Monday, December 4, 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land: Art and Man's Place in the Universe

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, 
There is a rapture on the lonely shore, 
There is society, where none intrudes, 
By the deep sea, and music in its roar: 
I love not man the less, but Nature more, 
From these our interviews, in which I steal 
From all I may be, or have been before, 
To mingle with the Universe, and feel 
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal. - Lord Byron
The depiction of the physical world is a subject visited and revisited throughout all of art’s history; yet for a time, most Western artists thought of the physical world only as scenery in which to place their figures. It was not until the rise of the Romantic movement in the late 1700s that the landscape in Western art began to stand on its own: rather than merely setting the scene, the landscape in Romantic art and onwards functioned as a subject in itself and began to ask questions of viewers. What is man? Why are we here? What is our place in so vast a universe? This exhibition explores the various ways in which artists choose to depict man’s relationship to the world and the world’s relationship to man.

Artist Unknown, Landscape with Figures, 18th century. Jade (nephrite), 39.65.22a, b.
While Western artists were slower to embrace the concept of landscape as its own subject, landscapes dominated Eastern art. Carved in China during the reign of the Qing dynasty, this sculpture features two figures with a crane in the midst of a swelling jade landscape. Similar to gold leaf in illuminated manuscripts, the luminous quality of the jade signifies that this is meant to portray an ethereal landscape; furthermore, the form of the landscape itself, which resembles a cumulus cloud, reflects the Taoist philosophy which encouraged communion with the sublimity found in nature. Taoists believed that time spent sequestered in nature elevated one’s own human nature and also drew human thought to a higher plane of enlightenment.

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1825-30. Oil on canvas, 2000.51.

In this work the prominent Romanticist painter Caspar David Friedrich not only captures the subliminal nature of the landscape so characteristic of Romanticist art but also draws on the landscape’s ability to prompt memory of past experience. This piece, painted during the height of the Romanticist movement, honors Friedrich’s student and friend August Heinrich, who died of pulmonary disease in 1822 at the age of 28. Friedrich depicts Heinrich, on the left, and himself on a sloping hillside edged with boulders and trees. The pair used to hike together in the German wilderness, and in this piece their experience is memorialized along with the woodland landscape Friedrich forever associates with Heinrich.

Eugène Cuvelier, Près de la Caverne, Terrain Brûlé, early 1860s. Salted paper print from paper negative, 1996.303.

Similar to Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Eugène Cuvelier’s salted print features two lone figures seated on boulders and looking out over a landscape; however, these figures are grounded in a far more barren environment dotted with the charred skeletons of pine trees. This piece invites the viewers to participate with the figures in their contemplation of the scarred landscape and to consider the role of man in the stewardship of the physical world.

Auguste Rodin, Adam, modeled 1880 or 1881, cast 1910. Bronze, 11.173.1.

This life-sized sculpture displays the first man God created from the dust of the Earth. Rodin’s rendering of Adam’s twisted body invites viewers to look on the human body itself as a landscape constructed of sinew and bone. The sculpture also alludes to the brevity of man’s existence in this physical world: Adam’s right arm is a direct reference to the Adam featured in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, while the left arm references the limp arm of the dead Christ in Michelangelo’s The Deposition. In this way, Rodin depicts the fleeting nature of man’s time on Earth.

Adrien Dauzats, The Great Pyramid, Giza, 1830 or later. Oil on canvas, 2015.506.1.

Adrien Dauzats traveled to Egypt in 1830 and marveled at the sheer size and scale of the Giza pyramids. He produced this painting upon his return to Paris, in which the Great Pyramid takes up roughly two thirds of the picture plane. Five small, indiscriminate figures nearly lost in the monstrous slabs of limestone climb over the mountainous exterior. This painting is a testament of man’s ability to use the materials of the physical world, in this case, limestone, to construct their own equally imposing landscapes.

El Greco, View of Toledo, ca. 1599-1600. Oil on canvas, 29.100.6.
El Greco’s landscape of Toledo is not an accurate representation of the city; rather, it is a rendering of Toledo as it exists in the artist’s memory. El Greco took artistic liberty in assembling the buildings and landforms of Toledo to fit the vision of his hometown as he remembers it; therefore viewers confront a nostalgic dreamscape engineered in the artist’s memory. The piece speaks to the concept of memory in connection with a particular landscape, and the ways in which people often appropriate the mental image of the landscape to fit their remembered experiences of that specific place.

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953. Oil on canvas, 53.183.

In this work painted by Edward Hopper, a seated lone figure gazes out from the window of his white-walled office over a beige and sepia cityscape. The surrounding buildings ground the figure in an industrialized, man-made world far removed from any sense of an organic landscape; however, this piece references the contemplative, subliminal environment of Romanticist-era paintings and alludes to the sense of insignificance one confronts when faced with the question of their place in a wide, wide world.

Agnes Denes, Study of Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space-Map Projections: The Cube, 1978. Watercolor, gouache and ink on graph paper and mylar, 1983.501.3.

In this piece, Agnes Denes manipulates the form and dimensions of the physical world as viewers know it and fits the continents so naturally into the hexahedral grid that viewers are forced to confront the diagram and compare it with their preconceived notion of a spherical Earth. In altering the proportions of the Earth, Denes forces viewers to question what they think they know about the world they live in and contemplate their place within the grid.

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