THE ECLIPSE OF LANDSCAPE
In the 19th century, much ado was made about landscape painting. Writing about the landscape painting in the Salon of 1852, Edmond and Jules Goncourt noted the decline of historical and religious painting and the rise of landscape painting. Looking at Charles Daubigny’s Harvest, they declared it “a masterpiece, in spite of his neglect of the background.” “Is not a landscape, as our artists understand it, the greatest glory of the modern paintbrush?” they added. Similarly, reviewing the Salon of 1855, they rhetorically asked, “Will landscape become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?”
John Ruskin voiced a similar sentiment, in somewhat more extreme form, in his lionizing of JMW Turner’s landscape paintings in Modern Painters (1843). “Although there was no definite religious sentiment mingled with it,” Turner’s rendering of the beauty of nature shows “continual perception of Sanctity in the whole of nature, from the slightest thing to the vastest; -- an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit.”
Jane Wilson’s landscape paintings have the same “romantic love of beauty” in nature that Ruskin saw in Turner’s paintings, and with that afford a “satisfaction [one] cannot find in ordinary life,” but in Wilson’s paintings nature has all but dissolved, losing the definiteness it had in Daubigny’s painting and even in Turner’s paintings, even at their most atmospheric and luminous. Haziness was beginning to creep into Daubigny’s background, and into Turner’s sky, but there was the sense of a distinct and highly differentiated scene carefully observed.
Such descriptive realism seems secondary to Wilson’s paintings, however accurately they capture the passing perceptual moment. She’s implicitly an Impressionist -- a sort of Neo-Impressionist -- and like Impressionistic paintings hers are seduced by the specious present in which details blur. We are left with the play of elements -- air, fire (light), earth, and water (ocean) -- sometimes impinging on one another, sometimes merging, always in play -- a delightful play, no doubt, but one that loses sight of the particularity of things in nature. We have a brilliant apotheosis of the whole of nature in its vastness, but slight things seem lost in its awesome appearance.
I suggest that having gone through the surrealist mangling of nature the sense of its beautiful wholeness was destroyed, but Wilson restores it -- to the neglect of its details, however much the elemental whole is nuanced as though detailed. The flattened eroded landscapes of American Abstract Expressionist “field paintings” put the finishing touches on the devastation of landscape evident in such works as Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain (1944) as well as those inspired by his stay in the Arizona desert.
American Abstract Expressionist field paintings are the dead-end of the long tradition of American landscape painting. They can’t be comprehended without the Badlands that were Clyfford Still’s inspiration and the barren earthworks that inspired Barnett Newman (thus the “muddiness” that Greenberg accurately saw in Pollock’s paintings). They evoke the rugged American landscape in the act of subverting it. They register the repression of American nature that occurred after World War II, when America slowly but surely changed from a rural society to an urban society, when the city became more important than the country, when the wide open spaces were divided into urban plots, when man encroached on nature to the extent of threatening its existence, as the death of nature theorists argue, and with that our own, as the environmentalists argue.
Wilson’s paintings restore nature to its wholeness, showing it in a pre-urbanized, unexploited state -- the so-called naked state of nature. No human beings or manmade things are visible in her works, as they are in Daubigny’s and Turner’s landscapes. The land is unfarmed, the sea untraversed, the light of the moon and sun not marred by artificial light, the air unpolluted. But for all the exquisite primordiality of Wilson’s nature, and however much her paintings register its changing appearances, it remains peculiarly insubstantial, suggesting that it is no particular nature, but a fantasy of nature.
No doubt this has something to do with the fact that nature changes appearances, with a certain predictability, over time, suggesting that in Wilson’s paintings space becomes time, seems to dissolve into time. Wilson is a nature mystic. Nature is the mother of her art, and she is attuned to it -- watches its every move, its changing moods -- the way an infant watches its mother -- a very good mother in Wilson’s case. But for the infant the mother is not exactly real -- it takes time for the infant to realize that she’s a separate being, real in its own right. Wilson never quite does. Her nature is edgy with emotional meaning, but it has lost the insistence with which it exists in Daubigny’s and Turner’s landscapes, which made them realistic -- factually convincing and precise. Wilson’s sentimentalization of nature demonstrates the truth of Marx’s observation that “all that is solid melts” in modernity. †
Jane Wilson, "New Paintings," Nov. 17-Dec. 23, 2011, at DC Moore Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.