Unreal Nature

March 31, 2009

Provisional and Strange

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:23 am

This article, Where nature went, by Dushko Petrovich in The Boston Globe (March1, 2009) serves as a nice follow-up to my recent attempt to define landscape art. Though it does not define the genre, it does discuss its modern intent. From the beginning of the essay:

… Having produced hundreds of oil paintings and watercolors over the previous six decades – a corpus of landscapes that would redefine European art — Turner simply declared: “The sun is God.”

In the century after Turner’s death, landscape painting became the great engine of modern artistic creativity. Artists did in fact live by chasing the sun, capturing the way it felt in the world in ever more pioneering ways. Turner’s pale and radiant scenes changed the way artists painted light; his main rival, John Constable, was similarly influential with his moody evocations of shifting weather. The French painters who followed — Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas — successively pushed the boundaries of artistic innovation, and created landscapes that still count today among the great works of art, bridging both serious and popular tastes.

In our own time, landscape painting retains an unquestionable popular appeal. As civilization pulls us further and further from nature, it’s no surprise that we cherish glimpses of arcadia. Landscapes have become nearly ubiquitous: in living rooms and waiting rooms; on fine china and restaurant walls; at adult ed and on PBS; in regular blockbuster exhibitions and on the resulting sweatshirts, mugs, and even refrigerator magnets.

There is one place, however, where landscapes have almost disappeared: serious contemporary painting.

And from the end (leaving out quite a lot in the middle):

… What has changed, clearly, is how we see nature itself. The traditional model – in which we were separate from nature and enjoyed its representation as a form of escapism – won’t work anymore. No longer able to see our world as simply beautiful, artists also have to see what humans have done to imperil it, which will necessarily change the way that it is depicted, and the point of depicting it.

As painting tries to find its way back to nature, some of the more practical artistic responses to the environmental crisis have an undeniable appeal. [ . . . ] I recently saw a poster inviting students to submit work for a show on sustainability, promising young artists they can “be a part of the solution.”

But art also serves where there isn’t a solution. And painting, with its long tradition, might have a special — if difficult — role to play. With pure formal innovation having exhausted itself in the last century, and with scientific or political remedies clearly beyond its purview, contemporary landscape painting faces a task that is both humble and daunting. But the project also represents an enormous opportunity, given landscape’s immense popularity with the general public, and our increasingly shared concern with the environment.

A picture of nature is now also a picture of our own behavior. Seen in this light, the scattering of the formerly unified idea of landscape painting into disparate realms of aesthetics, politics, and interventions betrays a larger anxiety about what exactly our relationship with nature is. The current attempts to reconstitute that vision — whether refined and complete or provisional and strange — could serve to clarify the situation. But a new kind of landscape will require a new kind of vision: Long accustomed to seeing what we need from nature, artists will now have to find a way to see what it needs from us.

It’s a pretty good piece. Read it if you want to learn more about what specific artists have done in landscape art (but there’s no mention of landscape photography). [ link ]



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