Shaping, Painting Two New Worlds
Like cousins who have grown up apart from each other, America and Australia have an unmistakable family resemblance, even if their accents are very different.
Each is a former British colony that, as the 19th century dawned, appeared to be a vast, ripe, largely empty New World for Europeans to conquer. "In the 19th century, the promise of our planet seemed boundless, horizons limitless, and destinies manifest," says the catalog of this exhibition of more than 100 paintings from museums worldwide. The show, which began at Australia's National Gallery and now is at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (through Jan. 3), provides a chance to compare and contrast in terms of art and image.
The show gives an American and an Australian perspective on five themes: "Meeting the Land," "Claiming the Land," "In Awe of the Land," "A Landscape of Contemplation," and finally, "The Figure Defines the Landscape." (This last reflects a time when people were no longer dots in the distance but essential features of the paintings.)
Many of the earliest paintings in the exhibition are as much about science as art. Before photography relieved painting of its documentary function, artists routinely went along on scientific expeditions. Thus, when explorer Matthew Flinders set forth to circumnavigate Australia in 1801, he brought English painter William Westall along as his "topological painter."
Similarly, Henry Cheever Pratt accompanied an expedition sent out after the Mexican War to survey the new border and scope out potential sites for settlements. His "View from Maricopa Mountain Near the Rio Gila," included in the exhibition, shows a panoramic landscape of an area that has since become Phoenix, Ariz.
Of the early Australian paintings, some of the scenes of Aboriginals are among the most touching - given how poorly these peoples fared after the arrival of the British settlers. "Corroboree at Newcastle," by Joseph Lycett, for instance, depicts an Aboriginal ritual dance by moonlight. It was an imagined scene. (By 1820, Aboriginals had been largely driven out of the area around Newcastle, not far from Sydney.) "But it's not bad, it's a pretty close approximation, really" of what the dance would have been like, says Barbara Brinton of the education department of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
The presence of Aboriginals in the Australian paintings has a counterpart in the Indians in the American paintings. And painters in both countries were inclined to sweeping panoramas and distinctive natural features. (Natural Bridge, Va., as painted by Frederic Edwin Church, for example, or Becker's "Blow-Hole, Tasman's Peninsula, Van Diemen's Land.") Artists also were inclined to read symbolism into the natural phenomena around them. "Niagara Falls, for instance, was seen as a sign of God's power," Ms. Brinton says.
WATER, indeed, was everywhere laden with symbolism: as a sign of purification and cleansing, as a sign of industrial power in an age when paddle steamers helped conquer new worlds on both continents. "It was never just the landscape. There was always some larger theme behind it," Brinton says.
This show reminds viewers how landscape painting teaches us what to look for in nature. As Simon Schama argued in his 1995 book, "Landscape and Memory," the ostensibly "natural" landscapes we see and call typical of this or that country are in fact cultural constructs: We experience certain things in the landscape because they are what our culture has told us to look for. Or, as the exhibition catalog puts it, " 'Landscape' is made in the mind."