Painting, Art History, and Geography

By Wallach, Bret | The Geographical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Painting, Art History, and Geography


Wallach, Bret, The Geographical Review


Many years ago Nadia Boulanger wrote that every time the pianist Dinu Lipatti played a piece of music he heard it afresh. She made it sound as if this came naturally to Lipatti, and perhaps it did. Lesser pianists, however, must work hard to avoid the death that comes when they no longer hear what they are playing. With enough practice, their fingers begin to play autonomically: The pianist not only has no conscious control over them, it is a genuine struggle to regain control, to think where the fingers should be, to place the next note so that it fits a pattern in the pianist's mind. Or--and I move here from form to content--the pianist's Chopin sounds deader and deader. There is no help from visiting the modest grave at Pere Lachaise or in contemplating Delacroix's famous portrait. Yet a visit to the Radziwill palace, not far from Chopin's birthplace, helps a great deal, not because Chopin apparently played here but because the building itself is a reminder of the classical equipoise that once surrounded the heroic etudes of Opus 10.

Geographers have the same problem. Whether they see themselves as students of spatial organization or--as I prefer--students of landscape, they too risk the death that comes with habit. In a certain frame of mind, I drive along a local commercial strip and wonder how living in such an environment must damage our children. Or perhaps it is a church that I pass, a church housed in a manufactured-steel building bearing a plastic sign that says, "Jesus Is Lord." I see only fervent and subliterate religiosity, dosed with hypocrisy. Or maybe it is a new, $300,000 house that catches my eye: pseudo-Elizabethan half-timbering in four-by-eight sheets has been nailgunned over utility-grade studs, and I laugh silently at Americans' hopeless quest for stability and status. Another elitist, you say? But there is worse, for nowhere in any of this am I seeing anything afresh. Fatigue has set in; the world has been short-circuited into icons.

How, then, shall geographers cure tired eyes? I think the answer will bring us, like musicians, back to the study of form and content. Digital, shaded-relief terrain models, after all, excite us most when they show us landforms we have never noticed before, like those amazing sets of fractures that now are evident across the northern Great Plains. Or--turning from form to content--why travel, if not to enlarge our lexicon, our knowledge of what the world has to show? Along the Coromandel Coast we see for the first time cashew trees, growing in deep, coastal sand; in a house in old Hebron we see a man draw water from one of those cisterns we have always read about. And for a moment, at least, our eyes really do see anew.

And then, of course, we are magpies, famous for borrowing the understandings of form and content developed in other disciplines. Oddly, however, we have not borrowed much from painters and art historians, who are the subject of this note. I say "oddly" because who else has worked as hard as we to describe and understand the totality of the visible world? Nobody, I daresay.

Maybe we have been put off by the associations of art with money. (I think of Bernard Berenson, a giant in the study of Italian art but also a man who established himself comfortably by working for art dealers, attributing paintings those dealers hoped to sell and then taking a slice of the dealers' profits. "Pig work," he called it--a nice phrase, almost liberating for those who are weary of euphemisms.) Perhaps we are uncomfortable alongside the erudition of scholars who seem to have seen everything, who have read about it in six languages, and who remember in which museum, church, or private collection every bit of the stuff lies, hangs, or is stored. Or perhaps our objection is more fundamental: Perhaps we reject connoisseurship, which implies that by developing our taste we can not only walk through a museum and guess the painters but also confidently praise one painting and damn another.

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