Monday, April 27, 2015

The Meaning of Cows

Landscapes provide frameworks for the imagination. When a certain type of landscape which we grew up seeing “reminds us of home,” that type of landscape has shaped our imagination to associate the qualities of home with a particular visual experience. Landscape paintings give frameworks for a viewer’s imagination apart from memory, and are therefore able to broaden the ways in which we think, even apart from personal experience.

This exhibition features landscapes which represent ideas of how the world works, portray imagined worlds, or provide space and context for narrative. Koninck participates in the body of 17th century Dutch landscape painting, the typology of which has significantly shaped Western imagination— both in terms of visual language and the cultural “norm” of a flourishing local economy as the basis for larger society. Gahō’s use of landscape similarly expresses cultural values, in this case of balance, interconnectedness and amiably hierarchy. Singh also employs landscape to probe the nature of the world in India’s modernized yet deeply religious society. [Pilement] creates a narrative space with his landscape, giving the viewer an imagined context for the imagined story. Turner depicts an idyllic landscape idealizing the picturesque in a dream of a simpler, happier world. Finally, Mauve, another Dutch painter, shows an insipid yet fertile landscape where the meaning is created by those who dwell in and utilize the land.

What unites each of these works is the presence of cows, helping the viewer to interpret the landscape. The cows in these paintings play various roles, each congruent with the function of the landscape. Cows are of characters in a narrative space, religious iconography in a modern era, agents in a placid world, and a part of the whole economy. These roles inform the landscape they inhabit, and define what framework the landscape invokes in the viewer’s imagination.

Philips Koninck, Wide River Landscape, ca. 1648–49Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 63.43.2

A small herd of cows graze and lounge in a field—one that they are obviously at home in. If you look closely, you can see a person milking one of the cows. These bovine apparently belong to a family farm where they are cared for and where they contribute their own part toward the well-being of the whole farm. The sense of belonging and economic productivity of the cows pervades the entire landscape. Each item set in the scene seems to be a valid, even appreciated, part of a wholesome world of Dutch economy.

Hashimoto Gahō, Boy with Cow at the River’s Edge, Meiji period (1868–1912)
Album leaf; ink and color on silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

A boy and a cow walk together. Though the boy is carrying a harness attached to the cow’s nose, the rope is slack, so that the boy is not so much leading the cow as simply walking alongside, one with the other. The boy glances back and up toward the birds; the cow seems to be eye-balling her next step on the bank of the river. The relationship between cow and boy features prominently in the composition, but also extends to our perception of the landscape as well. Each element relates to every other through a network of organic connections.

Raghubir Singh, A Siva Image and a Cow, by the Ganges River, Calcutta, 1988 (printed 1991)
Chromogenic print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.1284

A white cow stands tethered to a pole, gazing directly at the viewer. Behind the cow lies a riverscape of the Ganges in Calcutta (according to the photo’s title) with an image of Siva and bathers in the distance. The large statue, the Ganges River with its bathers and the cow all carry religious significance for Indian Hinduism. Singh’s landscape, like the cow, becomes a dual-nature of apparent realism and embedded symbolism.

Attributed to Jean Pilement, Cows and a Goat in a Landscape, 1774
Gray, brown and white gouache, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 65.42

Three cows walk away though one pauses to throw back a dirty look at a preoccupied goat. Regardless of the content of what’s happening here, this painting obviously tells a story. These cows are neither props nor symbols but characters. Because of the posture of the cows, and especially the white cow’s gaze, the landscape becomes a narrative space. Rather than implying a larger world reality, this landscape gives just enough information for the story it contains.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, River Wye (Liber Studiorum, part X, plate 48), May 23, 1812
Engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28.97.48

Four large cows and a horse occupy the bank of a river where men swim under the prospect of a ruined castle. In the context of Britain’s industrial revolution, cows become reminiscent of an idealized past, the simpler agrarian economy. A glowing, almost eerie, backlighting pervades the composition and the whole scene becomes an idyllic world of pleasure, beauty and interest. These cows do not possess the same sense of natural belonging as those of Wide River Landscape¸ but instead seem placed intentionally in this scene, as if to make a point about their role in Turner’s ideal world.

Anton Mauve, Changing Pasture, ca. 1880s,
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 14.40.810

Two cows plod in front of the cowherd down a muddy country path. The three figures are the only points of interest in the flat grassland. The road, created by use rather than for it, is the primary feature in an otherwise directionless land. This landscape, wet and green as it is, is completely defined by the cows and cowherd. These cows travel through a world where they are the agents following the road already taken.

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