We’re all going on a summer holiday

As the travel photography competition season draws to a close, what can the winning images teach us about escapism?

Summer is the season of frivolity in the art world. It’s a season for crazy golf atop Selfridges and story time on the Thames. It’s a time when any discerning curator will rebrand their latest “exhibition” (how dreary) with the ever more titillating title of “festival”.

In among all this hoopla is an event that never fails to perk up pleasure seekers: the annual travel photography contest, an almost obligatory undertaking for any publication considering itself photographically savvy.

The godfather of the tradition is National Geographic, whose 24-year-old competition garners worthy prestige, with over 12,000 photographs submitted this year alone and winners announced in late summer. Another 2012 favourite was The Travel Photographer of the Year, an independent contest set up by photographers Chris and Karen Coe in 2003, whose winning entries are currently exhibiting at the Royal Geographic Society. The Guardian, the Times, the Independent and the Telegraph each host their own respective versions throughout the summer months. 

So, what trends can be drawn from this year’s crop? Aside from technical prowess, it’s safe to say that pandering to a few tried-and-tested, peculiarly British escapist fantasies is sure to earn you a few points as well:

I’ll (try my very best not to) be your mirror

Skyscrapers and subways are ubiquitous. So try travelling further! Mongolia, Madagascar and northern Norway are all good choices. Preferably, portray the sort of lifestyle assumed to have gone bust with the invention of the internet: reindeer herding, sewing your own clothes, riding trains and stopping to talk with your neighbors are all considered especially quaint.

Wetter is better

Taking into account that the last great natural wonder many of us saw could be summed up by the equation “rain x month x 2 = drought “, there’s nothing like a grand old geyser to remind us that water can do so much more than spoil picnics and soak pageants. Don’t forget! Water is also the reason we have things like monumental glaciers, thousand-meter waterfalls and forests in South America where no one seems to mind that it rains all the time. Oh, and they also make beaches, too. Remember beaches? In some parts of the world they’re used for sunbathing.

Animals are beautiful people

Britain is rich in many things (jam, manners, hedges, euphemisms), but awe-inspiring wildlife is not one of them. The child-like delirium which gripped the nation upon reports that this was a lion suggests a country with a serious case of exotic-animal-fixation (aggravated by scarcity). Hence the fascination with belugas, tree snakes and Tibetan wild donkeys, an everyday reality in some parts of the world.

On the road

Photographs involving all variations on the theme of “open road + means of mobility” have proved popular once again. Be it “bicycle + Kansas motorway”, “sledge + snowy slope” or even “over packed black taxi + rugged Himalayan mountain trail”, the conclusion’s all the same: picturing a journey is often as good as portraying a destination. The appeal of the expedition is eternal - it’s a narrative of adversity, of rewards made sweeter by the pains of struggle. It’s the same narrative that makes us weepy when we watch marathons or around-the-world sailing competitions. If you can catch it on camera, so much the better.

Bagan Bliss: Peter DeMarco's photo of a livestock farmer in Burma was a National Geographic merit winner (PHOTO: Peter DeMarco)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle