Landscape as metaphor for inner life

Growing up as I did in the mid 20th century in North Wales, the daughter of artists, I suppose I am more than usually sensitised to the idea of landscape as metaphor for internal life, especially as my childhood reading was largely based on books left over from my mother’s childhood: Edwardian children’s books and Victorian novels, and the Golden Treasury of English Verse. Mother could recite by heart long passages of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Houseman and Gerald Manley Hopkins and the Welsh songs my father sang to us were also full of emotion-laden topological detail. The idea that stormy seas represented emotional turmoil or verdant spring landscapes figured the rebirth of hope were so commonplace a part of the atmosphere of bedtime as to be beyond banality; as much part of the soothing taken-for-grantedness of life as the texture of the honeycombed wool blanket, or the greenish light of the paraffin-powered ‘moon’ light whose glow marked the end of seeing for the day in our electricity-free house.
I remember once reading, I forget where, to my shame, a feminist analysis of the role of landscape as sexual metaphor in 19th century women’s novels – the menstrual ‘red deeps’ in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, the association of wild uplands (like Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire moors) with imagery associated with masturbation. But I also remember being shot down in flames by a feminist editor when I used a reference to actual human rape as a metaphor for the destruction of a landscape and – I was writing about Wales – the culture associated with it. It was quickly excised from the text. She thought, it seemed, that I was trivialising the human experience in making this comparison. The metaphor becomes a one-way street in this approach: it is OK for the landscape to serve as a projection for human experience but not for the human experience to be projected onto a landscape. (although I suspect the history of forced migration has given us many sentimental ballads of exile that break this rule).
I was reminded of all this today when, looking for something else, I came across a photograph* I took on a mobile phone from a speeding train in Germany in June this year.

stormy landscape

Stormy landscape viewed from speeding train in Germany, 2010

As I looked at it (probably for the first time – it is one of a series, uploaded from my iphone as part of a routine update) I got a powerful feeling that it summed up my present state of mind. The patch of blue sky visible amongst the storm clouds is of course one of the most banal metaphors it is possible to find for the stubborn clinging on to hope in the midst of devastation (In my own particular case today, to the hope that, despite what havoc the builders wreak on my house, my wellbeing and my bank balance, I will eventually end up with a pleasant and functional existence in this construction site that has been my not-home for the past year). But I have to say, it felt ‘true’ with that kind of ‘Ahh!’ or ‘Yes!’ that greets a recognition of a communicable aesthetic experience. I once, many years ago, developed a theory of art that said it takes three people to make a work of art: the artist, the first viewer/reader/hearer and a second viewer/reader/hearer. If the two viewers/readers/hearers can share an ‘ahh’ or ‘yes!’ moment (by reference, at least) then the work of art can enter some sort of common cultural vocabulary, so this theory goes, even if the communicated response is not what the artist orginally intended (e.g. an African mask viewed by a Cubist, or the Parthenon by 20th century tourists). You have to realise that when I came up with this theory I was a naive teenager who would probably be retrospectively classed as some sort of hippy: it is a theory that is almost entirely social, unsavoury both to romantic egotistical artists and, no doubt, post-modernist thinkers. It says that it is audiences who define what is ‘art’ in any given society (and probably, now I come to think of it, reflects a lack of self-confidence in myself that needed external validation).
Anyway, to get back to the anecdote, I looked at this trite image and thought trite things about its appropriateness. But then I looked at the next photograph in the sequence, also shown here*.

stormy landscape number 2

Second image of stormy landscape taken from train in Germany

How disturbing is that? It takes the metaphor to new levels and I find myself torn between thinking that it is stretching it beyond its limits and accepting it as a message from the deep, like a dream preparing itself for presentation to a psychoanalyst. It still has the storm-clouds and the blue sky, but what else? a maelstrom of natural, domestic and industrial imagery, boundaries enforced and transgressed, focus and blur, Vorticist variations from the vertical. And the much-reduced patch of blue is now segregated in an alien triangle. Did I compose it through the lens of my modernist-trained 20th century vision in some conscious or semi-conscious way? Is it the product of chance? I don’t know, but it certainly does reflect my inner state of mind in a way that I am far from comfortable with.

* click on these images to see them in greater detail.

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One Response to Landscape as metaphor for inner life

  1. carol says:

    Dear Ursula,
    Was it chance that brought me here? I am attempting to write an artists statement, and found you here writing so eloquently about landscape as a metaphor for human experience. I loved your photos and totally agree with your descriptive anaylsis of their content and form. Thank you!

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