This week Ken Burn’s new documentary about our National Parks and National Forests airs on PBS. I watched one installment of this series that focused on the evolving purpose of the National Forests. The controversy persisted around whether these tracts of natural wilderness should be preserved for their purity or exploited for their resource. In either regard they became places to visit and behold. The question serving as a refrain was “what is the greater good” of these special places. What, in fact is the purpose of a landscape at all? What do we behold in its presence. It is not just a difficult question put towards the actual landscape, but for pictorial representations of them as well.
Each time I set out to paint a landscape I am confronted with this issue. It is a persistent problem for me to approach natural splendor and know what my response to it should be. There is a universal draw to the beauty of nature, but describing that beauty and its meaning is not easily done. I always have a sharp moment of anxiety when I realize natural beauty. It is an anxiety that wants to reconcile what my responsibility is to the landscape and how it relates to me.
There is a wonderful myth of Actaeon stumbling upon Diana in the forest, bathing nude with her attendants. The goddess, Diana immediately punishes Actaeon for spying her by turning him into a stag. There are varied ways this myth can be interpreted, but I see it as an allegory to describe our reaction to natural beauty. We are stunned by it, and can’t help but to see a human personality in the landscape, one that is undomesticated and feral, like the goddess Diana. We desire that vision of this pure person and overreact by trying to express our more natural traits, thereby losing our humanness and becoming more animal (in poor Actaeon’s case, a stag). The sublime beauty of the wilderness is one that we at once desire to be a part of and fear that we could lose ourselves within. On a more practical level, the landscape can be a chaotic and dangerous place and a place of extraordinary resource. In the wilderness we could as easily be eaten by a bear as shoot a bear to eat.
I suppose for much of our human history we were at odds with the dangers of the landscape, but learned to dominate it. In recent times we have come to learn that dominating the landscape can also be dangerous, as we unintentionally poison our water, air and soil. The artificial landscape we have created mingles with the natural in almost all regions and the unadulterated wilderness is a rare thing. It is hard to separate from this modern perspective on the landscape as something still full of awe, but also fragile. The question of how to paint a landscape often feels like an act of preservation. This applies a narrative of humans’ relationship with the landscape to the painting. It is like the little figure dressed in red that so often appears in landscapes, providing a personality with whom the audience can identify. But to see and paint a landscape on its own terms requires any narrative to be stripped.
When I was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts we had a lecture by a visiting artist, Israel Hershberg. Hershberg paints exquisitely precise landscapes in the state of Israel. I asked him, quite sincerely, how he could separate the landscape from the meaning of the place in a region where land is so contentious. I think he took it the wrong way, as though I were asking him to make a political statement and said, “I’m just there to paint.” Of course, that is how his paintings appear, without any ideological claim except to beauty. I often wrestle with a sense of place and the meaning of that place when I paint. Bucks County is such a dear place for me and I often want to go paint her landscapes with some homage to her identity but at the same time without being burdened by her cultural meaning. I’d love to paint Bowman’s Hill precisely because it is a unique form and not have it exist as an addendum to all the other Bowman’s Hill paintings that have been offered by the Bucks County impressionists. What I want is that initial innocent experience with the landscape—before it was a place of repute.
To paint a faithful representation of the landscape in great accuracy is a frantic and ill-fated task. Light and life are faster than paint. The sun speeds along overhead, clouds conspire, plants grow and die. What then is crucial for a decent attempt is all that is omitted. This is in general a good rule for all painting—play the rests. Often it is the subconscious that subtracts by prioritizing what is in the landscape. Recently I have been painting landscape from memory. Since I can’t remember things in as great a detail as I can observe them, only that which my subconscious has seen fit to preserve filters through. It’s an exciting way to glimpse how I am internalizing the landscape. These imagined landscapes reduce the information I’ve observed to raw building-blocks of form, color, depth and light. I’ve realized what the landscape means to me stripped of its associations to a nameable place. It is the antidote to all that we know in our artificial environments. It is the namelessness of light and form. Without any human context the landscape is a very abstract subject. Without obvious narrative, more primal unspeakable narratives take form. I’m still not sure what the greater good is for the landscape but paintings seem to know more so than I.