Between Paradise and Formation – Frontiers in Modern Landscape Painting
by Anne Simone Krüger, 2016
(english translation by Jessica Hodgkiss)
Branches protruding beyond buildings; shrubbery enveloping gates; rivers reflecting arches; roots raising cobblestones: Melanie Siegel’s landscape paintings reveal an interplay of the naturally grown and the artificially created, of original conditions and manmade structures – frontiers of worlds colliding.
The collision plays out in sections. Unlike classic wide-angle depictions by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable – a leading figure of English Romanticism – Melanie Siegel devotes herself to the small moments in life, choosing subjects from her local environment, mainly urban structures in Munich and its outskirts. Impressive mountains, remarkable views, and natural scenes once dominating the genre of landscape painting now encounter spatial limitations. The viewer no longer gazes out into the distance but finds himself observing his immediate surroundings.
Inspired by this reality the artist paints “non-places”, basing her work on findings she makes on trips through the city during which she takes pictures or sketches. Back in her studio, she adds imaginary details with the purpose of determining a “key” visual moment that is essential for lending expression to the essence of things. In search for this moment, the paintings often undergo tremendous transformation and strongly deviate from the original motif. Thus, very much in the spirit of Romanticism, reality and imagination interlock. While in the 19th century artificial ruins of gothic style were constructed to transport the viewer to a supposedly ‘better’ age, Melanie Siegel’s works are set in the here and now, offering another view of what the same place may look like today. The images must remain grounded in reality as the artist intuitively reacts to the depicted situations, and alterations are made in regard to content or composition.
Note the artist’s way of painting: Viewed from a distance or at first glance, the works appear to be painted in a very realistic manner. On closer inspection, however, we may notice undefined sections. The image oscillates between illusionism and abstraction, generating dynamic alternations of sharpness and haziness. Like the subjects depicted, painting appears as a theme in itself, executed in expressive gestures in earlier works and increasingly defined in more recent paintings. To achieve radiant colors, the artist applies extremely thin layers of paint and works on colored foundations. The paintings appear to glow from within, vibrating in a gentle orange or pink undertone alongside the landscape’s realistic tones.
The depicted scenes are no representations of reality. They make no claim to mirror nature as the paintings’ elaborate compositions equally demonstrate. Objects arranged behind one another create depth, resulting in fragmented views of what lies beyond. In some instances a single tree or a hedge appears in the foreground, obscuring our view. A wall blocks our vision and all we see are protruding branches in the background. One painting features a gate that looks as if it was taken from a fairytale, and as is the case in fairytales, it sends shivers down our spine. Even though we can’t spot any danger, the atmosphere is tense. We sense the big bad wolf lurking as we wait for a witch to open the gate. By applying a color saturation, enhanced through a subtle painterly treatment of light, Melanie Siegel determines the painting’s both enchanted and gloomy atmosphere that marks the moment of mystery in her works, and is precisely the reason why we are fascinated, despite the image’s apparent innocence.
In their own manner, each work evokes the feeling that the situation may change at any moment. Demonstrating how man shapes nature and how nature reverses urban structures, the paintings bear an inkling of a potential turning point. For what do they show? If we regard Melanie Siegel’s work as one big narrative, spanning several years of artistic activity, we realize that even where she abstains from depicting obvious human traces, urban landscapes remain. Forests are always urban forests with trees neatly planted in rows; farmlands are always shaped by man. We inevitably assume that man is not far off. However, when viewing Melanie Siegel’s paintings, we realize he is not physically present in her world.
Man’s absence makes us forever more aware of him as a landscape designer, shaping unspoiled nature to suit his needs, as stated in the Old Testament “fill the earth and subdue it”. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, published in 1637, René Descartes proposed that humans are “the lords and masters of nature”. By cultivating paradise, man transforms it. Growing, rooting, and blossoming, paradise now reclaims its terrain. As the only living organisms in Melanie Siegel’s paintings, plants appear all the more powerful. This phenomena, combined with striking image sections, may be precisely what gives us the impression of trees moving toward us, of hedges quietly creaking while raising cobblestones with their roots.
Are we witnessing a dystopian doomsday scenario, a possible outcome? Or are we observing a new form of landscape painting – urban landscape painting – that conjures up associations of the ongoing debate on environmental disparities and climate change? Artists have been painting landscapes for centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century the German Romantics promoted tranquility and a desire for nature within the visual arts. Describing the painters’ efforts, Friedrich Schlegel stated that the world wasn’t just a matter of calculation but was full of secrets and mysteries that evaded rational explanation and were only accessible through emotions. Similarly, John Constable emphasized that to him “painting is but another word for feeling”. Can such mysteries only accessible through emotions still exist today, in a world dominated by scientific research that has penetrated the sphere of smallest elements, moving ever further into the realms of atoms and space? Melanie Siegel’s paintings bestow upon us once again a sense of secrecy, a feeling for mysteriousness as she succeeds in portraying nature as both constructed and mystical, and full of atmosphere.
With that, Melanie Siegel lays the foundation for understanding landscape painting as a reflection of current conditions, demonstrating that this genre can bring forth new approaches even today.