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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World

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Romita Ray: Nature is full of hidden surprises and secrets.

John Beardsley: There is a kind of mystery and ambiguity to it. It’s dynamic.

Peter Roe: Animals are born just like we are, age just like we do, and die just like we do. Plants, the same. Rivers meander and move. They flood, they drain. Mountains move. They erupt, they erode.

John Beardsley: You can go to the same place at different times of day, different seasons, and it will be different.

Robert Harris: Art somehow makes sense of this environment. It is a way of understanding the natural world.

Segment Title: Art Shaped by the Environment

Fred Myers: The relationship between the human world and the natural world is constantly one of a kind of dialectic or an exchange, in which we are both part of nature and not part of nature.

Peter Roe: We tend to regard, in the West, nature as a kind of mine or storehouse. We think that we dominate nature.

Fred Myers: That’s one tradition’s understanding of the relationship between human beings and other aspects of the world in which we live. But that’s not intrinsic for all human beings in the world.

In many human societies people do not set themselves up as human as apart from nature. They don’t have a concept of nature as something different from the world in which they live.

Pamela McClusky: In many instances, masks that come from Africa combine human and animal identities.

Many of the masquerade impersonators come out and they are hovering right between being human and being visitors from that forest, that mix animal and human features, and are bringing a message about the ways that we are overstepping the bounds of what is human and animal all the time. And that is a very fundamental difference in the sense that many Westerners have that animals are somehow different.

I think of one mask where the face has totally erupted. It’s completely covered with horns and teeth and tusks from creatures that live in the forest. And it’s from the Wee people. And they bring it out and it becomes like a magnet, they say, for all of the cobwebs that people weave between each other, the nasty things they’ve said about each other that sometimes are hovering in the air. And yet, that mask can suck it all back into their body and return it to the forest and thereby purge the human arena of the animalistic instincts that we know we all have.

So there is that idea that in many African cultures you are not about changing the environment, but learning from it and changing people, changing people’s behavior, and modeling yourself after what are the aspects of animals that are truly admirable and where are they a mirror for something that we’re doing wrong. So the forest is not a place that you use, but it’s a place you learn from.

Peter Roe: In the Amazon, in Amazonian cultures, such as Shipibo or Waiwai, everything that is made and everything that is used is modeled on nature.

Their major culture heroes and gods and spirits are actually half-animal, half-human that occupied a kind of beginning of the first unfolding of the universe that I call Dawn Time.

Art comes from these dawn creatures. So, if you pick up a stacking basket and pull it apart, it forms the jaws of the cayman, the giant crocodilian that it was at Dawn Time. And it consumes and stores our artifacts like the reptile consumes and stores us. Or you look at a pot which is used to ferment beer. In mythic time, they will say the first pots were snakes that followed the culture heroes around. And anytime they wanted anything cooked the snake would curl up into a pot, put water in and cook. And then when he was done, the snake would uncurl and slither away.

So when a woman makes a pot, she’s literally building the snake. Then when you hear the hissing of fermentation, they will say, ‘Listen to the snake, it’s hissing, the coiled snake is hissing.’ And so, literally, those objects are alive. They have soul stuff. Humans have given birth to them through the creative act of art.

In the tropical rainforest there is the belief that everything in the world is animated. It’s like the yin and yang, everything moves, and everything is complementary.

Robert Harrist: I think you could say that it’s one of the abiding habits of Chinese ways of thinking from antiquity on down to conceive of things in pairs, in binary units that are complementary and contrasting. And certainly the most famous and familiar is yin and yang, negative, positive, masculine, feminine.

Early Spring is a large painting on silk. It is signed, dated by Guo Xi, 1072. Now Guo Xi is a painter, he’s not a philosopher. But built into the structure of his pictures, I think, is this enduring principle of complementary relationships—mountain and water.

These two things are in constant interplay. The mountain becomes animated by the water flowing through it. And the mountain affects the water. The water has no form without that given it by the mountain, by the earth.

Once you experience the natural environment in China, it starts to make a lot of sense that the most common Chinese term for landscape is shan shui—mountain and water.

