Manifest Disaster: Two historic exhibitions bear witness to ecological woes
Picturing Place in Japan and Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment at Princeton Art Museum
Japan: October 20, 2018 to February 24, 2019
Nature’s Nation: October 13, 2018 to January 6, 2019 and Peabody Essex Museum, February 2 to May 5, 2019
We are well used to the linguistic truism that language is culture. Now, two dynamic, partially overlapping exhibitions at the Princeton Art Museum explore its corollary in the visual arts, in which landscape is culture. “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” and “Picturing Place in Japan,” serve as point and counterpoint. Although initially planned independently, both shows disrupt usual ways of looking at iconic works while interrogating the ways that visual depictions of place tell us much about cultural and historic attitudes towards the natural world and our environment. Perhaps most significantly, each exhibition includes contemporary works that bear witness to ecological disaster, whether in Tohoku, Japan or the Arctic National refuge in Alaska.
At the entrance to Picturing Place in Japan , the visual center of this first gallery and in some ways the entire show, is a magnificent ink painting, “Mountains and Water,” by Tani Buncho (1763-1841), which unfolds across a pair of six-fold gold leaf screens. In contrast to the Western tradition of painting, in which the compositional action occurs within a square or rectangle and the painting is meant to be taken in by the viewer in a stationary position as they look at it head on, Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings are viewed from left to right; to look is to take a visual journey, moving across screens, or unrolling a scroll to reveal the full composition. Here, the painting follows the folds of the panels for just over twelve feet, making use of their movement to reveal a landscape of mountains and water. A narrative unfolds and at its dramatic conclusion, the scholar who has arrived by boat to contemplate the scene makes his appearance, serene under a massive rock formation. The effect is operatic, the brushwork that has come before — at times as gently black as mist, at other times a staccato flurry — builds to a crescendo here in the swirling black strokes of the rock formation.
The physicality of the brushwork is what commands attention; the painter appears to have been moving his ink-laden brush like a fevered conductor. And yet, the scene is one of contemplation, of absolute stillness. How can this be? This visual paradox, and the rhythms of the making evident in the masterful brushwork, create the compelling imagery. If there is a Pavarotti here, it is not the quiet Chinese scholar but the rocks themselves, depicted in urgent of dark strokes. So begins this small gem of an exhibition, featuring 35 carefully chosen works which from the onset, challenges viewers to re- think the pictorial representation of place in Japanese art while offering an opportunity to view masterpieces from the Gitter-Yelen collection along with works from Princeton’s own collection.
“Our idea was to put together a show of landscape painting,” commented Andrew M. Watsky,” Professor of Japanese Art and Archeology, who curated the show with Phd candidate, Caitlin Karyadi, “without using the word ‘landscape’. We wanted to expand popular ideas of ink brush painting… to help people see beyond the usual expectations of what Japanese art should be.” The curators set out to achieve this through a division of the show into three main themes: imagined places,” “famous places,” and “sacred places.”
In contrast to traditions of Western painting concerned with mimesis, Japanese ink painting eschews realistic representation. The emphasis is upon the possibilities of brushwork and the resulting tonality in the handling of black ink on paper, silk, or in the case of the magnificent Tani Buncho screen, on the hard surface of a screen covered in gold leaf. What constitutes “landscape” is also radically different from Western painting traditions. Japanese pictorial vision relied on invented scenes, literally called sansui, “mountains and water,” or as in the case of the Tani Buncho gold screen, an imagined China.
From this first work onward, the exhibition makes evident central differences in Western and Eastern thought about the relationship of man and nature. In the Tani Buncho screen, the first panel, which leads you into the natural world, includes the detail of a mountain hut; signs of man are evident even in a landscape that is fit for the contemplation of a scholar. “Nature “as a subject of contemplation is not something apart from man, but rather, man is as much a part of nature as the mountains and water. Even the language of comparison becomes tricky. Not only does the term “landscape,” (which derives from the German word landschaft, denoting agriculture), not apply to Japanese ink painting, but neither does the word“nature,” which does not even exist in the Japanese language. The closest Japanese word, “shizen,” which only entered the language in the 19th Century through translations of Western texts which used the word nature, is used primarily as an adjective meaning to act naturally, or in keeping with one’s essential nature. Naming is of course a critical act of separation of self from the object being named. In Western religion and philosophy, the concept of man versus nature has been an enduring theme.
