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Landscape in the Arts

The Path Toward Landscape, Landscape East And West, Attitudes Toward The Landscape, Scholarship On The Landscape

The Oxford English Dictionary defines landscape as both a verb and a noun, signifying not simply its multiple references in vernacular and specialized parlance or its active and passive modes but more importantly the varying perceptions of landscape as an artistic, cultural, and religious entity. Among the definitions of landscape as a noun, the OED proffers first "A picture representing natural inland scenery, as distinguished from a sea picture, a portrait, etc." Further definitions include "The background of scenery in a portrait or figure-painting," "A distant prospect: a vista," and significantly, "The object of one's gaze." While as a transitive verb, landscape proposes "to represent as a landscape; to picture, depict." This verbal form further connotes "to lay out (a garden, etc.)" as a landscape. Western art history classifies landscape as both iconography and theme; that is, as a series of signs and symbols that form the visual vocabulary that is encoded with specific meanings, such as the metaphor of the "errand into the wilderness," or the Garden of Eden. As a topic, landscape is either the subject matter of a painting or a series of prominent elements in a painting that coordinate the diversity of public understanding of the idea of "landscape." The early nineteenth-century transformation of landscape into an acceptable category of painting by the academy equal to history and portraiture signaled a shift in Western cultural and religious values.

Traditionally landscape is designated by such explanatory signifiers as pastoral, ideal, naturalism, and picturesque. Further, landscape is discussed as a background, a symbolic element, a historical setting, and a motif, so that the visual diversity of the paintings that form this visual essay are all appropriately identified as landscape paintings. The journey in the history Overwhelmed by the natural world. Monk by the Sea (1809) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. PHOTO CREDIT: BILDARCHIV PREUSSISCHER KULTURBESITZ /ART RESOURCE, NY of the idea of landscape—from the symbolic stylization found in classical Egyptian frescoes and early Christian mosaics to the awesome sublimity of Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Sea (1809–1810; Schloss Charlottenberg, Berlin) and Georgia O'Keeffe's Red Hills, Lake George (1927; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)—are interwoven with artistic, cultural, economic, political, and religious influences. Perhaps the most significant issue to be considered is whether or not any discussion of landscape painting is privileged as Western in orientation and classifications, especially following the attitudinal metamorphosis toward landscape shaped first by Edmund Burke's eighteenth-century treatise on the sublime and reaffirmed by Immanuel Kant's discussion of the sublime in his Critique of Judgment (1790). Essentially Kant argued that the sublime was premised upon the immeasurable extent and stunning intensity of nature and the sense of awe that these expressions of dynamis effect in humanity. The amalgamation of terror and delight educed simultaneously from the sight of such phenomena as fulminating cataracts and colossal mountains, thunder and lightning, volcanoes and hurricanes, elicits both a fascination with and a distrust of nature.

The Dictionary of Art (1986) has a major entry of nearly one hundred pages under the rubric of "landscape painting" that details the history and variations of landscape painting in the West and references descriptions of landscape as either a motif or a category in discrete entries dedicated to the world beyond the West, for example, China. This is not to suggest that landscape painting in the West is not a significant or an enormous entry topic in its own right but rather to recognize that the universality of landscape as a visual recording of human attitudes and perceptions of the natural world has been abbreviated. Therefore the tradition of defining and describing landscape requires reformulation of it as a pandemic idea. With that in mind, this essay will discuss origins and modern examples of landscape in Europe and the United States as well as in Japan and China. Whether rendered as ideal or real, harmonious or discordant, bucolic or refined, the landscape communicates solace, spiritual grandeur, and space for solitude.

Panoramic depictions of the subtle but expansive beauty of nature are incorporated into the landscape designs and themes found on Japanese screens. Sequential visual episodes are depicted upon individual panels, which when encountered as a unity create an effective visualization of the natural order, with its coordination of foreground, sky, middle ground, and flora and fauna. As a public or private form of display, these Japanese screens may be unfolded either in full or in segments, providing an ever-renewing composition of natural elements. Varying in size from personalized miniature screens to public monumental exhibition screens, the visual image extends from right to left in a horizontal flow of natural symbols ranging from cherry blossoms to gnarled branches to recognizable species of birds. As in Chinese landscape paintings, the most distinctive element of the Japanese landscape screen is the void or empty space for "no-thing-ness," which offers a spatial threshold for contemplation and quietude, for refreshment and solace.

The dramatically unique depiction of a diminutive, almost miniature, human figure in solitary contemplation of the limitless and enveloping expanse of sky, sea, and sand in Friedrich's Monk by the Sea stunned its original Western viewers. The minimizing of the natural elements to a state of abstracted essences transformed the conventional relationship between humanity and nature as the monk stands silently, almost belittled before the void. The traditional Western presentation of human dominion over nature had been reversed so that nature overpowers this "everyman," who is confronted by the enormity of the emptiness before him. Hypothesizing that Friedrich, who never ventured out of his native country, would not have seen or been influenced by the Eastern religio-aesthetic that informs the Japanese landscape, it is necessary to consider the cultural and artistic route to this singular yet artistically significant presentation of communion with nature by a Western painter. Even without any contact with the Eastern idea of landscape, Friedrich's new vision transformed the Western visual tradition of depictions of saints seated as the prominent subject in size, scale, and placement within a canvas. The normative pattern both of design and iconography was to site a large—usually out-of-proportion figure in comparison to the landscape imagery—human form in such a position as to garner the viewer's immediate attention thereby reaffirming human dominion over nature. Friedrich, on the other hand, eliminates all elaborate details and symbols within the frame of this painting; thereby, he creates and controls the visual emphasis on the atmospheric conditions and the immensity of nature. The miniaturized rendering of the monk required the viewer's complete attention to be located, perceived, and introduced almost to the shock of the viewer. The subject is no longer that of attesting to the human dominion over nature but rather that of the power of nature.

An atmosphere of mystery. La Tempesta (The Tempest; 1507–1508) by Giorgione. Oil on canvas. GALLERIA DELL ACCADEMIA, VENICE, ITALY. © THE ART ARCHIVE /DAGLI ORTI

A dual interpretation of landscape. Sacred and Profane Love (c. 1515) by Titian. Oil on canvas.

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