There is the reality of this great mountainous country, crisscrossed by rivers, streams. So you start with, in a way, the raw material of nature in China, which is so spectacular, and the history of landscape is how people have interacted with this spectacular environment.

Segment Title: The Spiritual in Nature

Larry Silver: The thing about mountains for people from the Low Countries is that they were almost by definition imaginary and not the kinds of place where they really lived or had experienced. So mountains provide the place where you can go that is the opposite of ordinary lived experience.

Early on, landscape painting in the Netherlands had figures that were really as important in the picture as the landscape itself, often a saint. The whole nature of being a saint is to get away from the world.

And they were seeing the mountains as the ultimate wilderness, the place that the saint could get the farthest from the city where they lived.

The equivalent in Germany was the forest landscape.

For Albrecht Altdorfer, in particular, wilderness meant forest. Probably the most extreme of Altdorfer’s forest landscapes is the St. George, a very tiny work, actually painted on paper, from the year 1510. St. George as he’s doing battle with a dragon does so in this really thick and remote and forbidding arena.

It’s a place that you go and test yourself away from civilization. The experience of landscape as depicted is really a kind of purification process, a spiritual experience more than just a physical one.

Robin Jaffee Frank: In Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail from the early 1870’s, there is this verdant valley bathed in a divine golden haze. And there is this sense that there is a spiritual quality in nature and particularly in what was known as the sublime, in other words, awesome nature, wild nature.

The Hudson River School artists, like Church, for example, or Cole, were kindred spirits in their passionate love of nature, in their belief in the idea that communing with nature led to a greater understanding of God and spirituality. And in their belief that paintings of nature were, in a sense, an expression of national pride.

Many Americans thought that Europe had this great wealth in its cathedrals, in its castles, in its buildings, in its history, for that matter, in its great art. But America had something that was brought here by God, and that was our mountains and valleys. Yosemite, for example, which was so different in the New World, something that you could never find in the Old World, our treasures, our riches.

Segment Title: The Nature of Nationalism & Identity

Alan Chong: There are these very strong issues of nationhood and patriotism with America. And it has something to do with, whether we like it or not, a patriotic identification of the land with the nation. It’s part of our identity. And the Dutch, in the seventeenth century, I think, felt very much the same way.

About 1607 what we now know as the Netherlands was formed as a loose confederation of seven principalities and cities. This new nation had no precedence really in European history. It wasn’t a monarchy, it wasn’t a linguistic or cultural unity. It was a very diverse group of people.

But what’s clear is that everyone owned landscapes. They are the most common subject in the Amsterdam or Rotterdam inventories of the seventeenth century. And the land, in a funny way, became a means of binding the people together.

The seventeenth-century Dutch had a very strong identification with their land. It’s a continual fight against not only foreign invasions, but a fight against the sea.

Holland is a very flat country. Much of it is reclaimed land. So it was originally under water. The dikes had to be maintained and administered, the drainage canals had to be kept open.

It’s that very strong human intervention that Dutch landscape paintings are concerned with, whether it’s a city or a canal, a roadway or a cottage.

Windmills aren’t just picturesque objects, they are actually pumping water to insure the longevity of the very land that we’re seeing and in some cases, grinding grain for the livelihood of the country.

Landscape is a reminder of where you’re from, you know, that this is your country. And in times of crisis, in particular, there is a sense of place which might be important.

Fred Myers: When Aboriginal people started their paintings in acrylic in 1971, there was very little respect for indigenous culture in Australia, and the use of these paintings to declare themselves and their rights to the country and what it meant to them was a fundamental step in laying claim to that country.

Very widespread in Australia is a notion that the world as we know it is a manifestation of activities or events that happened, that were informed by these beings who had power, more power than we have now, and whose activities left their marks on the land. And the features of the landscape were created, whether they be hills, or creeks, or depressions in the land.

The paintings represent these activities. They don’t represent them in an actual topographic way in the actual physical relationship that they might have in space. But they do indicate key features of the stories in the landscape. But they’re shaped to fit into the two-dimensional space of the painting.

