Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Holiday Snaps: Ned Denny on How America's 19th-Century Artists Travelled in Search of the Sublime. (Art)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Holiday Snaps: Ned Denny on How America's 19th-Century Artists Travelled in Search of the Sublime. (Art)

Article excerpt

Does a picture interest us because it has an interesting subject or because it is painted in an interesting way? Those who are largely indifferent to painting will tend to the former, finding pictures of pleasant things pleasant and being suspicious of any oddnesses inflicted by the paint - on the contrary, a painting is expected merely to hold a mirror up to the world, the degree to which the artist has concealed his machinations being a clear barometer of his skill and industry (spiritually defunct times have a particular inclination towards this fetishisation of "craft", which is reflected in the recent vogue for photorealist art). But surely there can be indifferent paintings of interesting things, extraordinary paintings of wholly ordinary objects? The history of modernist art is the history of the latter, the fabric of everyday life being subjected to an increasingly strange series of transformations. The modern sublime, in other words, is rooted not in subject, but in style.

This is where "American Sublime", Tate Britain's epic survey of early American landscape painting, comes slightly unstuck. There's a wilful conflation of subject and style, of "new land" and "new art". To travel in 19th-century America was doubtless to be overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the place, but it by no means follows that the art of the time will be awe-inspiring to a similar degree. Great scenery, as the work of every holiday dauber bears witness, does not a great picture make. And to claim that there are painters here "masterly enough to embarrass" John Constable and J M W Turner, as did the London Evening Standard's Brian Sewell, is just perverse. Take Thomas Cole, for example, the Lancashire-born artist credited with founding a new, uniquely American way of picturing landscapes. The most cursory comparison of his Mountain Sunrise, Catskill (1826) with Constable's The Leaping Horse (1825) makes the former seem the work of an accomplished amateur, a notation rather than a recreation of sub limity. Constable is painting an old land in a wild new way, while Cole, his neat little brush strokes mimicking the Dutch landscapists of two centuries before, is doing the reverse.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. In the presence of exceptional natural beauty, it could be argued, all our energies are spent on simply bearing witness. The converse of this is in the cities and domesticated landscapes of western Europe, where the deformations of the avant-garde were needed to re-establish contact with the sublime (that beauty which, according to one 18th-century theorist, also excites a sense of holy terror). …

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