In the last half of the 18th century western European civilisation
'discovered' the landscape. Clearly it had been there before
because people had inhabited both the 'Old' and 'New' Worlds
for a hundred thousand years and, no doubt, they had also 'discovered'
it before, as the bucolic poets and the earliest eclogues can
testify. But as history is a process of continual rediscovery
and reinvention, so its charms were suddenly discovered anew;
reintroduced into the European line of vision in a radically
Now it was its 'natural' beauty which came, quite perceptibly,
into dramatic focus as a subject both of wonder and acclaim.
In Britain, the Peak District, the Lake District, and the Highlands
of Scotland became places of pilgrimage. Here 'Romantics' such
as Wordsworth found 'the imprint of the Hand of God' and professed
themselves humbled by 'the awful presence of an unseen Power'.
Further afield there were the wild places of Europe, where the
wonders of the Black Forest and Mount Vesuvius became as important
a part of the Grand Tour as the cosmopolitan treasury of Rome.
And for the very adventurous, of course, there was also that
pinnacle of unspoiled wilderness, the 'New' Worlds of America
Not surprisingly, these 'discoveries' were being made at a
time, especially in Britain, when such wild places were rapidly
disappearing under a tide of 'improvement' as the commons were
enclosed to make fields and parks for the expanding gentry and
nobility of a growing capitalist society; a gentry with the leisure
to enjoy the wilderness that was visibly disappearing. The concept
of 'landscape' requires a self-conscious observer; an observer
separate from the scene being observed and conscious of this
separation, which is, therefore, able to be described (or imagined)
in its entirety. So landscape gardeners were brought in and a
new wildness was imprinted on the once mundane, working landscape
of Britain. In its place the 'picturesque' was born; a self-conscious
landscape of trees and waterfalls; lakes and winding paths; discreetly
built and sited 'monastic', 'Greek' or 'Roman' ruins.
In the brash 'New' worlds of America and Australia, both of
which huddled along the east coast of vast continents, a newly
emerging gentry was also constructing their own personal idylls
and pondering on that whole new wilderness which lay waiting
to the west. This wilderness was inhabited by indigenous peoples;
'noble savages' who became part of this vision of nature as they
squatted, minuscule, before an awesome backdrop: figures dwarfed
by their vast Garden of Eden.
This major exhibition, Esso Presents New Worlds from Old:
19th Century Australian & American Landscapes, has been
jointly curated by the Wadsworth Atheneum and the National Gallery
of Australia to compare the traditions of nineteenth century
landscape art in both countries, and includes 100 of the best
landscape paintings ever produced in Australia and America; 50
from each country. The majority are of oil on canvas but there
are a small number of watercolours on paper and a few albums
Cole Scene from 'The Last of the Mohicans', Cora kneeling
at the feet of Tamenund
1827 Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest
of Alfred Smith
The paintings in the exhibition include works by Australian
artists Augustus Earle, John Glover, Eugene von Guerard, Conrad
Martens and Arthur Streeton; and American artists Albert Bierstadt,
Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington.
Many of the works have never been shown in Australia before.
Apart from a number of American masterpieces these include two
unique Australian works by John Glover, which have been in the
Louvre since 1841.
Designed to be thought provoking rather than just as a sensory
aesthetic experience, curators Elizabeth Johns, Elizabeth Mankin
Kornhauser and Andrew Sayers believe that 'the exhibition will
offer present day viewers - the very people now affected by many
of the same issues that gave rise to nineteenth century landscape
painting - an opportunity to examine major works from both countries
and to discern provocative parallels and differences'.
Landscape painting itself, the curators say, should 'be explored
as subjective interpretations rather than objective reflections
of a cultural reality'. For this reason the exhibition has been
curated so that it 'moves beyond the standard focus on nationalism
- with its narrow stylistic and cultural exegeses - to explore
larger global issues of social migration, economic change, politics,
and comparative intellectual history.'
Glover Cawood on the Ouse River 1835
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart Gift of Mrs G.C. Nicholas
There are two faces implicit in this vision of landscape;
faces which are intrinsically contradictory. On the one hand
there is a recognition of something which mankind has not created
and from which something can be learned. On the other is the
image of a shaping of nature; the control of the land and its
contours as the gentry reconstruct the landscape into 'pleasing
prospects' or the 'pioneer' pushes through into new territories.
In American paintings this often becomes a struggle of epic proportions
as white Americans battle Indians, or drive civilisation deep
into the wilderness in the shape of bridges and railroads. In
America, as Robert Hughes describes in American Visions, the
'discovery' and opening up of the continent became the 'Manifest
Destiny' of the American people - to bring light into the dark
places of nature and, as the contemporary commentator William
Gilpin declared, 'to teach old nations a new civilisation - to
confirm the destiny of the human race...'
In Australia, the experience was a different one; the ideology
less epic. But if the vision is less grandiose, it is still a
vision of nature motivated by the same contradictory impulses
and the same fascinating heritage. As we near the end of the
twentieth century it is interesting to look back and take stock.
To reassess; to marvel; to ponder; and yes, to wonder.
Lorraine Murphy is the Editor of Education Australia.
Streeton The Selector's Hut: Whelan on the Log 1890
National Gallery of Australia
See also: This Other
Eden - BRITISH ART from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale, Exhibition
at the AGNSW