Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna - Order of the Landscape

The landscape as we perceive it in the twenty-first century is thus the fruit of long development nourished by various practices, vigorous disputes and works of philosophy, art and literature. English culture played a primordial founding role by developing the notion and perception of the landscape. From Constable and Turner to Whistler and Bill Brandt, from William Gilpin and Edmund Burke to John Ruskin, English art and aesthetic theories had a major influence on the development of ideas about landscapes, their construction and representation, not only in Great Britain, but throughout the world. Because of his origins and early training, Michael Kenna stands at the confluence of these rich currents and clearly seems to be the heir to an English aesthetic and photographic tradition. As a traveling photographer, he is a descendant of the artists who made the Grand Tour. A stickler for quality in his print work, he is a worthy follower of Bill Brandt. Going back incessantly to the same sites, he follows in the footsteps of many landscape artists, including the Impressionists.

Sketchbooks : an accomplished work

The body of work put together by Kenna in the course of his many travels has nothing to do with exhaustiveness. Indeed, zigzagging across the world, how could he possibly produce a land survey? Even if such a Borgesian dream of compulsive collecting could be achieved by returning to the sites years later, it would still lack the images that were not chosen, or were rejected for reasons of coherency, relevance or even a momentary lack of interest. Although the whole of his personal work can be superimposed on Kenna’s own story, it represents neither a narrowly circumscribed territory nor a specific period and even seems curiously to float above any temporal determination, eluding all diachronic anchorage. The question of topographic photography, of the photograph as a document and evidence of the state of the environment is, if not eliminated —every photograph is de facto a document— at least held at arm’s length. When a topographic approach appears in some series or other, it is then a lucid standpoint, a project in itself, clearly envisaged from the outset.
So what is this body of work? It can be compared, although not confused, with the sketchbooks that were a constant companion for travelers on the Grand Tour or for classical and romantic artists on their wanderings. A body of sketches, rough drawings and quick scribbles.
The titles Kenna gave his photographs —which are always extremely precise— deserve close examination and furnish an answer. The exact name of the place, the country and the date would class the photograph as a document. This hypothesis is quickly belied because the subtitle clearly defines the genre: Study. The thinking underlying Kenna’s work is summed up in this term, a clear reference to painting, which, by announcing the partial nature of each image, suggests they should be seen all together as a whole. Kenna’s study is not the preparatory stage of a work which is then perfected and reworked, but is from the outset an accomplished work that will be combined with others; a self-contained element which nonetheless opens up the possibility of a nebula of other aspects. Perception grasps the world and its objects “here and now,” before abandoning them to logical or aesthetic thought. The whole precedes the parts, but each part, with its own value, is offered to the viewer and then to the artist who reshapes it in the dynamic process of creation.
We could compare the intellectual conception of the Study in Kenna’s work to the phenomenological conception of the “sketch” which Husserl builds in his famous example of the table, because if “the photographic view gets closer to reality than reality itself can,” one figure advances at the expense of another, which was just as legitimate. Multiplying points of view is a way of escaping their narrowness.

The glory of the place

So what does this body of work show? It tries to capture the fragility of the instant, the glory of the place, to recreate the awe caused by a sudden revelation; the emotional component is primordial. The landscape as the expression of a mood? An outdated idea, emptied of its creative power and reified since Caspar David Friedrich carried it to its apogee. Kenna’s idea of photography and landscapes seems to us closer to the Oriental theory of landscape art, in which it is not the viewer who projects himself into the landscape and appropriates it as a metaphor for his ego, but conversely, the landscape which speaks to the viewer and the artist. Quite the opposite of the romantic idea. A landscape endowed with power, breath and energy, a landscape which expresses itself and when it appears expresses nothing but itself. “If you’re in a space, you do need to connect with that space, whether you’re in a formal garden, an industrial site, or a kindergarten. You need to have a positive rapport… not to feel like you’re intruding or stealing. Because whether it’s a tree or a steel works, energetically you set up bad vibrations if you’re stealing, if you’re always thinking ‘What can I gain from this?’ as opposed to, ‘How can I add to this situation?’.... Whatever it is you are photographing, remember to say … ‘May I photograph you?’.... I’m trying to make a contribution rather than take something away.” Here Kenna is in resonance with Bill Brandt… “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country.”
There is no contradiction between the process of perception and the lingering presence and power of the landscape. Quite the contrary, this approach is high in novelty, low in aporia and sparing with psychologism. Kenna’s work, whether it is attached to the West or the East, surprises us by the force with which the image is infused with the genius loci, by its fluid capacity to espouse the atmosphere and topography of any place, to reveal its substance, texture and memory, and to convey even non-visual sensations such as sounds and smells. Kenna brings about a reversal of the processes of thought and creation that are idiosyncratic to the West. He neither dominates nor measures the world, but lets it open up and breathe. His images invite us to contemplation.
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