It was in their landscape that American artists reshaped a European idea of the sublimeby Geoff Dyer / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
‘Aurora Borealis’ by Frederic Edwin Church
The sublime is no longer what it used to be, but there’s no need to get nostalgic. In 1757, Burke used the term to include whatever would “excite ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible.” Kant amended this principle of “delightful horror” to denote something requiring “a transcendent scale of reference… a greatness comparable to itself alone.” Partly because the landscapes suggestive of that original terror have been rendered familiar by the history of art, that older Gothic-tinged patina has worn away and the word has come to connote serenity, a feeling of boundlessness. As Wallace Stevens put it in “The American Sublime”:
One grows used to the weather, The landscape and that; And the sublime comes down To the spirit itself, The spirit and space, The empty spirit In vacant space.
Stevens’ poem is not mentioned in the exhibition or the catalogue, but “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880” at Tate Britain (until May 19th) reveals how the transition began to be made. It’s a breathtaking show. All the more so because many of the artists in it tended, until recently, to be seen as second-rate-important in the history of American painting, but minor figures compared with the European masters: Claude, Friedrich, Martin, Constable, Turner. Artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole have considerable reputations, but the critical consensus was summed up in 1979 by the art historian, Hugh Honour, who felt that “few of these American views of mountains and deep and gloomy woods depart very far from the formula for depicting sublime prospects established in the 18th century.” “American Sublime” rehabilitates these painters by showing the diverse ways in which individual talents adapted these formulae to the raw challenge of landscape in the new world.
For Thomas Cole, writing in 1835, “the painter of American scenery” could exult in the way that virgin forests and waterfalls “had been preserved untouched from the time of creation for his heaven-favoured pencil”-but that pencil often made them look distinctly European. One of the first paintings in the show, Asher B Durand’s The American Wilderness, looks like brambly English countryside. It could have been painted in Herefordshire. Jasper Francis Cropsey’s view of Starrucca Viaduct recalls the ruined aqueducts of the Roman campagna. Claude may-in Stevens’ words-have “been dead a long time” but there was no getting away from him:
…in Claude how near one was (In a world that was resting on pillars That was seen through arches) To the central composition, The essential theme.
A still more essential theme was the ongoing project of territorial expansion. Finding new ways of framing the American landscape was part of a larger endeavour of husbanding and exploiting its resources. John Barrell has shown how the stark economic realities of the time are encoded in the depiction of the rural poor in British landscape painting, and something similar could, presumably, be done to illuminate the dark side of the American landscape. Evidence of the fate of Native Americans, however, is almost entirely negative: there aren’t any left. Or only a few, and these lone Indians, dwarfed by the all-engulfing landscape, seem little more than honorary Americans, symbols of the pioneering spirit that led to their near-extermination.
Even when the scenery is unpeopled, that “pundit of the weather” (Stevens again) has much to say-in Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness of 1860, for example-about the looming civil war. As Tim Barringer points out in one of two catalogue essays, “only after the war had ended, in Rainy Season in The Tropics (1866) was Church able to throw a spectacular double rainbow over the wilderness once more, a symbol of unity.”
Church was not alone in littering his scenes with historical portents and symbols. Cole went an extravagant step further. In two of the paintings in his five-work series, The Course of Empire (1834-6), the landscape is transformed into an allegorical movie set on which the artist stages a Hollywood-style Roman epic, one with a limitless budget and a script Gore Vidal could have done little to save from ruination (see painting five, the aptly named Desolation).
The movies, in this context, are always in our minds. The extended horizontal vistas of 19th-century painting lived on in the CinemaScope westerns of the 20th century. I was hoping there might be a bit more of this home-on-the-ranch, Riders of the Purple Sage-type stuff, but Albert Bierstadt’s stirring depiction of an Indian bravely slaying The Last of the Buffalo (1889) evidently came too late for the timespan of this show. His earlier, stunning Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1867) is also sadly absent. Showing a wagon train moving towards a sunset, this film-still in oil alerts us to the ambiguous meaning of sunset.
