Heidegger by quotes (part 3): The origin of the work of art

The hermeneutic circle in finding the meaning of art.1

Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886.

As necessarily as the artist is the origin of the work in a different way than the work is the origin of the artist, so it is equally certain that, in a still different way, art is the origin of both artist and work. But can art be an origin at all? Where and how does art occur? Art – this is nothing more than a word to which nothing real any longer corresponds. (pg. 17)

What is art, really?

What art is should be inferable from the work. What the work of is we can come to know only from the nature of art. Anyone can easily see that we are moving in a circle. Ordinary understanding demands that this circle be avoided because it violates logic…we are compelled to follow the circle…to enter upon this path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming that thinking is a craft. (pg. 18)

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Can we ever get to the answer? Conventional logic wants straightforward answers; therefore, the circle is avoided. (How about asking, what is a chicken, what is an egg?) How can we get to the answer without the work of asking the questions and thinking of the truth behind the questions?

All works have this thingly character…There is something stony in a work of architecture, wooden in a carving, colored in a painting, spoken in a linguistic work, sonorous in a musical composition. The thingly element is so irremovably present in the art work that we are compelled rather to say conversely that the architectural work is in stone, the carving is in wood, the painting in color, the linguistic work in speech, the musical composition in sound…But what is this self-evidently thingly element in the work of art? (pg. 19)

If there is a thingly-ness to created work, what is the thingy-ness of art?

Obviously a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which that aggregate arises. A thing, as everyone thinks he knows, is that around which the properties have assembled. We speak in this connection of a core of things. (pg. 22)

A thing is more than traits or properties. It is a connection or an assemblage. But of what?

That which gives things their constancy and pith but is also at the same time the source of their particular mode of sensuous pressure – colored, resonant, hard, massive – is the matter in things. In this analysis of the thing as matter (hule), form (morphe) is already coposited. (pg. 26)

Things appeal to the senses and have form.

The work, therefore, is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the things’ general essence. But then where and how is this general essence, so that art works are able to agree with it? (pg. 36)

Work creates things. In fact, work reproduces a thing’s essence. How does the work in art reproduce the essence of art?

What truth is happening in the work? Can truth happen at all and thus be historical? Yet truth, people say, is something timeless and supertemporal. (pg. 37)

Art is not the reproduction of an object, but a truth is put into the work. What then is truth?

What matters is a first opening of our vision to the fact that what is workly in the work, equipmental in equipment, and thingly in the thing comes closer to us only when we think the Being of beings. (pg. 38)

We can only understand the essence of work (workly-ness), the essence of equipment (equipmental-ness), the essence to a thing (thingly-ness), when we consider the essence of being (Being).

The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work. (pg. 38)

Art sets up a truth (of Being, i.e. the essence of being or existence) through work.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting. Thought of in reference to what is, to beings, this clearing is in a greater degree than are beings. This open enter is therefore surrounded by what is; rather, the lighting centre itself encircles all that is, like the Nothing which we scarcely know. (pg. 51)

Truth is deconcealing, or finding ourselves in a clearing.

Heading towards the forest clearing (Image source: Animal Jam Clans Wiki)



Truth, as the clearing and concealing of what is, happens in being composed, as a poet composes a poem. All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is, is, as such, essentially poetry. The nature of art, on which both the art work and the artist depend, is the setting-itself-into-work of truth. (pg. 70)

Art is the deconcealing of truth (of Being/of being in the world) through work. That in essence is poetry.

The foregoing reflections are concerned with the riddle of art, the riddle that art itself is. They are far from claiming to solve the riddle. The task is to see the riddle. (pg. 77)

Here we have seen Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle on the origin of the work of art. The hermeneutic circle is not about solving the riddle, but rather seeing the riddle and asking the questions.

Perhaps solving problems isn’t all about getting answers; perhaps it’s about seeing the truth to the problem and asking the right questions???

1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).


Heidegger by quotes (part 2): Dwelling and things…

From Poetry, Language, Thought1:

Now to be sure the old word buan not only tells us that buaen, to build, is really to dwell; it also gives us a clue as to how we think about the dwelling it signifies. When we speak of dwelling we usually think of an activity that man performs alongside many other activities. We work here and dwell here. We do not merely dwell – that would be virtual inactivity – we practice a profession, we do business, we travel and lodge on the way, now here, now there. (pg. 145)

To build originally means to dwell. To dwell means to live our lives.

