Magazine article The Spectator

Impressive Brashness

Magazine article The Spectator

Impressive Brashness

Article excerpt


American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880

(Tate Britain, till 19 May)

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.

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. …

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