Some Thoughts on Plein Air Painting and Spatial Identity

On my way home from work the other day, I got to thinking about what makes for a compelling plein air painting, as I’ve set a goal for myself to enter at least one plein air event next year. I want to be comfortable enough with my plein air painting by then that I’ll be able, if given the opportunity, to produce some works I’ll be pleased with during the event.

There are the usual things that make a painting compelling that would apply to plein air as well—composition, color, value, motif, etc—but might there be something else? The immediacy of the experience, or the space, would necessarily be a chief component, but how can that be characterized? I got to thinking about the importance of our relationship to the spaces we occupy, and how fundamental that is to our sense of self. Our own identity, as individuals and as a culture or society, is so closely linked to the identity of the spaces we occupy. Put another way, human identity, cultural identity, and spatial identity are three of probably many sides of the same prism.

We see this often play out when one culture/nation comes in to colonize another. I wrote a paper on this in college that has since been lost in which I explored how the English, in expanding their interest in Ireland in the 16th and 17th century, made a concerted effort to change the way the Irish though of the space they occupied. The Irish were, if I remember correctly, roaming, with a fluid understanding of property ties. They couldn’t be mapped, they couldn’t be pinned down, and thus couldn’t easily be conquered. So, the English offered Lordships to powerful Irish leaders, in essence tying them not only to the crown, but more importantly, to the land. They were now responsible for a space, which was a fundamental mindset and cultural shift. This may not be quite right upon closer inspection by a better scholar, but I’m posting it anyway because it’s a reflection of a line of thinking I was developing that became foundational for my fiction.

As I was thinking through this, and its relationship to visual art, my thoughts were taking a familiar turn. It was very much a case of déjà vu. When I got home I poked around my computer, recalling vaguely that I once wrote something about spatial identity and art with a friend, not sure what I would find. It turned out that we had conceived of a whole book on the subject, which we intended to call Between the Motif and Me: Spatial Identity in Literature, Art, and Architecture, and had started drafting an introduction.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m looking at three different directions at once. This concept of spatial identity is one of them, so I’m posting some of what I found. What you’ll see below is only half of the intro to the book. The sections on videogames and architecture were not complete enough to include at this time, though I may return to them, or at least post excerpts—such as a good passage from Tadao Ando—at a later time.

Thanks for reading.

Between the Motif and Me: Spatial Identity in Literature, Art, and Architecture

 By Corey Aber and J. Patrick Chu

Introduction: Surveying the Landscape 

In 1895 Monet told two Norwegian interviewers: “To me, the motif is an insignificant factor; what I want to reproduce is what lies between the motif and me.” He wanted to paint “the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found—the beauty of the air around them—and that is nothing less than impossible.”[i] Monet was ultimately referring to the feeling of a space, its underlying spatial identity.

As impossible as Monet claimed it is to actually do so, the attempt to capture and/or create spatial identity is a fundamental element of literature, art, and cinema, not to mention architecture, which itself is the active creation of meaningful space (in fact, the field of architecture raises additional questions of the possibility of creating a spatial identity from scratch).

We see this attempt, for example, in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Seascapes” series of photographs—a collection of black and white views of ocean and sky in different parts of the world. This series deals with spatial identity and the passage of time. For his exhibit at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC in 2006, he described his motivation for the project:

“One New York night in 1980, during another of my internal question-and-answer sessions, I asked myself, ‘Can someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have?’ The images that came to mind were of Mount Fuji and the Nachi Waterfall in ages past. A hundred thousand or a million years ago would Mount Fuji have looked so very different than it does today? I pictured two great mountains; one, today’s Mount Fuji, and the other, Mount Hakone in the days before its summit collapsed, creating the Ashinoko crater lake. When hiking up from the foothills of Hakone, one would see a second freestanding peak as tall as Mount Fuji. Two rivals in height—what a magnificent sight that must have been! Unfortunately, the topography has changed. Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable. Thus began my travels back through time to the ancient seas of the world.”[ii]

These struggles of Monet and Sugimoto shed some light on the nature of spatial identity. It is not a resolute object or property. Rather, it is a spectrum that ranges from the inherent to the imposed.

In literature, perhaps the most explicit investigation of the spectrum of spatial identity comes in fantastic fiction and strange tales where the conflict often arises when a new identity is imposed upon either the inherent identity of a space, or an older identity of the space. Ghosts themselves tend to represent the remnant identity of a space.  Let us take for example Algernon Blackwood’s tale “The Willows” in which two travelers encamp on a small island in the midst of the Danube and find themselves in a precarious, haunted place. In the story, there are suspected spiritual entities that live in a parallel world that meets the human world at this place. These entities take as victims those who disturb their space.

This island is, in the words of the narrator, “a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual influences were within reach and aggressive.”[iii] In other words, it is a place whose ancient sacred spatial identity is dominant and ever-present. The travelers disturb this by superimposing the practical identity of a modern campsite.

Blackwood embeds what borders on a manifesto for the concept of spatial identity directly in the narrator’s summary description of his feelings towards the disintegrating island:

“Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence around the fire the allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, one and all had been robbed of its natural character—as it existed across the border in that other region. And this changing aspect I felt was new not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.”[iv]

What we see here is not only the will of the inherent, or ancient, identity of a space, but also the transformative power of that identity on the mind and all things it encounters.