To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. The old word bauen, which says that man is insofar as he dwells, this word bauen however also means at the same time to cherish and protect, to care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine. Such building only takes care – it tends the growth that ripens into its fruit of its own accord. (pg. 145)

To dwell also means to care for our home.

To die means to be capable of death as death. Only man dies, and indeed continually, as long as he remains on earth, under the sky, before the divinities. When we speak of mortals, we are already thinking of the other three along with them, but we give no thought of the simple oneness of the four. (pg. 148)

As mortals, by living, we are already thinking of the earth, the sky, and the divine (because of inevitable death).

Mortals are in the fourfold by dwelling. But the basic character of dwelling is to spare, to preserve. Mortals dwell in the way they preserve the fourfold in its essential being, its presencing. (pg. 148)

To dwell, is to preserve the fourfold of earth, sky, mortality, and divinity.

Dwelling preserves the fourfold by bringing the presencing of the fourfold into things. But things themselves secure the fourfold only when they themselves as things are let be in their presencing. How is this done? In this way, that mortals nurse and nurture the things that grow, and specially construct things that do not grow. (pg. 149)

With care (nurture and construct), mortals bring the fourfold relationship into things. That is how we dwell.

Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time. He puts the greatest distances behind himself and thus puts everything before himself at the shortest range. (pg. 163)

We like to change distance into speed.

What about nearness? How can we come to know its nature? Nearness, it seems, cannot be encountered directly. We succeed in reaching it rather by attending to what is near. Near to us are what we usually call things. But what is a thing? (pg. 164)

However, we understand nearness by reaching out to things.

In what does the jug-character of the jug consists? We suddenly lost sight of it – at the moment, in fact, when the illusion intruded itself that science could reveal to us the reality of the jug. We represented the effective feature of the vessel, that which does its holding, the void, as a hollow filled with air. Conceived in terms of physical science, that is what the void really is; but it is not the jug’s void. We did not let the jug’s void be its own void. (pg. 169)

Taking the jug as example, science has devalued the jug’s main feature, the void, as nothingness.

How does the jug’s void hold? It holds by taking what is poured in. It holds by keeping and retaining what it took in. The void holds in a twofold manner: taking and keeping…the twofold holding of the void rests on the outpouring. In the outpouring, the holding is authentically how it us. To pour from the jug is to give. (pg. 169)

In fact, a jug both holds and gives.

The spring stays on in the water of the gift. In the spring the rock dwells, and in the rock dwells the dark slumber of the earth, which receives rain and dew of the sky. In the water of the spring dwells the marriage of the sky and earth. It stays in the wine given by the fruit of the vine, the fruit in which earth’s nourishment and the sky’s sun are betrothed to another. (pg. 170)

It gives the gift of water from the sky to the earth.

The gift of the pouring out is drink for mortals. It quenches their thirst…But the jug’s gift is at times also given for consecration, then it does not still a thirst. It stills and elevates the celebration of the feast. The gift of the pouring now is neither given in an inn nor is the poured gift a drink for mortals. The outpouring is the libation poured out for the immortal gods. (pg. 170)

It gives the gift of water to mortals. It also gives the gift of libation to the immortal gods.

Earth and sky dwell in the gift of the outpouring. In the gift of the outpouring earth and sky, divinities and mortals dwell together all at once. These four, at one because of what they themselves are, belong together. (pg. 171)

The jug gathers earth, sky, divinities and mortals.

When and in what ways do things appear as things? They do not appear by means of human making. But neither do they appear without the vigilance of mortals. The first step toward such vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents – that is, explains – to the thinking that responds and recalls. (pg. 179)

A thing appears when we think beyond representation.

A thing appears when the fourfold has been gathered into one.


By dwelling; specifically, dwelling poetically.

1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).

Heidegger by quotes (part 1): “What are poets for…poetically [hu]man dwells…”

Sometimes I find Heidegger’s writing to be impossible to decipher, but other times very easy to understand. The basis for most of my philosophical work on landscapes derives from the collection of essays from Poetry, Language, Thought,1 which is quite inspiring. Perhaps in a method that is rather odd, I will try to share my reading of the book, backward rather than forwards (moving from the end essays to the beginning ones), by using quotes directly from the essays.

The default of God means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it. The default of God forebodes something grimmer, however. Not only have the gods and the god fled, but the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history. The time of the world’s night is the destitute of time, because it becomes ever more destitute. It has already grown so destitute, it can no longer discern the default of God as a default. (p. 89)

The loss of faith is the end of humanity’s spiritual connection to the cosmos (which is what gathers us all together).

For generally the utilization of machinery and the manufacture of machines is not yet technology itself – it is only an instrument concordant with technology, whereby the nature of technology is established in the objective character of its raw materials. Even this, that man becomes the subject and the world the object, is a consequence of technology’s nature establishing itself, and not the other way around. (p. 110)

Technology allows humans to objectify the world, but that in itself is the control of technology over humans rather than the other way around.

Modern man, however, is called the one who wills. The more venturesome will more strongly in that they will in a different way from the purposeful self-assertion of the objectifying of the world. Their willing wills nothing of this kind. (p. 138)

Modern human will their way through life (to achieve). But who are the most courageous in their willing?

Poets who are of the more venturesome kind are under way on the track of the holy because they experience the unholy as such. Their song over the land hallows. Their singing hails the integrity of the globe of Beings. (p. 138)

Even with the default of the gods, poets can still find the holy in the unholy of everyday modernity.

We would reflect on language itself, and on language only. Language itself is – language and nothing else besides. Language itself is language. (p. 188)

Language needs to be understood on its own. There is a language to language.

What does it mean to speak? The current view declares that speech is the activation of the organs for sounding and hearing. Speech is the audible expression and communication of human feelings. These feelings are accompanied by thoughts. (p. 190)

Speaking is usually understood as a scientific bodily process: a sound made by the vocal organs. Feelings and thoughts are expressed through this process.

We still give too little consideration, however, to the singular role of these correct ideas about language. They hold sway, as if unshakable, over the whole field of the varied scientific perspectives on language. The have their roots in an ancient tradition. Yet they ignore completely the oldest natural cast of language. (p. 191)

There is still more to language (and speech).

…in the between of world and thing, in their inter, division prevails: a dif-ference. (p. 199)

The dif-ference is neither distinction nor relation. The difference is, at most, dimension for world and thing…The dif-ference is the dimension, insofar as it measures out, apportions, world and thing, each to its own. (p. 200)

There is something between a thing and its world; it exists in a dimension of its own.

The calling of the dif-ference is the double stilling. The gathered bidding, the command, in the form of which the dif-ference calls world and things, is the peal of stillness. Language speaks that the command of the dif-ference calls world and things into the simple onefold of their intimacy. (p. 205)

Language is able to call forth this something between world and thing, and bring them together. Language helps us dwell poetically.

But how is “man” – and this means every man and all the time – supposed to dwell poetically? Does not all dwelling remain incompatible with the poetic? Our dwelling is harassed by the housing shortage. Even if that were not so, our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry. (p. 211)

But with our lifestyles, do we dwell poetically? Can we dwell poetically?

Man, as man, has always measured himself with and against something heavenly. (p. 218)

Heaven as seen from Earth? “Through the Galactic Arch” by Michael Shainblum, 2013.

The measure consists in the way in which the god who remains unknown, is revealed as such by the sky. (p. 220)

Modern day heaven? (Image Source: Inland Capital Blog)

What remains alien to the god, the sight of the sky – this is what is familiar to man. And what is that? Everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens…But the poet calls all the brightness of the sights of the sky and every sound of its courses and breezes into the singing word and there makes them shine and ring again…The poet calls, in the sights of the sky, that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In the familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown. (p. 223)

Between the sky and the earth… (Image Source: PC Wall Art Wallpapers)

The poet can call forth the heavenly through language. The poet can make the invisible visible, making things appear from the unconcealed.

But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling. (p. 224)

Poetry is an essence of dwelling and existence (Being).