The exhibition also displays refreshing levels of wit. While the dynamic gold screen of the first gallery is balanced on the left with a large and powerfully composed 19-century ink painting of a pine tree with mountains and water, just to the right is a small scroll titled Bonseki, painted by the famous ink painter Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768). Hakuin was known for his many works that reflect Zen themes, but this small painting is an admonition — a pointed critique of the licentious practices of monks. The subject of the ink painting is of a bonseki, a rock garden in a bowl, but in rendering this landscape within a landscape, Hakuin modified the shape of the mountain to create a phallus shape, even denoting dark marks that could be pubic hair. Double entendre indeed. Similarly, a small ink painting on the opposite wall, cleverly titled “Painting,” by Tachihara Kyoshu, (1785-1840) depicts a scholar setting to work on a painting of an outdoor scene, beginning with a mountain, but soon details make it clear that this scholar is seated inside and the mountain he paints is from his imagination.
The second room of the show considers a grouping of ink paintings and wood block prints best understood in the context of “famous places” or meisho. Here we confront beloved sites in Japan such as Mt. Fuji and the Tokkaido Highway. Most memorable here are the vivid examples of the deep connection between Japanese poetry and ink painting. One playful work, which takes the interaction between poetry and ink painting to an almost obsessive extreme, is the small scroll, “Mt Fuji of Poems” In this work, the noted painter, Yamaguchi Shido (1765-1842) has constructed an image of the mountain by writing out the lines of 100 poems about the mountain. In his commentary he humorously writes that although he was 78 years old, he had managed to write out the minute lines of verse without his glasses.
One of the delights of this exhibition is that the works in each room balance one another, creating a movement of imagery and idea. In the final room, are depictions of reijo, “sacred places.” Historically, the entire Japanese archipelago is considered the realm of the Gods and as such, is filled with pilgrimage sites. In this final room we encounter a range of scrolls and hangings that depict pilgrimage sites, the most memorable being the spectacular “Nachi Pilgrimage Mandala” painted from 1568 – 1600. Colorful, elaborately detailed eitoki, or storytelling scrolls like this one were used to encourage pilgrims to visit shrines as well as to educate pilgrims about the shrine upon arrival. The show concludes in this room with beautiful but dire photographs by three contemporary photographers who made images about Tohoku after the great earthquake, tsunami and resulting meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011.
Thus, as it concludes this exhibition opens, interrogating the aesthetic and ethical problem of making art that depicts tragedy. We are left wondering, what is the role of beauty in the face of environmental disaster?
Across the hall an alluring gold wall shines like a beacon. Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment opens with an iconic work of 19th-century American landscape painting, Lower Falls, Yellowstone painted by Thomas Moran in 1893. This ambitious show, which includes over 100 objects, lives up to its aims of re-thinking the history of American art in light of ecology and environmental history, and to do so by exploring the diversity and dynamism of American works.
In this introductory gallery, paintings by Moran and Alfred Bierstadt which resonate with a romantic vision of the 19th-century wilderness ideal are seen alongside works by contemporary artists Valerie Hegarty and Subhankar Banerjee that challenge us to consider the fate of our American wilderness in the face of environmental degradation. Hegarty’s piece, in foam core, wood and paint, deconstructs Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls Yosemite, painted 1871-73. In her installation, Bierstadt’s romantic vision of nature has been burned, perforated and rendered unstable, bits of it piled on the floor in what amounts to a stark critique of the idea of nature as something pristine, apart and thus enduring.
