Horizonte, horizontes, horizonten


Horizonte, horizontes, horizonten? In German, Spanish, and Dutch respectively, these are the plural forms of the English word ‘horizon’, and all have as their etymological root the Latin word horízōn (from the Greek noun ὁρίζων, itself related to ὅρος meaning boundary or border). The English word ‘horizon’ (singular) is furthermore spelt the same both in French and Dutch, while the Latin root has also given us Horizont (in German), orizzonte (in Italian), horizonte (Portuguese), orizont (Romanian), and gorizont / горизон (Russian). Additionally, in Finnish we have horisontti, in Latvian horizonts, in Norwegian horisont, and Polish horyzont. Among the Slavic languages the form is pretty much the same throughout the Balkans and travelling north into Mitteleuropa, also. Speak the word in English and in most European languages you will be understood fairly well, therefore.

Whether the word horizon is derived from Latin or not, in almost all languages it refers to ‘the limit’, ‘the line’, and to what is ‘over there’; at the furthest stretch of both our travels and our imagination. When Caspar David Friedrich painted his Monk by the Sea (1808-1810), or John Constable his Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827), those artists were not working with a mere topographical or meteorological subject matter, but – each in their own way – a hugely personal subject matter, too. Stand at that point where dry land meets the ocean, and the distant horizon becomes the limit case for our understanding of our smallness (or conversely, the bigness of the natural world, whether it be the dark horizon of Friedrich’s work or the menacing cloud wrack of Constable’s study).

Set sail in a vessel across the ocean, meanwhile, and though climatic conditions may well vary and change, what the horizon represents to us is a constant that remains much the same; at least until we reach landfall. Turn to see where you have just come from and there the horizon is again, though – that constant that has been there for millennia, stirring the imagination of humankind.

Caspar David Friedrich ,  The Monk by the Sea  (1808-1810) and right,  John Constable ,  Seascape Study with Rain Cloud  (1827).

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea (1808-1810) and right, John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827).

If I may – a personal digression for a moment, and one that at first may seem somewhat trivial: In the late-1980s, as a young cub critic working in London where rarely one has a real chance to take in any natural horizon line that is not intersected with some aspect of the built environment, a regular place to meet in Soho if one didn’t have much money was a certain pizzeria where on the menu was something called Pizza Venezia (the ingredients of which I cannot recall now). What I do recall is the information appended beneath the ingredients listed on the menu, though, informing customers that if they ordered a Pizza Venezia, twenty pence (£0.20p) from the bill would be donated to a fund set up to ‘Save Venice’: a city that was, and remains, in perilous danger from the threat of the sea. It’s such a tiny thing to recall after all these years, but looking back, it offers a fair indication of just how far we have come. Venice was in peril! And of course it still is. But back then, Venice was over there! Venice was beyond the horizon of the mind for most diners, I’m sure. Saving it, one thought, might be achieved with a paltry contribution, or so some kidded themselves when eating a pizza, and so donating to ‘a fund’. Today there are bigger asks that befall us, and they don’t really involve dining.

You obviously know what I allude to here. Today we have quite a different idea of what faces us all and, in a sense, we no longer Stand with Venice (in the parlance of social media). Instead, what was the plight of that city has become the plight of us all as projections of sea-level rises over the coming decades promise to shake us from our complacency with very real threats that cannot be placed upon one single far-off place or location. Even the very idea that a small fund might save a city is such a bizarre idea today, particularly when confronted with the reality of climate change, and yet… well, why do I mention this? The focus has shifted now, that’s why, and the naiveté of those times has gone, for good. Those that accept climate change for what it is are not naive in their thinking and, make no mistake, climate change deniers are not ignorant of the choices they make either – they are informed choices that they make, and let us not forget that, for it is a common mistake to think otherwise. Such choices are not born of ignorance, in fact quite the contrary. To put it bluntly, they are born of a mindset where, being appraised of some salient points and basic facts, an individual or organisation decides that it is not in their personal or business interests to give a shit.