The setting sun usually indicates decline, the end of things; but in 19th-century America, it is also an alluring symbol of the manifest destiny of westward expansion. One can see the painted sun setting on the long days of European domination and, simultaneously, the coming dawn of an independent American future. The painters may have started out trying to Europeanise America but, as Stevens argues:
John Constable they could never quite transplant And our streams rejected the dim Academy.
How and where did this take place? The landscape of the US gets less European as you go west. Yes, Bierstadt’s 1872 view of Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite looks thoroughly Alpine, just as Napa, today, is a ringer for Tuscany. But in Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico the landscape doesn’t look like England or Europe. And it was here, in the western deserts, that a vital topographical extension of the sublime took place.
In 1898, John C Van Dyke, a 42-year-old art historian, travelled on a pony into the Colorado desert and beyond. Three years later he published The Desert, a book describing and reflecting on what he had seen. At the time, the desert was considered to have little to offer the civilised eye. Either it was characterised by the lack of everything that made landscapes worth looking at, or it was imagined solely in terms of a Saharan expanse of dunes. Impatient with these assumptions, Van Dyke saw that the desert’s “grim desolation” in fact comprised a category of the sublime. “In sublimity-the superlative degree of beauty-what land can equal the desert?” This was, quite literally, a visionary recognition, so much so that his question-“who shall paint the splendour of its light… the glory of its wondrous colouring?”-went unanswered. Van Dyke, and with him the idea of the sublime, had moved beyond what was then the frontier of the paintable.
What lay ahead? In a word, photography. Painters like Bierstadt and Church were alert to the potential use of the camera to their art. In 1859, Bierstadt travelled with Colonel Frederick Lander on his survey of the south pass of the Rocky Mountains and, despite cumbersome technical obstacles, made a good number of stereoscopic photographs. In this he set a precedent for photographers like Carleton Watkins, who would document government and railroad-sponsored surveys of the next 20 years. This first, great era of US landscape photography coincided with the second half of the period of landscape painting covered by “American Sublime.” By the end of the 19th century, both had fallen into pictorial decline. Photography, however, would soon revive and continue the task of mapping the sublime. This can be brought out by a comparison of two responses to the American landscape and its capacity to exceed all imagining.
A witness recalls how, when Bierstadt first saw the Chicago Lakes in the Colorado Rockies in 1863, he said nothing “but his face was a picture of intense life and excitement.” Anxious to fix the scene in his mind, Bierstadt “began fumbling at the lash-ropes” of the mule that carried “his paint outfit” and soon fell to making the sketches that were worked up into the biblical grandeur of Storm in the Rocky Mountains-Mt Rosalie of 1866. Bierstadt’s response to this “glorious scene” is echoed by Edward Weston’s reaction when he first travelled to Death Valley in 1937. As his companion, Charis, recalls, “Edward was so shaky with excitement he could hardly set up his camera, and all we could say for some time was, ‘My God! It can’t be.'”
It couldn’t be. But it was. It was unimaginable, but it was a fact. The camera could prove it. We are in the presence of that uniquely photographic and uniquely American phenomenon: the documentary sublime. This tradition culminates in the “vacant space” of Richard Misrach’s work.
Having honed his technical skills in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Misrach-who cites Van Dyke as an important influence-recently published a book of photographs that takes you, metaphorically and literally, as far west as you can get. From his porch in the Berkeley hills, Misrach has made hundreds of identically composed photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just as Church’s colossal Niagara (1857) still surpasses the iconic familiarity of the location, so Misrach’s pictures make us see an over- photographed subject in a new light; literally. But the light that shrouds, frames, drenches and-always-dwarfs the bridge is also historical. It is as if the sky of every one of the paintings on show at Tate Britain has, at some point, ended up in the Bay Area. Church’s rainbow even turns up in one of them. All-even the ones that are completely abstract, just air, colour, light-attest to a verifiable truth: at that moment it really looked like this. We have arrived at a vision of the sublime that is literal and absolute. It is impossible to go any further.