The countryside has long prompted ambiguous, even contrary responses. It is both a place to escape to and somewhere to escape from. It is romanticised for its rolling hills and fresh air, but is just as manmade as the metropolis, shaped by the farmer’s plough and showers of pesticides. City-dwellers sometimes deride it as backward and conservative, but it has often provided fertile ground for social radicals, from the Levellers to William Morris.
These contradictions are at the heart of “The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind”, a capacious exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a west-country offshoot of a London gallery. The show mixes the work of 50 contemporary artists with pieces from the last five centuries. The exhibits include Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portraits, which forge humanoid figures out of vegetables (above); watercolour studies of fungus by Beatrix Potter, better known as a fabulist of rural life; cartoons and graphic designs showing how ideas of pastoral purity have been used and misused to sell everything from oil to urban-planning initiatives; and “Our Daily Bread”, a German documentary from 2005 which records the realities of mechanised farming, including the bolt-gunning, slaughter and flaying of cattle.
Shaping a coherent show from such a diverse array of exhibits is tricky, but the exhibition’s curator, Adam Sutherland, has the experience to make it work. Since 1990, he has been director of Grizedale Arts, an organisation in the Lake District that works with artists exploring environmental or agricultural themes. At times, “The Land” can feel like a voyage through his compendious interests, but it amounts to a provocative examination of our fraught relationship with the state of nature.
“A Still Life of a laid Table, with Plates of Meat and Fish and a Basket of Fruit and Vegetables” by Jacob Van Hulsdonck (c. 1615)
Still life has a history stretching back to Ancient Egypt, but the genre reached its apogee in the Low Countries during the 16th and 17th centuries, when dozens of artists specialised in images of flowers and food, almost always presented on a table in a darkened interior. One of the most renowned was Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647). Although most of his works focused on a single plate or bowl, this painting shows a ravishing banquet of fruit and vegetables, fish and fowl, bread and butter. Although on one level a celebration of fertility and abundance, it also has a symbolic layer of warning: the shattered glass lying on its side is a reminder of the transience of earthly pleasures.
A pair of leather sandals owned by Edward Carpenter (c. 1890s)
One of the most intriguing characters featured in the exhibition is Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), a poet, philosopher and social activist. During the 1870s he taught in Sheffield, where he wrote incendiary articles on the unsanitary conditions of this industrial city. After his father died in 1882, he moved to Derbyshire to live quietly as a market gardener. For Carpenter, a rural life offered an escape from the inequalities of the Victorian class system. Nicknamed the “Saint in Sandals”, he is represented here by a pair shoes which he is thought to have made himself. He saw sandals, with their rustic connotations and lack of formality, as a symbol of his freethinking beliefs.
“Farmers Prefer Shell” by Denis Constanduros (1934)
Constanduros (1910-1978) was a graphic designer who later became a writer of television and radio dramas. He made this poster for Shell, an oil company. By drawing on symbols of the land and farming – a flock of birds, a plough tilling a field, sun and rain – Constanduros suggests two things: that oil is as wholesome as wheat and barley; and that a company favoured by honest rural folk should be good enough for everyone.
“Tightening Up the Green Belt” (c. 1935-44) by W. Heath Robinson
In 1935, London’s council decided to develop a green belt around the edges of the city to limit urban sprawl and give city-dwellers access to nature. In this sketch, Heath Robinson (1872-1944), a cartoonist known for imagining comically convoluted machines, satirises the council’s plan. Robinson, who lived in Pinner, a suburb on the edge of London where the city bleeds into the country, reveals the absurdity of demarcating the rural and the urban (one drawing shows buildings sliced in half), and the folly of attempting to replicate pastoral life. You can equip policemen with shepherd’s crooks and lay eggs on the lawn to simulate birdlife, but the result will be no less artificial than the metropolis.
“Stately Home” by Mark Wallinger (1985)
The countryside’s history of toil and tithe is often turned into a vision of innocence and pleasure. In this watercolour and charcoal piece, Mark Wallinger, a Turner Prize-winning artist, plays with this tendency. Working from a copy of an 18th-century print of Hare Hall, the home of the landowner John Arnold Wallenger (note how he has altered the spelling of Wallenger’s name at the bottom of the print), “Stately Home” shows a bucolic scene of the wealthy frolicking in the garden. The simplicity of this sun-dappled fantasy is about as accurate, Wallinger seems to say, as the idea of gentlemen dancing with a T-rex.
The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, until May 7th