Do we dwell poetically? Presumably we dwell altogether unpoetically. (p. 225)

That we dwell unpoetically, and in what way, we can in any case learn only if we know the poetic. (p. 226)

The poetic is the basic capacity for human dwelling. But man is capable of poetry at any time only to the degree which his being is appropriate to that which itself has a liking for man and therefore needs his presence. Poetry is authentic or inauthentic according to the degree of this appropriation. (p. 226)

We only dwell unpoetically because we intrinsically know what it means to dwell poetically. We are all capable of being poetic by dwelling authentically.

What does it mean to be poetic?

Truthfully, I don’t really care for poems. I think the last time I wrote a poem was in elementary school when we learned how to compose haiku poems. However, Heidegger’s essay really resonates with me. To be poetic isn’t all about writing poems. Rather, it is an attitude towards life; a way of seeing the world. Landscape, experientially or as an image, is one form of poetry for me. There are many places where poetry resides (in fact, it can be everything and everywhere, depending on the genre you choose!) I also share the optimism of the essay’s conclusion: that we are all capable of dwelling poetically; it is part of being human. So here I wish everyone inspiration to live poetically!

1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).

Ways of seeing the world: The relationship between subject and object

In last week’s post, I tried to summarize the study of phenomenology and its potential uses in landscape architecture. As mentioned, the study of phenomenology in history has covered varying perspectives relating to experience, ranging from the materiality of what we face everyday to larger existential questions of ourselves and the cosmos. We can apply phenomenology to anything we want because it is a way to understand the details and essences of being in the world. While philosophers have tried to put their own theories together to explain different aspects of phenomenological experience, understanding phenomenology, particularly in an equally vague subject such as landscapes, is rather difficult as a structured and empirical method. Nevertheless, one way to organize experience is to distinguish the relationship we take in the perception between subject and object. Simply, we perceive using one of these approaches:

  1. A one directional relationship from subject to object
  2. A bi-directional relationship between subject and object
  3. A diffusion of subject and object
Ways that subject and object can be related in perception. (Image by https://poignantlandscapes.wordpress.com/)

Broadening our approach to perceive the world is beneficial regardless of whether it is intended for landscapes, another profession, or life in general. The subject to object approach is conventional. The scientific method allows things and events to be studied and understood as complex and objective elements. Similarly, landscapes are studied as objects. Yet, this focus is sometimes even forgone due to external pressures such as politics, finances, and individual concerns. Occasionally, there is an endeavor to take this study earnestly. In better landscape designs, the reciprocal relationship between subject and object is considered. These landscapes can express through their own language, creating dialogues between place, designer, and user. In the best designs, landscapes are no longer objects; they not only speak for themselves but also bring awareness to the users, not as mere perceivers but as part of a greater existential world.

The way we perceive is not easy to decipher. Traditionally, phenomenologists have tried to reject the subject to object approach to perception. The approach is dualistic, rational, and anthropocentric. However, most of the processing of our world through experience is ongoing in this mode. This is the way that the modern world operates. We cannot deny it because it is not the “better way” to experience the world. Husserl’s phenomenology may ask to bracket out pre-conceived biases and assumptions, but every experience does indeed lead to an objective understanding, judgement, and analysis of the world. Seeing landscapes as a creation of sociopolitical power, a picture image, or a series of patterns are characteristic of the subject to object approach to experience. When we look at landscapes as sensory and emotional effects, landscape matter, although distinctly objective, become part of a balanced relationship with the perceiving subject. Finally, when the whole of landscape, rather than its material and immaterial components, gains authority and voice, the subject and object distinction is blurred. When landscape is seen as archetype or as existential order, the objectification of landscape is eliminated. (I will be writing more about this through physical case studies and Chinese landscape painting in the future.)

Taxonomy as a subject-to-object approach to understanding the natural world. (Image source: Palaeontologyonline.com)
Subject and object reciprocates: “To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” – David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, p.68. (Image source: Shutterstock) 

Social conventions can make us bias towards certain ways of perceiving; biases towards ways of perception can also affect the way places are designed, giving the impression that better places are those that can appeal to a limited approach to perception. This sounds contradictory and does not make sense. While not every landscape design needs to be an existential lesson, a conscious awareness to the subject-object relationship should be brought to a common ground. Designers have the potential to trigger these different ways of seeing in the world in what they create, but first they need to see the potentials themselves.

