April 25, 2007

Hudson River School exhibit at Johnson impresses

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Nature is culture’s invention. The pastoral genre, however much it may seem to celebrate nature’s purity, evidences this anxiety. In the nineteenth-century, such literary movements as English Romanticism, Germanic Sturm und Drang, and American Transcendentalism, fearful of encroaching industrialization, sought solace in the natural landscape — often to conclude that the estrangement one confronted there was a representation of one’s own moral darkness. What one sees in a landscape may not be the wild ruin of nature itself, but a reflection of human nature in its fallen or imperfect state. Informed by these philosophies, the panoramic American vistas of nineteenth-century painters, whether tranquil or transcendent, often implicitly acknowledge that the viewing eye itself disturbs the prelapsarian wilderness it beholds.
The eleven small-scale works of the Hudson River School currently on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art offer a glimpse into a loosely affiliated group of painters who, while ostensibly deriving their inspiration from the largely unexplored and uniquely American land, nonetheless romanticize their landscapes in ways that recall the European tradition of such artists as John Constable and Claude Lorraine. The exhibit contrasts the Hudson River artists’ depiction of quieter, more serene native locales, arranged along one wall, with more idealized foreign scenes along the other wall.
Sanford Robinson Gifford’s tiny, vertically-formatted view of a blazingly leaf-spangled mountain slope that dissolves by fine gradations into its background’s blank, pale grey mist, “A Foggy Autumn Morning in the Catskills,” is the only work in the exhibit that features the School’s eponymous region. The rougher brushwork in the foreground conjures the unforgiving solidity of the rocks and crags while the milky silhouettes of pines in the middle distance evoke a delicacy, as much for the view as for its human onlooker who’s privileged to gaze upon this ephemeral slice of time. Gifford’s “Derwentwater,” alternately, allegorizes the relationship that humans share with their habitats by engulfing a peasant in an apron along with her child — each represented by little more than a few white strokes — in a sweeping scene of the Lake District’s gently rolling yet shadow-tinged pastures and mountain-sides. Across the expanse of a placid lake, a lone sail and a neighbor’s cottage are rendered with smaller specks of white, which at once gives the idyll a sense of chilly solitude as well as highlights the vast spaces that men require, spaces potentially threatened by urban expansion.
Francis Jasper Cropsey, on the other hand, situates a single human figure, a boy fishing with his back turned from the viewer, in a much warmer autumnal riverside scene, “On the Susquehanna River.” The boy, happily oblivious to any civilization, appears as a bucolic Huck Finn figure, probably playing hooky from school — an idea reinforced by the way the line of his fishing pole leads to a group of cows wading on the river’s far bank below the glowing suffusion of a pale noon sun.
Opposing this vision of homespun coziness, the forbiddingly icy hues of William Bradford’s “Labrador Fishing Village” depicts how nature can be both alien and alienating as humans set out to explore and tame its more extreme regions. Within a seascape where a low-slung mass of brewing thunderclouds mirrors a choppy, slate-grey sea, the dark amber, triangular masts and sails of a fishing ship decorated with a bright red stripe across its side starkly contrast with a pyramidal hunk of iceberg floating in the distance. Strikingly, the iceberg’s baseglows with an uncanny radiance: the ribbon of turquoise color looks like something one might find in a swirl of toothpaste. Experiments with new pigments made available by advancements in chemistry at this time seem to have allowed Bradford a means to convey the absolute, sublime otherness that explorer’s faced when their researches took them beyond the edge of civilization. Here, scientists’ quest to fathom, catalog, and plunder nature for its secret knowledge gets projected in terms subtly reminiscent of heroic warriors from Scandinavian eddas and sagas.
Other noteworthy paintings in the exhibit include Frederick Edwin Church’s “Andean Sketch,” which captures an exotic Ecuadorean overlook onto volcanic peaks surrounded by lush jungle foliage dappled with flecks of salmon and magenta; William Stanley Haseltine’s “Sunset Glow, Roman Campagna,” which literally romanticizes the languid silhouettes of parasol palms against a marsh’s dusk-charged air, set-off by clouds glowing in shades of plum and ochre and a fingernail-pairing-thin sliver of a new moon; and, finally, Alfred Thompson Bricher’s lonely beachcomber’s paradise wherein one can almost hear the ankle-high waves lap against an abandoned row-boat whose prow points out, past a gently curving shoreline, to a horizon marked by puffy summer clouds and drifting skiffs, “Sailing off the New England Coast (Coastal Scene).” Perhaps, such pastoralized landscapes may express to us how nature is never an empty vessel, but rather a marker that will hopefully guide us to envision more civilized forms of humanity.