Within a few steps we encounter an historic work by the African American painter, Grafton Tylor Brown (1841-1918), his View of the Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1890, and soon a magnificent early 19th-century Chilkat robe woven by a Tlingit artist living on the Northwest coast. Another strong contemporary painting, Browning of America 2000, by Native American artist Jane Quick-to-See Smith uses a map of the United States to create a palimpsest of Native American cultures displaced by European settlers. In her image, the entire United States is washed over with brown, conjuring up environmental degradation as well as serving as a witty aside to future demographic trends in the U.S. We are reminded that visions of landscape reflect culture, history, and in very direct ways, the subject position of the viewer. Just as refreshing, the stance of eco-critical art history, which extends beyond questions of representation to consider the environmental implications of materials, is introduced. We pass the 1954 painting Intrigue by color field painter, Morris Louis, who made extensive use of turpentine to thin acrylic paint, and an 18th-century piece of luxury mahogany furniture, made in Philadelphia from imported wood. We engage the ways art has always embodied ecological conditions – both materially and conceptually — whether the maker recognizes them or not.
By the time I had circled this first gallery, I felt as if I had just finished reading the first chapter of a novel where scene-establishing main characters in a particular setting ready the reader for the drama to unfold. What might seem overwhelming is made coherent and manageable for viewers by the show’s organization, which traces three major periods in the evolution of American art in response to nature: colonial beliefs about natural theology and biblical dominion; 19th-century notions of manifest destiny; and the 20th-century emergence of modern ecological ethics.
Environmental humanities is a relatively new and evolving field, but this show, the result of years of work by Princeton Art Museum Curator Karl Kusserow and the environmental historian, Alan Braddock, a Professor at William and Mary, who collaborated with a team of scholars, curators and museums, demonstrates the ways in which the eco-critical lens is both timely and moving.
The title of the exhibition, “Nature’s Nation” pays homage to the new republic’s urgent sense of exceptionalism, based in the idea that America was a place apart, a previously unpeopled and unspoiled wilderness where history could begin again – a new Eden. As the exhibition reveals, there were twin dilemmas inherent in forming a collective identity based on this wilderness ideal. To begin with, North America was populated by indigenous people and far from empty. Just as important, this vision of America’s wilderness as the nation’s ethical, spiritual and aesthetic birthright went hand in hand with a ruthlessly extractive view of nature as raw material to be used for progress.
Moran’s dazzling depiction of the lower falls of Yellowstone is a stage for the dilemmas of “nature’s nation”: American wilderness is celebrated yet ready for colonization. Our eye is drawn immediately to the center, where the powerful falls crash down 300 feet, rendered with a quality of light that evokes beauty, truth and inspiration; we feast on a romantic vision of nature as all-powerful and beyond the reach of human ken. But as our eye travels the lines of cliffs and down through trees and rock formations, something interesting happens – the formal elements of composition begin to tame this wilderness. Symmetric and asymmetric forms are balanced by areas of intense light and dark, creating rhythms of looking, encouraging the eye through this painted landscape in an orderly and logical progression. We are not crashing through the underbrush, scratching ourselves on thorny vines and poison oak. Magnificent wilderness is rendered safe as a postcard, while the sloping cliffs and falls intensify the sense of space and openness. The visual logic of the painting not only supports the exceptionalism of America’s nature; it renders this wilderness critically spacious and empty, ready for settlement.
Our visual occupancy is not coincidental. Moran, who came to sign his name TYM – Thomas Yellowstone Moran – made a series of paintings of Yellowstone, including this one, to celebrate the founding of this first U. S. National park. While the establishment of national parks did not resolve the conflict of opposing ideas of wilderness in America, it did temporarily hold the conflict at bay, for in areas like Yellowstone nature was to be enshrined and protected.
It is when we leave this first gallery that we face perhaps the most haunting work of all, a stark aerial photograph by contemporary artist, Subhankar Banarjee titled Caribou Migration 1, 2002. In this large Ultrachrome print, pregnant caribou migrate to calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Refuge in northern Alaska – a site where oil companies and some members of Congress advocate petroleum extraction. What is most unsettling about this image is that at first glance, the caribou on the fields of white and blue register as just tiny black dots – statistics of climate change. Only up close does one realize that those black dots are pregnant caribou, urgently looking for ways to cross the melting ice to get to feeding grounds in time to calve.
The photograph is disturbingly beautiful, taking us back to those concluding photographs of Picturing Place in Japan. In both instances, images of climate change and environmental degradation force honest consideration of place as we bear witness to ecological crisis.