The Urban Landscape
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
'Staying Home' - Thomas W. Schaller
Natural. Beautiful. Countryside - words that easily spring to mind when we hear the term 'landscape.' All are true, but it would be wrong to limit our ideas of landscape to fields, tress and coastlines. How about Metropolitan, bridges, concrete? These words must also be included in our landscape lexicon.
Even the most simple study of the landscape reveals millennia of moulding and shaping by different species, homo sapiens being the most creative, the most destructive. The shapes of valleys, the density of woodlands and the course of rivers all bear testimony to our basic survival needs and the relentless pursuit of progress. We often overlook this involvement, considering these spaces to be natural, wild, landscape-like, while our towns and cities are ugly, noisy interruptions to the rural idyl. Landscape Them-And-Us is a game unconsciously played by many nature writers and commentators today; the idea that you cannot experience the landscape and nature without being in deep countryside, out-of-town, and you are perhaps a lesser person if you spend most of your time indoors. It is unhelpful, especially today, where access to the great outdoors is not straightforward. Even at the best of times many have neither the faculty nor the economic ability to take time out in the countryside and no blame should be attached to that. Each section of my blog, Countryside, Coast and City, is as much 'landscape' as the other. I must confess that I have a preference for Countryside and Coast, both as places to be and subjects to paint, but the purpose of this post is to explore the City, and introduce you (as if an introduction was really necessary) to this element of the landscape, so beautifully imagined and painted by Thomas W. Schaller. His work is of great importance to me as a description of, and journey through the urban landscape.
Thomas Schaller grew up in rural Ohio, moving to New York as an award-winning architect. From this combined experience of countryside and city, Thomas has become one of America's most recognised and celebrated artists, with an enviable but deserved list of exhibition awards. His watercolour paintings are found in collections worldwide. Thomas' work is built on the stable foundations of accurate draughtsmanship, skills honed during his architectural career and based on his aptitude for precise observation. To leave the description there would be a great injustice; Thomas creates paintings that are beautiful, captivating and poetic. Metropolitan landscapes that tell stories, suggest happenings and moments, inviting us to participate in these intriguing vignettes.
'Chambers Street, NYC' - Thomas W. Schaller
Thomas and I have corresponded for some years now. Our shared love of watercolour is an obvious reference point and our occasional discussions of geopolitical events, the spiritual quality of art and its importance in life, have been enjoyable and meaningful. My admiration for his work is aesthetic and aspirational. Aesthetics - quite simply, his paintings look amazing: soft and sharp; warm and cool, dramatic and peaceful. Aspirational - the rich variety of colour in the dark shadows, the compelling compositions and confident brushwork demonstrate a mastery of the medium. Others may consider Thomas to be a painter of cityscapes, or an architectural painter but the human element in his work, the context and connection between people and place, suggests otherwise; he is a painter of the city, the city as landscape. No one paints urban landscapes like Thomas W. Schaller.
Ponte Vittorio Emanuel II - Rome - Thomas W. Schaller
The success of Thomas' work is based on traditional techniques deployed by landscape painters for centuries: a rich understanding of linear, aerial and chromatic perspectives; the ability to describe large shapes in the landscape through the deft use of light and shade; a masterly command of colour temperature with a limited palette, and the ability to separate this from tonal value. You can see these skills used to great effect in 'Chambers Street NYC.' Resting on these established techniques, but not standing still, Thomas' work is undisputedly contemporary. The juxtaposition of objects, forms and ideas to create dynamic contrasts is a perfect stage for the stories the are being told in his paintings. Stories of today. In 'Staying Home' the warm colours of brick, the brightly-lit windows and the softly suggested characters invites us to think generously of, and with empathy for, those in lockdown. The shade and lack of definition at street level reinforces the idea that, despite the restrictions, our subjects are in the best place right now, and this is where life is at. It is a clever riff on the theme of lockdown, and we feel drawn to those indoors - quite the opposite of the voyeuristic response that Edward Hopper elicits in his comparative compositions from decades before.
'Morning Chores' - Thomas W. Schaller
The inclusion of human activity and movement in Thomas' work helps to promote the idea of the urban space being our natural landscape. The city, town and farm are places we have built, homes that we inhabit and the stage on which we play. Wasps use a rather unnatural combination of wood shavings and saliva to construct their dwellings. "That's nature," we say. Today, our species favours concrete, steel and glass. To make these materials we combine various minerals, compounds and natural resources too. With extreme heat. Is it our our ability to control fire that makes us consider our approach to building unnatural? Is this why we tend to file our urban spaces in the non-landscape folder? Answers on a postcard please. If you consider Thomas' work carefully you will notice themes that occur frequently: people in places of work, leisure and comfort; movement from shade into light; the contrast of natural with synthetic; bridges, facilitating transitions from one place to another, both physically and metaphorically ('Ponte Vittorio' is quintessential Schaller.) These might be paintings of inanimate objects - buildings, streets and infrastructure - but Thomas convinces us that they are our buildings, our streets and our infrastructure. Landscapes we have created and inhabit, places where we can be. Our natural places. Our landscapes.
To learn more about Thomas' work and see more of his beautiful paintings please visit his website www.thomasschaller.com.
Images reproduced by kind permission of Thomas W. Schaller.