Past09_04_Ethel Gittlin_English Countryside
Ethel Gittlin -- Painted Nature
Although she has painted scenes from the south of France for years, Ethel Gittlin is offering a show of painted photographs of some of the beautiful places in England where she has stayed—particularly in the countryside, near Eton. Gittlin is interested to some extent in modifying the photographs, which give her the basis of her image but which she does not follow exactly. She starts to paint some of the imagery presented in the picture—rivers, trees, foliage, and skies. But she also looks to manipulate the scene, adding images that weren’t there in the original; bushes might be added, or trees placed where formerly there was an open space. Each time, then, her process results in completely new work; she brings something not quite natural to natural scenes. This can occur in the colors she uses; in one striking painting, of a river in twilight with large hedgelike foliage that sits on the very edge of the water, one of the bushes is a yellow-green, with another a bright mauve. The composition beautifully documents the artist’s attraction to color; Gittlin captures the rose pinks and darkening blues of a sky at twilight.
Part of the pleasure Gittlin offers us may be found in her ingenuous delight in nature. At a time when so many are concerned with the fate of the earth, Gittlin resolutely offers a vision of nature at its luscious best. She takes considerable pleasure in communicating her enthusiasm for a countryside that most of us have imagined if not many of us have seen. In England, where the landscape is composed of gentle features, Gittlin has found the means of coloring her subject matter in astonishing light. While her hues may not be true to life, she changes them according to her rights as an artist, and we are the happier for her having done so. The landscape is a venerable tradition in the history of art, but its features cannot simply be copied; they must become new in the hand of the artist. In another work, Gittlin centers a leafless tree in an open field. In the foreground of the picture is a cart track, while in the distance we see trees of lavender, whose color offsets the photographic precision of the bare branches. It is a striking image, in large part because Gittlin invests it with a luminous silence that is due to the sweep of the view. This is something new.
The combination of sharply described forms diffused with color, along with the sometimes unnatural quality of the hues themselves, result in a beauty that is mysterious and even slightly strange. One senses that Gittlin’s art is based upon realities in nature, but that does not stop the artist from becoming bold in her interpretation. As a result, the imagery becomes a bit distant from itself, as if Gittlin were recording a brave new world. This in no way lessens our understanding that she loves what she sees; one senses that she is recording a vision of nature for those who will come to it in the future, when the world’s beauty may be even more threatened by human behavior. At the same time, Gittlin shows that an idiosyncratic reading of the landscape is the artist’s choice, and that it enables us to see natural forms anew. Her art becomes slightly slanted in its view, charming but also challenging us to experience it as if for the first time.
Jonathan Goodman is a writer based in New York City. He has written for such publications as Art in America, Sculpture, and ArtCritical. He is currently teaching at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.