March 1, 2009


Where nature went: Landscape painting shaped the direction of art for a century, then all but vanished. What happened? (Dushko Petrovich, March 1, 2009, Boston Globe)

ON HIS DEATHBED in 1851, at the home of his mistress, the great English painter J. M. W. Turner is said to have offered an enviably neat summary of his life's work and beliefs. 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. Whether it's pop masters like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, storytellers like Jacob Lawrence and Philip Guston, or more recent standouts like Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin, America's leading painters have done their most important work in other genres. It's hard to think of a major gallery that regularly exhibits new landscape painting.

Of course, there are many sensitive artists - Rackstraw Downes, the late Neil Welliver, and Boston's own John Walker among them - who paint recognizable outdoor scenes. But as the genre itself has lost its prominence, their work has also been marginalized. What happened to landscape painting? Its decline in status is even more surprising given the current moral, scientific, and political preoccupation with the environment. One might think that scenes of nature - central to our culture for centuries - would still have a role to play now, having done so much to cultivate our appreciation of the environment in the first place.

Capital "A" Art is ideology.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2009 9:07 AM
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