So, for example, in the paintings of the Western Desert people of Australia, a circle can be a water hole. It can be a hill. It can be a circular path. It can be a tree seen from above. A line could represent a path, a linear path of movement from one place to another. It can represent a spear.

The ancestors often wore designs and decorations which had these similar shapes on them. And so, the men will say not only are they telling these stories through the paintings, but the paintings are themselves using, if you will, a visual vocabulary that’s left behind by the ancestral beings.

So, they don’t see themselves as really separate from that. They see their spirits as part of the landscape.

The people that I know might say, “That country is me. That’s my body there. That’s where I was left behind by the ancestral beings and I became that tree.” And so when they’re painting those stories, they’re also in a way painting their own origin.

Romita Ray: We occupy land as human beings, so it is very much connected to who we are not just nationally, but who we are also as human beings who are living in that particular moment in history.

Kay WalkingStick: I was born in Syracuse, raised in a white Protestant culture. My father was born in Indian Territory in 1896 before Oklahoma was a state. And I never lost an appreciation for being Cherokee; I always had that.

I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for doing diptychs is that it brings together two different kinds of views. And that unity is about a human condition. It’s not about being an Indian on the planet. It’s about being a human on the planet. But it is about our relationship to the earth.

I see trips as ways to develop images for myself, my paintings. So I oftentimes take a sketch book. The sketches act as a way for me to remember the place. It’s like a photo album almost, except it’s a little more personal. If I work directly from a photograph it has a higher degree of verisimilitude, but it doesn’t have the kind of personal energy and mood and message that I think it would otherwise.

When I first started making diptychs, they were really about memory in that one was the immediate vision of a place and the other side was the long-term memory of the place, the abstract memory, if you will. And it’s important in these paintings because I think that the filter of memory personalizes a thing.

I think the paintings very much represent who I am and the way my head works and also my own personal history.

Larry Silver: Landscape often is a way of coming to terms with who you are.

Alan Chong: And you could say that an interest in other landscapes and other peoples is a way, indeed, of defining one’s own self.

Romita Ray: The name Company School is associated with the East India Company and specifically was used for Indian artists who are commissioned to paint scenes of India for the British residents there.

They were long-term residents, so there was a long-term investment in these kinds of images, and in a way these images reflect who they are, because over time they would have to adapt to their environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they become too Indianized, but there is a sense that they now do live in India and that this is where their new home is. So, in a sense, embracing what’s around them would be the next natural step.

One of the most powerful patrons behind the development of the Company School was Lady Impey. She was married to the Supreme Court Justice of Bengal, of Calcutta. And she herself was a great connoisseur of painting. She was especially interested in natural history.

Natural history subjects would range from plants to animals, basically. So you’ve got an interest in specimens of different types and of course, the more exotic they are, the more interesting they are. And it’s a mixture of, shall we say, aesthetic pleasure as well as scientific scrutiny.

These kinds of images of flora and fauna would have been very much about creating an encyclopedia of knowledge. This was also the great era of botany and horticulture as well. There was tremendous interest in one’s surroundings and in setting up botanical gardens. So the transplanting of plants, let’s say, or studying one’s local plants, this goes hand in hand, we find, with the recording of plants.

Segment Title: Art Shaping the Environment

Robert Harrist: Painting is just one form of landscape art. Even before there was landscape painting, there was landscape gardening.

So you can make a landscape both by painting on paper or silk, but you can make a landscape by excavating earth and piling it up to make a mountain and then filling up the excavation with water to create a lake or pond.

Romita Ray: The “picturesque” is a landscape aesthetic that develops, especially in Britain, in the eighteenth century and it’s applied to both painting as well as to garden design. Basically, it’s all about variety. It’s also about roughness, edges, for instance, that needed to be rough and uneven. The more variety, the more disorderly, the more picturesque it was considered.

So, let’s say in the case of a picturesque garden, it would look like, yes, this is natural, this is wild, and to a certain extent it was. But the initial design would have been intended. So a picturesque garden was made to simulate nature, and then once nature took over, it appeared to be that sort of classic English garden that we envision.

