SUE HUBBARD 2007
There is room enough for a natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt at something beyond the truth….Fashion always had, & will have its day – but Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims to posterity.
How pertinent Constable’s words seem to the present day when we are surrounded at every turn by bravura and fashion in the art world, where truth and authenticity appear like values from another age. In this climate of postmodern shock can it still be said that there is ‘room enough for a natural painture’, for art that through an exploration of landscape reaches towards truth and authenticity?
To paint landscape is to acknowledge history, for the land holds memories. Fields have local names, villages – many which date back in some form to the eleventh century – are part of ancient parishes where every byway and bridle path has a story to tell and trees that have stood for several centuries are silent witnesses to long forgotten events. To paint the landscape is a way of seeing, one that embraces the mystical, the spiritual and the sublime. It is also a record of the passing of time, not just of the changing seasons but of the use of the land itself. For the beauty of landscape is ephemeral and evokes in us a sense of our own mortality. Its gradual disappearance, through our mismanagement and careless indifference, is a reminder of a lost innocence, of a pre-lapsarian world where people and nature were once, apparently, more organically connected.
Today landscape painting is viewed as marginal, peripheral to the philosophical and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. Traditionalists see it as upholding a nostalgic vision of timeless values, whilst for most modernists the landscape is essentially urban, tainted and dysfunctional. To be labelled a landscape painter is something that many ambitious young painters would wish to avoid and modernism and postmodernism have allowed little room for its continuation as a viable practice. Yet landscape painting has, for centuries, described what it is like to live in these small islands. And here the problem lies; for not only is painting itself struggling at the beginning of the 21st century to justify its existence among video, photography and installation but we are also largely uncomfortable with any attempt to define national identity.
It is against this background that Dan Llywelyn Hall’s intense paintings unapologetically deal with the natural world. They owe much to the legacy of William Bake and Samuel Palmer, along with the Neo-Romantics of the 1940s such as Piper and Ayrton and Llywelyn Hall’s compatriot, David Jones. Sutherland and Nash have also been profound influences. Llywelyn Hall’s crashed bombers in the Brecon Beacons’ echo something of the shattered carcases of the grounded fighter planes in Nash’s powerful Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 40-41. For Llywelyn Hall, as for Nash, certain places seem to have a talismanic quality, a genius loci or ‘spirit of a place’. Before making a painting he usually decides on a location, and then takes photographs. After that he strips away what he calls ‘evidence’ to leave the raw essence of a form which he explores through his intense, free use of colour.
Yeats line: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” comes to mind, for there is something disquieting about these works, as if everything was in a state of flux. In Ruin of Nice 2006 the far pavilion and the surrounding ruins seem to be dissolving, as if only through the physical language of paint and the avoidance of literal description, can anything true be said. For this is not a slavish copying but an investigation, a reaching for the heart of things. Like Nash’s landscapes Dan Llywelyn Hall’s have something quietly visionary, something elegiac about them. For Nash the underlying elements of foreboding were those of death and war, while in Llywelyn Hall’s work there is a sense that he is describing the end of something; a world that even as he is trying to distil it on canvas is disappearing beneath a welter of development or being destroyed by our casual indifference.
His studies of ancient trees, including Doon Tree, the name given to the last hanging tree in Scotland, have something troubled and anthropomorphic about them. There is a visual intensity based on familiarity and close observation, yet like the best poems all meaning is not instantly revealed but suggested through the processes of engagement. These are paintings that have to be felt as much as understood. Like his precursors Nash and Sutherland, who owed a debt to Surrealism, Llywelyn Hall’s work fits within the Romantic tradition of visionary British fantasy from Blake to Christopher le Brun.
Yet this is not simply neo-Romantic pastiche but rather an attempt to redefine the past within the present. The roots of his trees reach back to extract succour from the fertile terrain that has gone before allowing him to stand firm against the current tide of irony and razzmatazz and create a ‘natural painture’ that searches for authenticity and truth in a way that, I am sure, Constable would have admired.