Ho-hum. Here comes the English again with their painters of the Great Outdoors. This time, it’s a show called “Landscapes of the Mind,” Tate Museum’s collection of British landscapes from 1690-2007 at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City.
It’s wearying to see the same British landscape painters over and over. You must know their names by heart: Turner, Constable, Gainsborough. An odd man out in this Tate collection is David Hockney. Granted he’s British-born, but living in one of his two California homes for many of the last 30 years makes his landscapes American, no?
The French also overexpose their landscape artists, the ever-loved Impressionists Renoir, Monet and Pissarro. (Yawn).
But something that Tate director Nicholas Serota said about the British collection in Mexico City unwittingly makes a case for American landscape painting.
Giving reasons why landscapes are so popular in England, he credited the diversity of the land, the sense of loss of the rural life due to industrialization, and the belief that taking time to smell the roses allows for “spiritual truth.”.
All of which is hardly indigenous to England. When you consider how Americans move around from place to place so much, it’s a wonder that we notice natural scenery at all, let alone paint it. Yet American artists have pictured the grandeur of our natural scenery so persuasively that the depictions may well strike those who see it as religious experiences. Even those American artists not known for painting Arcadian subjects have turned to them.
It was the haunting beauty of the Catskill wilderness that moved Thomas Cole, previously a portrait painter, to paint landscapes.
“Grand Canyon” by Philip Pearlstein, a realist figure painter known for rooms full of cropped nudes with sagging muscles, also has pictured the canyon as the body incarnate, as Mother Nature bared, worn-out and wrinkled.
Then there were the social realists of the early 20th century who turned downright earthy in their work:
“Sun Glow” is by George Bellows, better known for picturing boxers, like “Stag at Sharkey’s”, fighting it out in a crowded back room of a New York saloon. In his “Sun Glow,” you see an uninhabited coastline, and loamy breakers meeting unyielding rocks baking in a sun that enlivens them.
“The Ledge, Cape Elizabeth, Maine” is by George Luks, better known for showing a drunk being thrown from a saloon onto pavement (“New York Nights”). Luks, himself, was a drunk who died on a New York sidewalk. But in his “The Ledge,” which is on the same subject as Bellow’s “Sun Glow,” you see a sudsy sea hugging impregnable rocks made soft by rich daylight.
And John Sloan, better known for painting blowzy people in rumpled furnished rooms or urinating in New York streets, painted “A Neighbor’s Garden,” a jungly high-colored scene reminiscent of a fairytale illustration.
Gone among these social realists’ works is any sign of the isolation, indifference and the sadness of their better-known works.
Granted, when it comes to landscape painting, Americans were greenhorns. The Chinese were doing it 11 centuries ago. And Europe first saw nature as the main idea in painting in the 16th century, when Dutch artist Pieter Breughel portrayed winter in “The Hunters in the Snow.” America’s earliest landscape paintings were topographical records made by artists who joined explorers on their journeys into the wilderness.
But I’d argue that while American artists came to outdoor painting late, they ran with it like a deliverance from their man-made world. American landscape painting is owed a whole lot more credit.
I’m just saying.