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  • Writer's pictureLucy Gallwey

january: River Man

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

The Teign River and its wood, near the village of Murchington, Devon, where I grew up

When I was growing up we used to play in a wood the people in our village called ‘the river walk’. The wood could be reached across the fields, or if you wanted a quicker route, through Mr Paddly’s garden, which we were never a hundred percent sure we could walk through, but we did anyway.

I remember the garden Mr Paddly had made on the edge of the valley down to the wood; layered garden tiers, cut into the hillside, connected by pathways leading to small water pools and perfectly clipped ornamental planting. In summer it was an exotic place, thick with rhododendrons and camellias, which we used to explore like it was an exotic jungle he might chase us out of at any moment. But it was the slope down from his garden to the wood, with its high banks of pine and beech trees, full of badger sets and rabbit borrows, that really made you feel you were entering a different world; and at the entrance of the wood, as you stepped out onto carpets of soft beech leaves and ivy trails, you could hear the sound of the river thundering through the landscape even if you couldn’t see it yet.

Amongst the river banks I was sure there were faces in the rocks. There was one part in the river wall particularly where I was sure there was a man’s face if you looked hard enough into the wall. My mum said she could never see him but I was sure he was always there and I used to mark the shape of his features out to her when we walked past him. His wide granite brow, mossy damp hair and strong granite jaw.

Many artists see faces in landscapes and are drawn to describing the lines, details and contours of figures embedded in them. The Renaissance artist Biagio Arcimboldo described Winter as a semi-human figure in his 1573 painting of the subject, showing us a landscape figure composed of disguised but familiar nature forms, with a tree stump face, sprouting branches for hair and a fungi mouth. Part of a series of four seasons, Arcimboldo's works are timelessly playful in their portrayal of imaginative nature figures and show a close adoration for landscape forms which feels affectionate and slightly obsessive when we look inside his frames of disguised figures.

'Winter', 1573, Arcimboldo

Working since the 1970s, John Strezaker similarly makes disguised figures often associated with landscape settings. Working with appropriated imagery, Strezaker cuts imagery out from film stills, publicity photographs, studio portraits and postcards and then combines them with photographs of faces. Faces are often ‘fitted’ together to make new identities which blur the character and identity of the sitter, implying psychological and emotional states. In Mask XXXVI, a postcard of a waterfall flowing into a shallow river is placed within the centre of the man’s face, linking the materiality of the landscape with the physicality and suggested thinking of the sitter. I'm eager to see behind the landscape, to observe the original face, but the act of disguise is also a revelation in itself, bringing new observations to us in the curiosity of an unknown face.

Mask XXXVI, 2007, John Stezaker

Thinking about the river man from my childhood and looking at these images I am reminded of how observations are often found through explorations of landscapes and our recollection of them. Landscapes and their constant changeability are intimately connected not only to our thinking but our physicality, in the world of the imagination which is accessible at any age.

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