The incomprehensible grandeur of nature

First published as Introduction to 'In ever greater awe' (2013)

It was one of those bright, early spring days when I first visited Landsaat in his studio in Egmond aan Zee. As I had time to spare I walked through the dunes, down to the murmur of the retreating sea under an almost cloudless sky, the hazy blues and greens dissolving the horizon in the distance. The sensation of sea and space accompanied me to the studio where I was confronted with paintings of barren, unapproachable landscapes. Arid deserts, freakish rock formations, a few Tibetan prayer flags; landscapes experienced on journeys through northern China in 2004, 2007 and 2011 which form the basis for the paintings. I saw tracks meandering and disappearing between high mountains as the only traces of human existence, seemingly to accentuate the desolate and uninviting character of these remote regions.

Landsaat's landscapes offer no refuge and focus on the unfathomable forces of nature. Instead of the drowsy blues and greens to be found, at times, less than 500 metres from his studio, sharp contours, restless diagonals and dry tints dominate.

Some 'Chinese' paintings with narrow strokes along the bottom edge, bending upwards to disappear from view, also caught my eye on that first visit; alienating elements demanding an explanation.

Landsaat responded vaguely that they had somehow found a way into his work and "Apparently I needed them as a kind of support," he added. These strokes are actually the window frames of the trains from which he observed the passing landscapes as he travelled from east to west in China.

He did not say much more about the content of his work, but all the more about the cities, museums and works of art, and his eyes lit up as he described the diverse regions he had experienced so intensely. The artist is not a man oflarge gestures but it became obvious that the time spent in northern China is immensely meaningful to him.

On studying his website, it became clear to me that Landsaat invariably seeks out overwhelming natural environments. He writes about his travels to Scotland (1971), to northern Canada (1981), to Mongolia (2002), to Australia (1987, 1992, 1996, 2005) as well as to China (2004, 2007, 2011), and also about the time spent in his beloved Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, in the far south-west of the Netherlands.

During a second visit Landsaat showed me paintings made in 2000 of the Schelde River flowing to the North Sea in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, in which he is absorbed by the violence of the waves, there where the differences between the high and the low tides are extreme. He has chosen an elevated viewpoint, looking down onto the water-line and the often slanting coastline. This, I realized, not only renders measure and proportion to the image but is also the artist's interpretation of his perspective. He finds himself on a man-made dyke and this strip of land has the same function as the Chinese window frame. The artist positions himself and the viewer as observer; he stands aloof, distancing himself from the natural spectacle.

Landsaat's work is devoid of any form of romanticism. The drama is evident less in the insignificance of mankind than in making one conscious of the incomprehensible grandeur of nature and the endlessly recurring cycles of creation and decline.

De nacht, de weg, de groene bergen - 2009 It took him quite some time to process the powerful impressions collected on his latest China trip into an idiom suited to his personal sensitivity. Eventually a series of paintings evolved of barren regions as well as several in which warm hues and simple motifs dominate. One of these paintings, "The night, the way, the green mountains", was part of a small solo exhibition in Museum Belvédère in 2011. It seems to capture, in a metaphoric image, Landsaat's outlook on life, death, nature and the cosmos.

The schematic rendition of the image presents similarities with the neo-figurative method that he employed in the late sixties, but first and foremost it shows his need to conjure-up the dramatic forces of nature in compelling symbols. Whereas in "The night, the way, the green mountains" and related paintings these symbols take on a stylized form, in his ink drawings he prefers expressive symbols. Only one or two motifs are depicted and instinctively it seems, they portray a relationship to classical Chinese paintings.

The drawings form a crucial element in his work as they are often the first creative registration of his travel impressions. In these drawings, initially hesitant but increasingly terse and convincing, he accentuates and converts personal emotions into concentrated images. They are like poetry, appealing to emotion and experience, but leaving much to the imagination. The paintings on the other hand have a more epic character and are the final stage in the process of gathering, processing, releasing and organizing thoughts and emotions.

The expressive artist's gestures to be found in the ink drawings, forcefully determining the character of the motif and the image, correspond significantly with the total picture. Many of the paintings, although originating at a much later stage in the studio, give the impression of having been painted with a specific scene in mind. Landsaat explained "I always carry a simple camera, a notebook and a sketchbook when travelling ." Back in the studio the notes, photos and sketches are carefully sorted and are an aid in the process of sorting and ordering memories and in the search for images. Once painted all these stacked impressions find their distinct meaning.

In the collection of photos he showed me I looked for window frames, but in vain. This confirms my opinion that Landsaat consciously introduced this element to create a distance between himself and the landscape he experienced. His work is less about the sensational aspects of nature than the registration of its immensity. It is about discovering a comprehensive image capable of expressing the incomprehensible.

Landsaat's creativity does not confine itself to painting and drawing. One by one he showed me the beautifully made bibliophile books and folios he has produced over the years. His graphic reactions to poetry and short texts by other artists form an essential part of his work. "Visual impressions, music and poetry are my main artistic inspirations", he stressed.

One of these books, Water (2007), comprising the artist's impressions of coasts, canals, rivers and seas, compliments fragments of poetry translated into Dutch, by Borges, T.S.Eliot and others.

In By the River Wang (2010) translated verses by Wang Wei and Pei Di (China, 8th - 9th century) are combined with airy constellations of sketches by Landsaat and graphic forms by bibliophile book-producer, René Bakker, resulting in a fascinating triangular tension.

While walking to my car after my second visit we saw a red kite make a dive and disappear behind the dunes. "Of course, it's wonderful living here, but my creativity needs the challenge of the unknown," Landsaat said, as if he had read my mind. Where nature is supreme and all human wheeling and dealing is reduced to an absurdity, that is where he seeks his inspiration. There he experiences the forces of nature, of wild waters, fantastic mountain ranges and arid deserts. In the pleasant surroundings of the dune landscape he finds the space to give meaning and an image to his impressions. Perhaps that is why he feels so at home in Egmond. The contrast - for artistic survival.

Han Steenbruggen, Director
Museum Belvédère, Heerenveen