of John Constable and Helen Allingham, while Grayson Perrys 2006 vase Fantasy Village (The Collection and Usher Gallery, Lincoln) features the snapshots of modern rural life so often excluded from the idyllic vision.
The enduring romantic appeal of rural life and labour is examined through major works including George Stubbs 1783 painting The Reapers (National Trust, Upton House), George Clausen's Gleaners Coming Home (Tate) and two of the most celebrated works of the Glasgow School: E.A. Walton's Berwickshire Fieldworkers (Tate) and Sir James Guthrie's A Hind's Daughter (National Galleries of Scotland). A number of works by Sigrid Holmwood feature in the exhibition, re-imagining the figure of the peasant through costume, painting and performance. These works also provide an interesting perspective on Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of his daughter dressed in peasant costume, Margaret Gainsborough Gleaning (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford).
The journey through the gentle imagery of rolling hills and labouring peasants is abruptly replaced by the darker side of the pastoral tradition. Ian Hamilton Finlays Et in Arcadia Ego (1976, National Galleries of Scotland), like Poussin's celebrated painting of the same name, reminds us that even in an idyll death is present. This theme is picked up in works as diverse as Anna Fox and Alison Goldfrapp's series Country Girls (1996) and Hilary Jacks sculpture Turquoise Bag In a Tree (2015), the cast bronze bag caught in the upper branches suggestive of an impending environmental apocalypse. In this context, even the imagery of the picturesque tumbledown cottage, represented in the show by John Piper and Graham Sutherland, appears to take on a more sinister edge.
In the exploration of the village, Creating the Countryside brings together works including the stunning Stanley Spencer painting, A Village in Heaven (1937), on loan from Manchester Art Gallery, and Everybodys Gone To The Rapture the critically-acclaimed video game from The Chinese Room and SCE Santa Monica Studio (2015), in which players explore the fictional Shropshire village of Yaughton, in all its meticulously-observed 1980s period detail, seeking clues to the mysterious disappearance of the village's inhabitants.
The Great Escape section, exploring tourism and walking in the landscape, occupies the concluding rooms of the show, featuring works by artists such as Edward Burra, Paul Hill, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Ingrid Pollard. A selection of Airwick Air Fresheners that capture the scents of UK national parks further illustrates societys desire to capture the essence of the countryside, commodify it and bring it indoors.
"In bringing together such a wide range of works to explore the idea of the countryside both past and present, we hope to broaden the view and draw attention to the images that surround us - perhaps also acting as a starting point for wider debates." adds Elson.
The exhibition runs from 18 March to 18 June 2017 and is accompanied by a book published by Paul Holberton: Creating the Countryside: The Rural Idyll Past and Present, bringing together expert contributors from a range of different disciplines including art history, rural history, literature and contemporary art.