It is partly for this reason that I have been so captivated by the work of David Cass since I first started to look at what lay beneath his art and the concerns that it embodies, for clearly Cass does give a shit. In his paintings of the horizon where sea and sky meet, many of which are soon to be brought together in his upcoming exhibition at The Scottish Gallery titled Rising Horizon, David Cass has also completely reconfigured what I see when I look at that Constable painting, or Friedrich’s Monk alone on the shoreline. While there are many things I have seen in my life that I would like to unsee, and there are some states of ignorance I still hanker for, if I’m honest, too, the things I’d like to unsee were events, and they had a natural beginning, middle, and end. In the case of Cass’s interests, there is no neat beginning, middle, or end that we can assemble as a story and pack away once told. We, ourselves, are part of the very process of that story that his work addresses. Instead, we stand, perhaps like Friedrich’s monk on the shoreline, directly in the middle of a catastrophe for which we may not see ‘the end’, but about which we know pretty well what the projections mean for those who will.

David Cass, Horizon 48%, oil on sign, 109.5 x 55cm (detail)

Looking at paintings such as Horizon 48% by David Cass, I view it now through a new lens, therefore, fully cognizant of what it is I am encouraged to consider, beyond the handling of the paint or the scene presented in front of me. But what does it mean if we take from Cass’s work a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, of an aesthetic nature, that is? Are we involved in a form of cognitive dissonance as we at once take enjoyment from his handling of paint on a surface, the design of the work, its composition or the materials of which it comprises, and, at the same time, also read the environmental backstory that is central to his concerns too? I think the answer to this question has something to do with how we might believe change can take place. On the one hand, there are those who, when confronted with an imminent crisis or catastrophe, want to arrive at a point of resolution by the fastest route possible. Others, while knowing that ‘something needs to be done’, understand that that ‘something’ will only come into play through a process of consciousness-raising in all areas of life, and that art should be considered no exception to that process of consciousness-raising, too – indeed the arts and culture generally can often be the spearhead for change, and frequently have been, whether by grandiose or quite modest means.

Tomorrow, therefore, another post about a single work by David Cass will appear on these pages as his exhibition at The Scottish Gallery approaches. To anyone who asks, ‘Why devote a week-long series of posts by different authors about a single artist?’ my answer is ‘Why Not?’ Once in a while an exhibition comes along that deserves this kind of attention, presenting a variety of takes on the work, and Cass’s upcoming exhibition is, I believe, just such a show.

I am not suggesting for a minute that Cass’s current body of work is a form of agitprop environmentalism or a call to arms (though I would have no problem if it were). What I am suggesting is that now, perhaps more than ever, we need artists such as Cass. Artists, that is, who can at once present us with moments of pleasure when looking upon their work, and yet at the same time offer us reference points for understanding the environmental catastrophe that our own actions represent for the very environment that supports and currently sustains us. That the two can co-exist at one and the same time in any single work (or the body of work as a whole), is commendable, I believe. Where once it was possible to ‘take in’ such art from a position of passivity or non-involvement with the wider backstory that often underpins the work, perhaps we should no longer see this as an option, nor a privilege that is wholly relevant for our times.


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019

Ian McKay

Born 1962, Ian McKay is a writer, art critic, and cultural historian, with a keen interest in promoting the visual arts and crafts of the Northern Highlands. For over 25 years, he worked as a senior lecturer in art history and cultural studies, and has been writing on the arts, crafts and culture industries since the mid-1980s, His work has appeared in over thirty countries worldwide, being published by Cassell Illustrated, Wiley, Octopus, Free Association Books, Flowers, and State Media (among others). In addition he has written on environmental issues and social history, and is a leading authority on the work of the British modern artist Bernard Cohen. In 2010, Ian founded Hatchet Green Press, and offers a wide range of bespoke services to artists and writers via our Services page. He also maintains a visual art, craft, and culture Blog titled North-Northwest.