Landscape and the Virtual 

                                                                                                                                 by Jorge D. Goldfarb 


     In recent years a different form of landscape representations has become widely known by the general public. Through science fiction films, video games, etc. the so-called “computer landscapes”, "virtual landscapes" or, more aptly, '“computer based landscape representations”', have become far more popular than classical landscape paintings. As such, it’s  quite likely that this form of representations, by becoming a cultural feature, will influence the way the new generations apprehend and comprehend the landscape concept.


         It may be fair to say that Landscape Studies, as a general discipline, and Landscape Appreciation in particular, dwells very much with the Past.  Looking into the Future, we cannot ignore the fact that new generations, for which Landscape will have as main connotation the images of video games and those “manufactured” for films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings,  will become to adulthood . It might  be unwise to ignore them or to dismiss this new facet of landscapes as mere “technological artifacts”. 

         In her enlightening book L'’Invention du Paysage, (Presses Universitaires, Paris, 2000) Anne Cauquelin, Professor of Philosophy at Amiens , discusses the above question by contrasting the computer based representations of landscapes with those of the European classical painters from which our concept of landscape originated and with those of Oriental Art. The following commentary follows closely her exposition, with inserted images that I have chosen as relevant to illustrate her arguments. (The quotes are not literal translations but rather a free transcription into English; the interested reader is referred to the said book for a more rigorous exposition).


The Real and the Virtual 

   “"The questions, as posed to landscape theoreticians, refers to as whether isn'’t there a danger that reality may be contaminated by simulacrums, the real by the virtual , so much that the distinction between truth and resemblance may become blurred? Landscape (as we know tend to forget) is not identical with Nature but nevertheless, is no’t far more real than the phantom offered by the computer." (Cauquelin,pp6) 


      "A simple consideration on the artificiality of those classical landscapes, to which we’re accustomed, could distance us from such fears. In both cases either in the landscapes of Poussin or in those of the video games-- isn'’t it a case of trying to organize objects in a space that connects them together and has given properties? The way by which the clever artists and engineers of the Renaissance solved the two-dimensional problem, was by determining the laws of perspective. By tricking the eye, it makes believe in a third dimension; but (we ought not to forget) perspective is just one of the possible ways of finding a plausible equivalent of the space in which we live.”"

           Poussin and Claude are known exponents of those classical landscape paintings and usually credited with having originated the landscape concept. The following images illustrate the point:



                                                                             Landscape with the ashes of Phocion 

                                                                                                                                                   by Nicholas Poussin (1648)



                                                                                                                                        Oil on Canvas, The Walker National Museum Liverpool

                                                                                                                                            from:- Google Art collection 

                                                                           Italian Coastal Landscape 

                                                                                                                                                                           By Claude Lorraine (1642) 


                                                                                                                                                              Oil on Canvas; Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The Orient 

  There are however, alternative ways to those devised by Leonardo, Claude, Poussin and their followers for finding “ a plausible equivalent of the space in which we live”, most notably those found in the Orient; artists there sought to offer to space mental and literary properties; features, at the same time, poetical and poietical.

   Cauquelin writes: “ "In the East, like in the West, that what is given to see, the painted landscape, is the concretization of a link between the various elements and values of a culture”… “ It’s curious that when we deal with foreign cultures it seems far easier to imagine the rapport between the spaces presented and the ways of life, the customs, the ways of seeing and the ways of saying. But for us, in our own culture, we are at pains to imagine that our rapport with the world (we even say with reality) could be so dependent on such a framework that the properties attributed to a spatial field by an artifice of expression could condition our perception of the real”" (pp14) 



     Thus, it is obvious to everyone that the images presented below, as examples of Oriental landscape painting, are particular ways of Nature representation which have been conditioned by the predominant cultures in the societies in which they happened to work. We seek, nevertheless, ways to explain and interpret the artificiality of those representations. Such is the nature of ethnocentrism: that it is not obvious to everyone among us (and in fact the idea seldom occurs to us) that representations like those of Poussin or Claude are also conditioned by the predominant culture of the societies in which they lived and worked. We don’t ponder much about it because we take for granted that our ways of perceiving the real through the properties of spatial fields are closer to the real landscape than their ways. 

                                                                                           Mountain Landscape 

                                                                                                                                                           attributed to Sun Jung-ze 

                                                                                                                                                                 Yuan dinasty(XIII century) 

                                                                                                                                                                  Tokyo National Museum     

                                                                                                                                                               attributed to  Shubun 

                                                                                                                                                                     Muromachi Period, Japan, XV century

                                                                                                                                                                        Tokyo National Museum 

The Virtual 

About the techniques by which chinese and japanese landscape paintings of those periods were made:


     "The artists learned their art by a strange method of meditation and concentration in which they first acquired skill in “how to paint pine trees'” how to paint rocks or” “how to paint clouds; this,” by studying not Nature but the works of renowned masters. Only when they had thoroughly acquired this skill did they travel and contemplate the beauty of Nature so as to capture the moods of the landscape. When they came home they would then try to recapture these moods by putting together their images of pine trees, rocks and clouds" From E. Gombrich: The Story of Art;  Phaidon Press, London,1995. 


     I think this quote is quite in place because it highlights the point that, from a purely technical point of view, landscapes from classical eastern artists, bear a lot of similarities with the ways fractal landscapes are created on a computer screen. First the author had to master the equations for the trees, rocks, clouds and mountains, sometimes he imitated older techniques, sometimes he created new ones, once the proper skills are achieved he sets out to assemble the separate elements, sky, lake, mountain, forests into what he believes to be an harmonious whole.

True it might be said that the similarities are purely formal. The typical “fractal landscape artist” (or shall we say our stereotype of him?) doesn’t rely much on "meditation and concentration so as to capture the moods of the landscape”". However, we have to bear in mind that the whole genre is less than a generation old , it took three centuries to go from the landscapes of Poussin to Cezanne’s and nearly one to those of Mondrian. We might very well have here the beginning of what might  be one of the  main currents of Landscape Art of the 21st century.


    As examples of Fractal Landscapes I present two compositions of Simon McVittie, a mathematician from Cambridge University (for more on Dr. McVittie see Pseudorandom )             


                                                                                                   Tranquil Lake 

                                                                                                                                              By Simon McVittie (2001) 


       Fractal landscapes, such as that  presented above, are not of course attempts of rendering visual images of given, observed ones. As opposed to the landscape paintings we are used to, it is not a matter of a bidimentional representation, framed and at a distance of a focusing eye: it’s not so much a matter of representation but of testing computer programs that act on variables limited by pre-established constraints. Given the necessary information like rate of growth of unitary elements and their proportion, the self- articulation of the branches and others we arrive to the image of a tree. For waves and ripples on a flowing river we need only “a mathematical model” that simulates the undulating water surface; and thus for mountains and clouds. Out of them a landscape is assembled; the result may be "artistic"or not, as judged by the same criteria applied to a "brush on canvas" or to a photo representation.

    Our perspectivist vision becomes one among several other possibilities; the landscape that we build is the product of complex intellectual operations.” “The concept of “Nature” is here very much present but not through appearances sensed by our perceptual systems but mainly through our cognitive ones. (Cauquelin 18) 


      Is this vision of Nature intrinsically distanced from emotions? Not necessarily. As Cauquelin says:

The ecstasy, or sentiment of a perfection could come to us not as a result of the spectacle of a Nature offered to our loving gazes but out of the contemplation of our own cerebral activity : a self-celebration of our powers of conception.”


Last Edited by Jorge D Goldfarb on January,2005                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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