For the second show running Tate Britain is offering us 19th-century images of stirring, much fantasised-over subjects, executed in a fashion so meticulous and glossy as to look in some cases positively slimy. But American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 is a much more worthwhile exhibition than its slightly sleazy predecessor, The Victorian Nude.
For one thing, it is virtually the first opportunity for the British public to contemplate a key phase in the development of the transatlantic aesthetic. For another, in amongst a great deal of knock-’em-dead painterly razzmatazz, it contains some quietly impressive pictures.
American Sublime documents what happened to Romantic landscape painting when it reached the New World
In some respects, it was simply a continuation of the idiom that had evolved in Britain and Northern Europe in the work of Turner and his contemporaries — which is why the show fits in Tate Britain — and also that of Caspar David Friedrich and the Romantics of Germany and Denmark.
But nothing crosses the Atlantic without being somehow altered as a result. And Romantic landscape painting, on American soil, took on American qualities. There was a tendency among English painters such as John Martin and James Ward towards an epic scale.
In America, a vast new continent, empty except for its native inhabitants, you could scarcely escape landscape of sublime grandeur — whether at Niagara Falls, the Catskill Mountains or the Grand Canyon. And gigantic pictures became almost the norm, certainly in the work of Church and Bierstadt, the greatest crowd-pleasers of the American School. A monster such as the latter’s `Storm in the Rockies’ at 12 and a half feet by almost seven covers the area of a fair-sized room, or — more to the point — a cinema screen.
A picture of Catskill Mountains
These paintings were shown like theatrical attractions. In the exhibition Church’s picture, `The Icebergs’ (1861), is shown in a room of its own, framed in its own velvet curtain as if on stage. Church’s earlier `Heart of the Andes’ — not in the exhibition — was seen in New York by 12,000 people each paying 25 cents a ticket. They examined the work bit by bit through opera glasses and specially designed tubes so as to transform the experience of a static painting into something more like a documentary film.
Looking at the paintings of Church and Bierstadt, one is tempted to go further, and speculate that if they had been able to employ Technicolor and Kinescope, instead of oil paint and brushes, they would have rushed to do so. Their works, like many paintings popular in the 19th century, go to elaborate lengths to disguise all evidence of how they were made. Not a brushstroke disturbs the glassy surface of, for example, Church’s `Twilight in the Wilderness’. This is just the kind of meticulously `photographic’ effect that a diminishing section of the public admires for its remarkable skill; while a different body of opinion points to it as evidence that painting has been rendered obsolete by photography. (Tellingly, these pictures look better in reproduction than in the original.)
There’s not much question that Church and Bierstadt were extremely vulgar artists
- The near fluorescent sunsets of Church’s `Twilight in the Wilderness’ and `Mount Ktaadn’ were exactly the kind of thing that Whistler and Wilde had in mind when they contended that nature was often in dubious taste. And the American’s remorseless choice of what called the `distinguished view’ — distant mountain peaks, splendid lakes, mighty virgin forests — was exactly what the impeccably tasteful Constable strove to avoid.
- The master of Flatford Mill referred to a certain prospect in Sussex as `perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world — and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture’. He believed that `it is the business of a painter not to contend with nature, and to put this scene [a valley 50 miles long] on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must of necessity become poetical’. By those standards, Church and Bierstadt were brash indeed (although it could be said in their defence that their canvases were much more than a few inches across).
- But there are worse things than brashness. And Church and Bierstadt are impressive in their way. What’s more, they teach us something about the American sensibility, both through their pursuit of sheer massiveness, and in their perennial love of light. These pictures are flooded with it — sunsets, luminous skies, rainbows, those sudden eruptions of sun through cloud that suggest divine manifestation to even the most agnostic of us.
- Those qualities recur in American art — in the huge abstractions of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, and also in the work of artists such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell who use light itself as a medium. In fact, if you set aside the nasty, flashy way it is painted, Bierstadt’s mighty `Storm in the Rockies’ has something of the physical impact of a Pollock or a Newman.
There were, in any case, American painters who came much closer to proceeding as Constable suggested. Bundled together retrospectively as the `Luminists’ they painted quiet almost nondescript corners, often of the New England Coast — most typically in John Frederick Kensett’s `Eaton’s Neck, Long Island’, and Martin Johnson Heade’s `Approaching Thunderstorm’. These are charged with a poetic light-filled loneliness that reminds us of a very different current in the American psyche (which notably resurfaced in Edward Hopper’s work).
Just in terms of art, not hoopla, acreage and thrill-factor, the paintings of these two, and to a lesser extent, Fitz Lane Hugh, are the best things in the show. But it’s all worth looking at, and likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t made a thorough tour of American galleries — and a sign that Tate Britain is not going to, be Tate Little England.
As an exercise in compare and contrast, this is absolutely suitable for the Tate — though strictly speaking, it probably ought to be in the National Gallery, whose official remit covers foreign painting before 1900. So this show is an indication that Tate Britain has imperial ambitions beyond the notional borders of its collection — but what could be more British than that?