Van Gogh was the father of expressionism, Kandinsky the pioneer of abstraction. Both revolutionised landscape painting, liberating it from representational colours and conventional forms to become something like an expression of the soul. Thus, in their different ways, Van Gogh’s “The Sower” and “Wheatfields with Reaper at Sunrise”, and Kandinsky’s “Cossacks” and “Compositions” series turn landscape into mysticism: a meditation on natural forces, cosmic energy, the eternal cycle of the seasons and human insignificance.
This major show, visiting from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, then continuing to Helsinki’s Ateneum, fascinatingly places such works in the context of symbolism, the movement that dominated European art by the time Van Gogh died in 1890 and still held sway in 1910 when Kandinsky was developing his painterly language. It is an exhibition of truly European scope, covering artists as seminal as Monet, Gauguin (“Vision of the Sermon” has a claim as the first symbolist landscape) and Edvard Munch, with “Melancholy”; yet as different in sensibility as the ethereal Whistler and Puvis de Chavannes, explorer of an archaic vocabulary of solid forms, but also lesser-knowns from smaller countries. All are connected here to the irresistible fin de siècle mainstream where landscape is infused with a psychological charge: Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s moody, exhilarating “Lake Keitele”, with its bright, snowy reflections; Ferdinand Hodler’s stylised, flattened Alpine panoramas; a stagy James Ensor seascape; the visionary paintings of Lithuanian Mikalojus Ciurlionis, who died insane in 1911.
Ciurlionis wrote that he was defeated by “this porridge of two million” in grimy, poverty-stricken St Petersburg. This show focuses on art on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries from an intriguing angle, amplifying the story of how responses to industrialisation and materialism by a retreat to fantasy/nightmare landscapes – Paul Signac’s Mediterranean Arcadias, Arnold Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead”, Hammershøi’s dreamscapes – eventually paved the way for the emphasis on inner life that would define Modernism.
Until October 14, www.nationalgalleries.org