We were particularly impressed by the collection of Thomas Fearnley paintings currently on display at the Barber Institute of Fine Art in Birmingham, which we recently visited. We’ve already given you an insight into some scholarly work being done in the field of Nordic art courtesy of an interview with Jan Cox, who gave a lecture at the Barber Institute this week just gone; we thought we’d take this opportunity to speak about how we ourselves found the work of Fearnley, the native Norwegian grandson of immigrants from Yorkshire, engaging.
In a very brief life and career (he was dead before the age of 40), Fearnley did his utmost to absorb a huge range of artistic styles and techniques. The exhibition charts his endeavours to use graphite, oils and watercolours and etchings to capture a range of European landscapes, sometimes to subversive effect. The wonderful Lake Gossau near Salzburg (1837/8) is described as watercolour and bodycolour on the postcard we’ve got on the Barber postcard, but it feels like the least watery watercolour we’ve ever seen; the decisive inky black outlines of the gnarled, sprawling trees (a Fearnley specialty) and the black reeds shooting up from the lake’s surface like live wires give the whole picture a rebellious and electric urgency a million miles from the dreamy tranquility one might associate with views in this part of Austria.
And yet Fearnley almost seems to take delight in subverting himself and being a contrarian in artistic terms at least. He is ready to prove that he can proffer dreamy tranquility and create visions that are more classical and conventional but no less gripping, as seen in Ramsau (1832). Even here, however, the watery blue sky and the jarring calm of the violet-and-white mountain somehow evoke the landscapes of Fearnley’s home country, where one feels such skies would have the same kind of still depth; we agree with this reviewer that there is an attractive fluency to Fearnley’s work, but we consider him (Fearnley) as ingenious and eclectic in his approach as he is gentle; one gets the impression he is trying to conjure up a number of landscapes from across Europe in his mind’s eye and create hybrid visions that are of one particular place and of numerous places all at once.
Sometimes Fearnley may be guilty of trying overly hard to ape the styles of his contemporaries as part of his eclectic remit. The Barber Institute placard next to The House of Charles Worthington, Weybridge (1837) cites the inexperience of Fearnley in painting architectural subjects, as opposed to natural landscapes; we would add that the picture reminded us perhaps too much of the very exacting style that Fearnley’s contemporary, JMW Turner, was capable of when he turned his eye to the depiction of English buildings (although admittedly at least one reviewer, Anna Roberts at redbrick.me, suggests in a very good overview of the exhibition that scholars feel Fearnley was actually more controlled than Turner in terms of artistic execution. We accept we may be in the minority here). This was the same year in which Fearnley painted Turner himself at work; one wonders if Fearnley, by most accounts a sociable yet modest man, was in thrall to his more renowned peers even when he had quite capably demonstrated his own credentials as an original artist.
It is indeed a paradox of Fearnley’s art that the pictures in which he has obviously paid several days’ attention to outline and detail are perfectly good but lack the vividness of those where he has conjured up finished art in the space of a day. By way of an example, at the Barber the warm and relatively unchallenging At Gravensfjord (1839), completed over several days, sits next to the extraordinary Tree Study, By A Stream (1839), the latter completed in one day (11th July of that particular year) and for us the defining picture of this exhibition.
Fearnley was taught to paint oils from nature by his mentor Johan Christian Dahl, but this alone cannot account for the rampant, jostling immediacy of this particular work. The tree in question becomes so fibrous and alert it resembles a human vaulting or racing for a life-or-death finishing line; at the same time it clings to a rock with a greenness and squatness allied to features that essentially resemble a lower limb and an open jaw, so much so that the rock becomes more toad than rock upon concentrated viewing. In such a visual assault, nature becomes animalistic or has the potential to be animalistic and unnaturally poised at the same time; the waterfall rushing through the landscape could be a cavernous and unduly extended fish mouth that extends beyond the parameters of the face (in this case, the rock), a bloated white vein or a misshaped eel.
Whilst it is difficult to assess the full range of Fearnley’s abilities (his style may well have matured but for his early death), we wonder whether this consideration is entirely relevant to an appreciation of his work. He may be deemed a minor artist within the grander scheme of the 19th century, but this clearly does not disqualify his work from being intensely interesting (which it is); at the same time, the Barber’s boldness in putting on this exhibition lends credence to the notion that he has been unfairly overlooked outside of his native country and that a re-assessment of his work is long overdue. We certainly feel that neither artist nor art gallery let us down on this occasion.
The European Landscapes of Thomas Fearnley exhibition is on at the Barber Institute, Birmingham, until January 27th 2013. The Birmingham Post has written an excellent article on Fearnley’s life and works in which you can find out about the intriguing family dynasty of Thomas Fearnleys – one of whom was on hand for the opening of the exhibition a few weeks ago.