John Beardsley: When you get outside you engage light, you engage sound, you engage smell, you engage touch. So, the experience of space in landscape is a much richer palate than the experience of space inside.

A lot of artists in the late sixties and early seventies wanted to engage this idea of physical experience in space. Land Art, or Earth Art, is a good way of suggesting the kinds of transformations that were going on in art at the time. It’s essentially sculpture at an environmental scale.

Spiral Jetty is probably the best known work by Robert Smithson. It’s a coil of black basalt rock and earth that spins about 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. It’s made in the shape of a spiral, Smithson said, because as he looked at the site it rotated around him like a cyclone. He was drawn to the Great Salt Lake because it’s in a very arid environment, but also because the water is so salty that nothing can grow in it except for colonies of an algae that turns the water pink. So, he was drawn to these extreme environmental conditions with the idea that art could somehow draw you into landscapes that you might not otherwise go to.

Experiencing Land Art is complicated because very few people see the things themselves. Spiral Jetty exists in many forms. It exists as a physical artifact in the landscape itself, it exists as drawings, it exists as a film, it exists as a text, he wrote an essay called “The Spiral Jetty.” And, it’s really meant to be experienced through all those media.

There is something very different about being at the Spiral Jetty than from looking at photographs of the Spiral Jetty. But if you work your way through all the different expressions of the Spiral Jetty, you do come up with a rich understanding of the place, maybe even richer than you could get just by going there.

There are so many artists working in landscape now, some of them on a large scale in ways that seem to disrupt the landscape. Other artists work on a much more modest scale in a way that is intended to be much more cooperative with or harmonious with nature. And ecological art might be that effort to use art as a form of environmental remediation.

Kongjian Yu’s work is an effort to restore urban ecosystems, to unbuild some of the damaging infrastructure that we’ve put in our cities and create places that are more hospitable both for human life and for plants and animals as well.

He’s been involved in projects to remove the concrete that lines riversides and create more functioning ecological systems on riverbanks, rather than channeling rivers into concrete-lined canals, breaking those walls, and allowing the river to spread out in a more natural way.

People have always shaped their environment and people have always created images in the landscape that we assume to be ways of understanding or connecting with the natural world.

Robert Harrist: And representations of the natural world can be a means of understanding forces that control not just the cosmos, but also human life.

Fred Myers: We are the natural world. Everything we do. We are part of nature. Human beings are part of nature. What we do is part of the natural world.

Robert Harrist: And the natural world is the material for art.

From the earliest times, people have found sustenance and solace, challenge and mystery in the natural world. From representations of animal and vegetable life to landscapes and earthworks, art has been a means by which humans have expressed their awe of, communion with, dependence on, and isolation from nature. Of course, art is never a mere transcription of reality. Every rendering of the natural world is, ultimately, a construction, in which nature is translated through the filter of our own interests, values, and desires.

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Expert Biographies

John Beardsley, Ph.D., is the director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Beardsley has authored numerous books, including Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists and Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. He has also curated exhibitions for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum, among other institutions. In addition to his role at Dumbarton Oaks, Beardsley is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he teaches courses on landscape architectural history, theory, and writing. His many honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Beardsley received his B.A. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and his M.A. and Ph.D in Fine Arts from the University of Virginia.

Alan Chong, Ph.D., is the curator of the collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In this capacity, he curates exhibitions, produces publications, organizes conferences, and works to preserve the museum’s collections. Exhibitions he has developed include “Gentile Bellini and the East” and “Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Her Circle in Venice.” He earned his Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and has written numerous essays and catalogues, including a study of Vermeer’s View of Delft.

Robert E. Harrist, Jr., Ph.D., is the Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History and chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. His books and articles on many aspects of Chinese art include Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China and The Landscape of Words: Stone Inscriptions in Early and Medieval China. Prior to joining the Columbia faculty, Harrist taught at Oberlin College and has served as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge University.

Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., is the Alice and Allan Kaplan Senior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery. She has lectured widely and organized numerous exhibitions. Among her books are Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures and Charles Demuth Poster Portraits: 1923–1929. Frank co-authored American Daguerreotypes from the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection and contributed to Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana and A Private View: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection. She is also a co-organizer of the traveling exhibition and accompanying publication Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery. She is now planning the exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland.” Frank earned her B.A. from Brandeis University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale.

Babatunde Lawal, Ph.D., is a professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where he specializes in African, African American, and African Diaspora art. Lawal has conducted field work in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Republic of Benin, Brazil, and the U.S. In addition to his position at VCU, Lawal has taught at several other universities in the U.S., Africa, and Brazil. His publications include The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in African CultureEmbodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, and several articles in leading art journals. Lawal holds a Ph.D. in art history from Indiana University.

Pamela McClusky is curator of African and Oceanic art at the Seattle Art Museum. McClusky helped the Seattle Art Museum to establish the African and Oceanic Art Department and has launched several permanent galleries to house the museum’s African and Australian Aboriginal art collections. McClusky has lectured worldwide and curated numerous exhibitions, including “Is Egyptian Art African?,” “Indigo Blues,” “Sorry Business,” “The Untold Story,” “Elegant Plain Art from the Shaker World and Beyond,” “Passion for Possession,” and “Africa in America.” Her publications include Praise Poems, African Art: From Crocodiles to Convertibles in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, and Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back.

Fred Myers, Ph.D., is the Silver Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department at New York University. Myers’ research focuses on Aboriginal people in Australia, specifically Western Desert people. His many published works include Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art and The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Myers has received numerous honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He was elected president of the American Ethnological Society and has spearheaded NYU’s Morse Academic Plan, a general education program for the College of Arts and Sciences. Myers earned his B.A. from Amherst College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr.

Romita Ray, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University, where she teaches courses in European art and architecture (1700–1950), post-colonial theory, and South Asian art and architecture, among other subjects. Some primary areas of interest for Ray are the art and architecture of the British Raj, the Picturesque in imperial India, and the visual history of tea consumption in Britain and the colonies. Prior to her position at Syracuse, Ray taught at Colby College and at the University of Georgia. She served as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art and helped curate an exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery in London entitled, “Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain 1700–1850.” Ray received her B.A. from Smith College and her Ph.D. from Yale University.

Peter G. Roe, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, where he has taught courses including Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, South American Archaeology, and Technology and Culture. He has conducted extensive field research in Puerto Rico and Peru and authored many scholarly articles and essays on American Indian cultures. Roe has received support for his research from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the University of Delaware, and other organizations. He earned his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Karen Sherry is assistant curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, where she has organized several special exhibitions, including “Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920,” “Under the Open Sky: Landscape Sketches by Nineteenth-Century American Artists,” and “Picturing Place: Francis Guy’s Brooklyn, 1820.” Sherry previously worked as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brandywine River Museum. She has taught art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the University of Delaware, and Pratt Institute as well. Sherry is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Delaware and has received fellowships from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winterthur Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Larry Silver, Ph.D., is the Farquhar Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in Northern European painting and graphics of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. In addition to his position at the University of Pennsylvania, Silver has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University, and Smith College. He has been the recipient of many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Kress Foundation. A prolific author, Silver has written numerous articles and books, among them Peasant Scenes and LandscapesMarketing Maximilian, and a survey text, entitled Art in History. He is also the co-author of books including Rembrandt’s Faith and The Graven Image. Silver served as a former president of both the College Art Association and the Historians of Netherlandish Art. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Kay WalkingStick, a professor emerita at Cornell University, is a prolific artist based in New York City. Her numerous exhibitions include “Continuum 12 Artists: Kay WalkingStick/Rick Bartow” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and “Kay WalkingStick: A Mythic Journey, Paintings from Three Decades” at Indiana State University’s University Art Gallery. WalkingStick exhibits her work regularly at the June Kelly Gallery in NYC as well. Her work is featured in the permanent collections of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, and other institutions. She has received a number of honors, including the Distinguished Artist Award from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in Painting. WalkingStick is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She received her B.F.A. from Beaver College of Arcadia University and her M.F.A. from the Pratt Institute.

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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