Diffusion of subject and object in the Zen garden. (Image source: thespiritscience.net)

Introduction to phenomenology (for landscape architecture studies)

After exhausting all the posts on landscape art and imagery, I have come to a point where despite my reluctance, I should introduce the topic of phenomenology. I would have loved to skip this post altogether and go straight into details of theories, archetypes, case studies, Heidegger, etc., but that would be confusing and defeating the purpose of bringing philosophy together with landscape architecture.

I never majored/minored in philosophy and am also a picture-person, so reading philosophy books (or truthfully, most theory books) make me feel like this:

Image Source: TORCH Alumni Network

Nonetheless, with what I understand consciously, what I absorbed by “osmosis” in my studies, and with the help of the internet, here is my attempt to simplify and parcel the ever-elusive topic of phenomenology as it relates to landscape.

Phenomenology is such a difficult and abstract topic to define. Depending on the branch of study, phenomenology can be described as different things. Etymologically, it is the study of phenomena. However, it seems like anything can be a phenomenon. Then, perhaps phenomenology is the study of everything? Well, it is and it is not. A phenomenon is something that happens, appears, and is something we are somewhat concerned about. Therefore, under these considerations, every-thing can be a phenomenon if we consider it as one. The common factor is that phenomenology is about experiences, or more precisely, the objective study of subjective experience, or the scientific study of phenomena as they appear before us. There is a paradox here, as experience is always subjective but the investigation aims to be objective. This paradox, however, is what keeps phenomenology a mystery and a fascination.

I consider the following ideas as the simple historical/philosophical context behind phenomenology (as relevant to my scope of study):

René Descartes (1596-1650): “I think, therefore I am.” Human subjective existence is “proven” because of our ability to think.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “There is nothing higher than reason.” As human beings, we have a set of cognitive faculties that are fundamental to knowledge and being. Things exist: as they appear (phenomena), and as they are themselves (noumena); we can never know about noumena because the world exists through our minds.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831): “The history of the word is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” All reality is part of an absolute (knowing, idea, spirit) and is understood by a self-identity and consciousness.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): “To the things themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to see things in themselves (as opposed to Kant’s inaccessible noumena) by bracketing experiences (i.e. the phenomenological reduction) to eliminate preconceived knowledge, assumptions, judgements, etc.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” Humans have a pre-ontological understanding of being in the world (i.e. Being) because of having been “thrown into the world.” Existence is through experience embedded in language, thoughts, and practice.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961): “The body is our general medium for having a world.” Perception is an embodied experience. We understand ourselves in context by our bodies. There is an entangling (i.e. chiasm) between bodies of things that reciprocates, producing “flesh” or phenomenological experiences.

So why does this all matter to landscape architecture?

While phenomenology can cover everything and anything, how is it relevant to landscape architecture? For starters, if phenomenology is the study of experience from the 1st person perspective, then it means that everyone’s experience is unique. A phenomenon can appear for one person while it remains invisible for another. Similarly, a landscape can be beautiful, productive, special, worthy, magical for me, but it may not be for someone else. However, perception is malleable. My main objective for phenomenology in the context of landscape architecture is to trigger broadening perceptions. Areas where phenomenology is particularly relevant in landscape design include:

  • The body and spatial experience
  • Experience and consideration of the material world (both living and non-living things)
  • Understanding of place, in relation to time (cycles of material life, cycles of nature, historical narratives) and memory (including collective memories)
  • Perception of aura and atmosphere
  • Awareness of assumptions and prejudices of experience based on personal upbringing, social conditioning, political contexts

Broadening our field of vision, allows for greater possibilities both in the design and appreciation of landscapes (and life in general…). By opening and shifting the way we perceive, we can literally make things that were once invisible visible; make things that were always the same seem different; see with more depth; and effectively, create and experience more magic!