This notion is not limited to rural space (in fact, urban fantastic literature was especially popular in the latter 19th century[v]) nor is it limited to the fantastic. It is no accident that the three urban types Walter Benjamin theorized—the flaneur, the badaud, and the detective—are defined by their unique ways of interacting with their spaces. Briefly, the flaneur is the stroller, the one who casually wanders the streets with the power of distracted receptivity, taking in everything he sees even without necessarily realizing it. The badaud is the gawker, the one who sits back and observes without actually participating physically. The detective puts the skills of the flaneur and the badaud into direct action, using their powers to process an environment and the activities contained therein to reach some conclusion and to affect some result.[vi] Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd” is often used to illustrate these urban types because the narrator takes on each role, first gazing out through a coffee shop window onto the crowd outside; then opting to pass within the crowd; and finally, pursuing one strange man, a potentially sinister figure, through the crowded intersections and back alleys over the course of the night.

The urban types and the relationship between the environment and the occupants are better explored in Virginia Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens,” in which the space itself is also a character no less significant than the humans, with both humans and space practicing flanerie. The disembodied narration opens with a physical mood-setting description of the place that shifts into the space itself moving. At first the space is an object, something acted upon: “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals…The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze.”

Within the same paragraph, the properties of the space start to act: “The light fell either upon the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or, falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.”

At the end of the same paragraph leading into the start of the next, the action shifts again, this time into the behavior of humans: “Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July. / The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed.”[vii]

Woolf’s technique is highly cinematic in that it gives a complete, equally focused sense of space and its occupants, the blend of all of which creates the particular spatial identity.

John Sturges uses the same technique frequently in his 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock about a stranger, John J. MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) who comes to the isolated California desert town of Black Rock shortly after WWII to pass on a medal to the father of a Japanese American soldier who saved his life. Some of the townsmen, led by Reno (Robert Ryan) are suspicious of MacReedy’s presence in the town as soon as he arrives, and only become more so when he starts asking questions about Adobe Flats and the Japanese farmer, Komoko, the murder of whom the townsmen are trying to keep secret.

Shortly after Reno discovers that MacReedy is looking for Komoko, he and the townsmen meet on the railroad tracks in a scene that exemplifies Sturges’ technique of prioritizing people and place equally. As the key villains (Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and the others) gather to discuss whether or not they should kill MacReedy, Sturges uses a series of shots in the center of town on the railroad tracks. These shots arrange the human characters geometrically, standing in different planes of view, the same way the lines of the telegraph poles, railroad tracks, signs, buildings, and horizon are used. Sturges creates an arrangement of lines and shapes, that, when combined produce an effect, a mood. As viewers, we are aware that the characters are subject to the harsh environment in which they live, the physical exemplification of which serves to highlight the central element on which the plot and the dramatic tension hinges—the murder of Komoko. This murder is based partially on his race—his cultural identity in the aftermath of WWII—and partially on the environment—Reno thought he had sold him barren land, only to find out later that it contained water.

These non-prioritizing shots give the impression that we are watching the town, the landscape, itself in action. In setting up the shots the way he does, Sturges also further urges the viewer to try to insert himself into the tight visual arrangements, making the landscape both menacing and fascinating.

To give these framed shots weight, Sturges balances them with an investigative character, someone to encourage the viewer to use imagine himself to be a participant, moving first from badaud, or typical watcher of the film, to flaneur, a concerned watcher interested in the goings-on in the town and landscape, and finally to detective, a watcher concerned with the outcome, piecing together elements of plot and place to look for clues to the outcome and to wish certain events to happen.

It is these techniques within a film that serve also to influence the cinemagoer outside the film. Italo Calvino describes the influence of the cinema on his own life:

“Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas…I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.”[viii]

The mere thought of a film and the expectation for it drives the cinemagoer. Its influence spreads from the celluloid world out into the streets, creating a particular, transforming gaze. It is neither the gaze of the badaud, for it is too focused, nor is it the gaze of the flaneur, as it ignores all other aspects of the city, nor is it even the gaze of the detective, because it does not seek to use its awareness of its environment to achieve any goals. It is the peculiar gaze of the cinemagoer. It is at once outward in its quest for new films, and inward in its desire to retreat into the imagination of and anticipation for the next spectacle.

Inside the cinemagoer’s head and on the screen, a relationship builds and an exploration takes place. For Calvino, the cinema “satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation.”[ix] This exploration of an imagined space translates into how we understand our own lived-in space. Our understanding of both the lived-in and the cinematic spaces—and the success of both spaces—depends on the relationship between them.

 Put another way, the spatial identity created within the film seeps out into the spatial identity of the actual world as perceived by the cinemagoer. Nowhere is this imagined interaction between person and virtual space more present than in videogames. While it is certainly possible to get lost in a painting or a photograph, only literature and film continually pose the question “how would you act in this situation?”

[…The rest of this introduction turns to videogames and architecture, but was not finished or written in a complete enough form to share at this time]


[i] From Enchatments of Air and Water by AS Byatt. Published in the Guardian on March 3, 2007).

[ii] Hiroshi Sugimoto. Exhibit Catalogue. Hirshorn Museum February 16-May 14 2006. http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/sugimoto/seascapes/index.htm.  Example is “Sea of Japan, Rebun Island,  1996, private collection. Courtesy of the artist.”

[iii] Algernon Blackwood: The Willows  p 116 in Famous Ghost Stories Bennet Cerf. Vintage books 1944 New York, NY

[iv] Same as Above (blackwood)

[v] See Intro from Calvino’s Fantastic Literature.

[vi] Walter Benjamin, Paris in the Age of Baudelaire.

[vii] All Woolf quotes from 1st page of Kew Gardens

[viii] Italo Calvino. A cinema-goers autobiography in The Road to San Giovanni, page  38

[ix] Also calvino page 38

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