There is a passage in Volume I of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters , which was published in 1843 when its precocious author was a mere 24, that ought to be required reading for everyone attempting to understand the art of painting a landscape directly from nature. Ruskin was not offering his readers instruction in how to paint a landscape in this passage. He often did that elsewhere in his writings, with mixed results. Here he was attempting to make them aware of how nature itself might be studied both as an aesthetic experience and as a discipline to be mastered as a preparation for the kind of painting that takes nature as its principal stimulus and subject.
“If we look at nature carefully,” Ruskin wrote, “we shall find that her colors are in a state of perpetual confusion and indistinctness, while her forms, as told by light and shade, are invariably clear, distinct and speaking. The stones and gravel of the bank catch green reflections from the boughs above; the bushes receive grays and yellows from the ground; every hair’s breadth of polished surface gives a little bit of the blue of the sky, or the gold of the sun, like a star upon the local color; this local color, changeful and uncertain in itself, is again disguised and modified by the hue of the light, or quenched in the gray of the shadow; and the confusion and blending of tint a real together so great, that were we left to find out what objects were by their colors only, we could scarcely in places distinguish the boughs of a tree from the air beyond them or the ground beneath them.”
Ruskin was a master of close observation, as his prose and his own drawings and paintings attest, and what especially interested him in the first volume of Modern Painters , which was concentrated on the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, was the aesthetic process by means of which the dynamism and sheer sensuousness of nature could be faithfully rendered on a flat painted surface without false sentiment or arbitrary embellishment.
It is an aesthetic dialectic of this sort, in which the dynamism of nature and the power of painting to comprehend it contend for attention, that is displayed with uncommon virtuosity in the current exhibition of recent watercolor paintings by Graham Nickson at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. This is an amazing exhibition, amazing in both its quality and its copiousness. It will certainly confirm Mr. Nickson’s admirers in their high opinion of his gifts, and it will introduce newcomers to his work at a peak moment in his many-sided achievement.
Mr. Nickson, an English painter who has been resident in New York since 1976, is better known to most of us for his overscale paintings and drawings of beach scenes with figures in various states of dress and undress in conditions of uncertain weather. In the current exhibition of watercolors, Exits and Entries: Recent Watercolors , attention shifts to the heavens in pictures that are mostly smaller in physical size than the beach paintings but even more heroic in their artistic ambition. For with these on-location paintings of skyscapes and landscapes, at dawn and at dusk, in many parts of the world-Italy and Australia, Hawaii and Long Island and California, among them-Mr. Nickson has succeeded in establishing himself as a true heir to the great tradition of English landscape art.
In keeping with this tradition, Mr. Nickson is scrupulous in his fidelity to the dynamism of nature, which in his case acquires the character of an existential challenge. What concentrates the mind in these paintings is the way the movement of the sun at dawn and at dusk changes the form and color of everything in the natural and the man-made world with an intensity and rapidity not to be found in the common, calmer light of day or the shadow world of nightfall. At these peak moments of sunrise and sunset, everything can change in the wink of an eye. To encompass that velocity of change requires not only acute powers of observation and a retentive memory for the finest nuances but a speedy hand that in the watercolor medium is permitted no margin of error.
To this formidable pictorial task, Mr. Nickson brings an expressionist palette in the service of a classical sensibility. At times we are reminded of the storm scenes painted by Turner, at times of the nocturnal skies in Edvard Munch’s outdoor paintings of the l890’s, and at times of the darkest landscape watercolors of Emil Nolde. As for Mr. Nickson’s extraordinary command of color in these paintings, I think again of Ruskin, who, in describing a journey through the Italian countryside after a rainstorm, a scene drenched in purple, crimson and scarlet, wrote: “I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration.” A lot of the skies in Mr. Nickson’s watercolors, whether of Sydney harbor in Australia or the Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Spello, are rather like that-conflagrations of color under consummate control.
This exhibition is likely to be a revelation even to people who think they are well-acquainted with Mr. Nickson’s work, for it marks a whole new phase of his artistic development. For all of us, it is a salutary reminder-if we still need one-that the art of painting, though now abandoned by so many celebrated figures on the contemporary art scene, continues to flourish if we know where to look for it. One of the best places to see it at the moment is Graham Nickson’s exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through June 30.