A Way of Seeing

Anne Gardom at some current exhibitions

Tate Britain and Tate Modern each have an exhibition on at the moment which provide a very remarkable contrast. At Tate Modern in its final weeks there is a very large retrospective Andy Warhol exhibition, with many of his huge canvases displayed in the vast spaces that are a feature of this gallery. At Tate Britain the latest exhibition is American Sublime, showing how artists saw and painted the United States in the nineteenth century. These two exhibitions and their artists are so far apart in style, philosophy and content that worthwhile comparisons are not possible, but each has something to say about how America saw and sees itself, and the impact this has had on European art.

The American Sublime is a large exhibition of paintings and artists that are little known in this country, and as a result the pictures have the ability to surprise and delight with their sheer unexpectedness. We simply have not seen them before, and this is both entertaining and stimulating.

Delightful Horror

The concept of the Sublime in art was, of course, well established by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It can be described as an intense and imaginative response to natural phenomena, almost a ‘delightful horror’ induced by danger, crags, magnificent landscapes and the like. It had its place in literature as well. The response to the tremendous wildernesses and untamed countryside opening up in the United States produced dramatic and idyllic paintings, many of which struck a chord in the minds of the public and were greatly admired at the time.

The artists painting in America were often from Europe, and well acquainted with the styles of Turner, Claude, Martin and Salvator Rosa. They were influenced by them and this shows clearly in their paintings of America. The dramatic lighting, stormy skies, shattered tree trunks and banks of clouds are both a response to the empty and untamed landscapes, and also a sorrowful commentary on the swift progress of industrialization and territorial expansion. The politically conservative artist, Thomas Cole (1801–48) was horrified by the rapid transformation brought by unrestrained growth. In an ambitious cycle of five large paintings he describes the progress from a primitive savage state, through pastoral beauty to huge classical opulence, and then to destruction and finally moonlit desolation. It has a powerful message emphasizing the fragility of nature in the face of the greed and ambition of man.

Religion and Landscape

Religion has always been a fundamental part of American culture. The beauty and grandeur of nature as an expression of the divinity and power of God is implicit in many of the larger and more elaborate canvases. The huge landscapes with tiny figures, or buildings dwarfed by their surroundings all speak of an over-arching power far beyond the scope of man. Autumn on the Hudson River by JF Cropsey, was painted in London from quantities of sketches and preliminary drawings, and is almost a hymn to the light-filled pastoral beauty of American landscapes. When Queen Victoria saw it she could not believe that the colours had not been exaggerated, and Cropsey had to send to America for some samples of foliage before she would be convinced!

However, not all painters were busy on big and complex canvases, and the tradition of painting in the open air from nature (pioneered by the Impressionists) also produced lovely painting. There is a room of these small pictures, full of life and spontaneity, a direct and vital response from the artists to the variety of natural beauty they saw all round them – seascapes, rocky formations, banks of clouds, stormy skies. Expeditions to South America, Jamaica and the Arctic brought artists into contact with new and dramatic scenery.

A bigger picture

The tradition of the ‘great picture’ produced huge and elaborate paintings. A magnificent painting of Niagara Falls – surely one of the most dramatic natural sights ever known – shows vast masses of tumbling water, spray, prismatic light effects, and watching it all, two tiny figures standing on what looks like a wholly inadequate lookout platform! Icebergs by FE Church was the result of many studies and a detailed knowledge of the natural history of ice. It is shown in a small side gallery in the way that it was originally displayed. Surrounded by claret-coloured velvet drapes, with a seat in front, it is brilliantly lit in a darkened room. Every detail of sea, ice, water and clouds is sharp and clear. The type of near-obsessive naturalism so admired by Ruskin is seen here at its most brilliantly accomplished. It is, however, by no means the only ‘great picture’. There are other large and complex paintings – the Rockies, the Catskills, the Grand Canyon, a tropical storm, not to mention Hiawatha and his adventures. The vast spaces and potential of the new continent produced a response of excitement, awe and delight which is communicated to the viewer in this splendid range of paintings.

From the Factory

Perhaps the rapid industrialization and expansion, the development of huge cities and the population of huge areas of this magnificent country dreaded by the artists painting in the nineteenth century is what Andy Warhol was painting in the twentieth century. The personal response to what he painted has been consciously removed from Warhol’s paintings. Indeed, his studio was known as the Factory, and his paintings were by no means always done by him. He did not interpret what he saw but allowed the impact of it to make its own statement by frequent repetition.

The response of the artist to a world of huge advertising hoardings, of news images of violence, of crime, of death, of beauty, of courage, is to present these images to us, subtly modified and repeated, and then let us draw our own conclusions as best we may. Some of them, like the array of FBI mugshots, seem pointless and cruel, some of them, like the repeated images of Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monro have a haunting and tragic quality. The endless tins of Campbell’s soups seem to reflect a cynical commercialism. His self-portraits look at himself with a curious uninvolved detachment (except one ink drawing which hilariously takes on the quality of a caricature).

Graphic ingenuity

Warhol, an extremely successful illustrator and graphic artist, was endlessly experimenting. He used film, silk screen printing, stitched photographs, paint, pencil, ink, even a room full of silver helium-filled clouds – his creativity is awesome.

He is certainly an icon for our times – much imitated, admired, vilified, and only partially understood, perhaps even by himself. His view of America, particularly New York, has had great influence on our art, décor and design. There is a bleakness and pessimism to his work that is profoundly disturbing, though it is lit throughout by his sheer technical and artistic originality.

The painters are separated by about a hundred and fifty years – a very long time for a country that moves as fast as America. But they are all part of her history – risky, beautiful, unpredictable, certainly never dull, and the same can be said of the Tate’s two exhibitions.

Tate Britain American Sublime 21 February – 19 May 2002. £8.00 entry, £6.00 concessions.

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions

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