The Phenomenon of Landscape as an Image

It is almost strange that this blog has the sub-title “phenomenology and design,” and yet I have barely talked about phenomenology or design. In fact, I spent 9 weeks talking specifically about 19th century European art, and the weeks prior, looking at broad philosophical inquiries of the meaning of landscape, place, nature, and being human etc. One of the reasons for this is that I’m actually a bit disoriented in the mystery of landscape phenomenology and still trying to figure out my direction in it. The other reason is that from a contemporary Western worldview, the idea of landscape as image cannot be dissociated from landscape as experience. To understand our relationship with landscapes today, it is pertinent that we unravel its formation.

For me, the simplest definition of phenomenology is the study of phenomena as experienced from the 1st person perspective. Despite Husserl’s phenomenology of bracketing experience, there is only so much one can bracket in real life experience. The way we perceive is inevitably affected by culture, knowledge, personality, and intentions. Although most phenomenologist traditions have tried to reject the Cartesian subject-object view of the world, it does not change the fact that, conventionally, the modern world does operate in this way. What occurs is that every experience leads to an objective understanding, judgment, or analysis of the world. Seeing landscape as image would not be described as a traditional phenomenological approach to interpreting landscapes, but it is a predominant way that perception occurs.

Aesthetics, the judgment of beauty, like other judgments of worthiness in the public sphere is a political process. According to Kant, a judgment of beauty is also the application of a subjective judgment towards the universality of other people’s judgments.1 That is, when we judge something as beautiful, we believe that others should pass the same judgment towards the same object. Landscape has acquired through historical and cultural construct a common impression of beauty. In a way, the idea of landscape is already a pre-judgment of beauty,2 which was learnt from the history of Western landscape painting, particularly as landscape paintings became associated with various aspects of society, including status, pleasure, passion, and spirituality.

In addition to its origin in art, landscapes continue to be connected to imagery because of the dominance of vision in modern society. Since the development of perspective in the Renaissance, Western art has portrayed landscape as static, visual representations. What is seen is objectified and reproduced through the mind into the hand. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, the process is further simplified. Before needing to objectify landscape in the mind, the camera already does the work. With the invention of film, the experience of spatial movement, something that is not static, can be visualized as a series of still images like the frames of a motion picture. In effect, we are at a point where snapshots are so convenient that every experience is a potential photo image (e.g. Instagram)!

The landscape image as conceptual colonization or agent of change?

Quote from Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, 2015, Art Gallery of Ontario.

At the 2015 Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, I snapped an image of the above quote on the wall. Acknowledging the truth in the statement brings about certain feelings of guilt and dilemma. I am fascinated by the landscape image (from painting to photography) and do not plan to let my enchantment of it to disappear. While there is danger in the image, accepting the predicament, understanding the intent of the image, and learning that there are more to landscapes than images are ways to move forward.

Today, the media chooses a lot of what landscape images are worthy to be considered beautiful. From tourism to environmental activism, each industry has their own agendas to market images of beautiful landscapes. The attitude of nature photography has not departed much since the time of the Romantics. When major environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, emerged in the late 19th century, nature photography expanded its role from recreation to advocacy. Artists such as Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Eliot Porter (1901-1990) aimed to bring the divinity of nature, articulated in its materiality, to the viewer through the effects of photography.

Ansel Adam, Roaring Mountains, Yellow Stone National Park, 1941, US National Archives and Records Administration. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Influenced by theosophical philosophies,3 Adam’s photographs brought the spirituality of nature and human experience into the material world through landscapes. Alternatively, Porter, reinterpreted the mysteries of nature photography with the use of colour.

Eliot Porter, Birch Trees on Cliff, 1963, Gift of Joseph French and John Wawzonek. (Image Source: International Center of Photography)

Through the art of photography, the viewer perceives more to nature than what was apparent before. Whether it is through faithfulness to the divine, or strategic visual persuasion, the image has the power to change the perception of a landscape and its fate. The landscape image has been used for specific agendas, and often times, for positive change. Whether it is a painting or a photograph, the image is powerful. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa states:

A profound artistic image projects a sense of rootedness, completeness, life and magic. It speaks with the authority of an entire life-experience. It short-circuits our faculties of rational understanding and feeling, as well as the categories of life and knowledge, reality and dream, beauty and meaning.4

1. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1790] 1952).
2. T.J. Diffey, “Natural Beauty without Metaphysics,” in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds. by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 42-64.
3. Anne Hammond, Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 14.
4. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 57.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 4

See part 1; See part 2; See part 3

Nature as Mystic Wonder and the Commodity Fetish

The last paradox that I will be discussing in modern landscape art is the idea of nature as both mystic wonder and commodity fetish. From Monet’s Train in the Countryside, nature can be seen as something that could be controlled, manipulated, and usable as a resource through the course of modernity in 19th century France. During the previous era of Romanticism, nature was often portrayed with the awe of the sublime. Nature in that sense was seen as uncontrollable, unpredictable, and had elements of horror. The sublime represented the human as a diminutive element in comparison to the grand forces of nature. In comparison, landscapes of the latter half of the 19th century portrayed a relationship between human and nature that was more intimate and comfortable. Instead of the fear of nature, whatever was left of the sublime in nature became a mystified source of curious wonder.

Théodore Rousseau, The Rock Oak (Forest of Fontainebleau), 1861, Private collection. (Image source: WikiArt)

The ancient forests of France were popular subject matter for French artists. Forests covered approximately one-seventh of the area of France during the mid-19th century, much of which date back to ancient Gallic times.1 The Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris was the most popular. Théodore Rousseau loved to paint the old ancient oaks at Fontainebleau. His painting The Rock Oak (Forest of Fontainebleau) portrays the forest in an ancient state, gnarled and contorted, and covered in colourful mosses. Although the forest was already a popular tourist site at the time, Rousseau chose to conceal all signs of modernity. His forests are described as “a closed, self-contained world into which light barely penetrates and in which there is no sign of human presence.”2 The mix of colours, small brush strokes, and the contrast of glows and shadows create an enchanted forest image. The painting, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1861, was described by critics as “a block of copper ore”, a “mosaic”, or “a needle point tapestry.”3

Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña, The Approaching Storm, 1872, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Image source: FineArt-China.com)

Also set in the Forest of Fontainebleau, Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña’s The Approaching Storm blends the powers of nature with the rustic countryside image. The storm, which was commonly portrayed in Romantic paintings, is portrayed here in the rocky plains of the Gorges d’Apremont at the Forest of Fontainebleau.4 Unlike the traditional Romantic sublime, which embodied horror and distress, there is no element of fear in this painting. A single peasant who is going about his daily life is barely visible at the centre of the landscape. He is not bothered by the impending storm, but rather in perfectly harmony with the rugged terrain of the natural landscape.

Gustave Doré, Deer in a Pine Forest (Vosges), c.1865, Carnegie Museum of Art. (Image source: Blouin Art Info: Modern Art Notes)

Gustave Doré’s Deer in a Pine Forest (Vosges) is a painting that depicts the enchanted forest in a mystified way. The image of the small deer inside a towering pine forest, illuminated by a gleam of light is fairytale like. Doré, who was a book illustrator, portrayed the magic and mysticism found in nature. The painting is romantic not in the traditionally sublime or picturesque, but romantic as a fantasy, where nature is the imagined world in contrast to the everyday modern life.

Adalbert Cuvelier, Effect of Fog, 1852, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Image source: Impressionist France, Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April Watson)

The enchantment of nature can also be found in landscape photographs. Not only was the Forest of Fontainebleau a popular place for painters, photographers such as Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Culvelier also found the ancient trees worthy to photograph. To further enhance the atmospheric quality of photos, the technique of photolithography allowed increased control over tonal differences. The photolithograph Effect of Fog, photographed by Adalbert Cuvelier and printed by Alphonse-Louis Poitevin, captures the “ephemeral nature of fog” through dimensionality of image densities.5

Not only did nature in landscapes represent the anti-modern ideal of rural France, it also became the modern citizen’s image of the healthy alternative to the hectic and unhygienic lifestyle of the city. Instead of the untouched and pristine nature that Rousseau and Diaz wanted to represent, the image of the countryside signified nature for the city dweller. When this nature became a symbol for the city dweller’s place of refuge, it also became a commodity. The diorama, which provided life size landscape images, brought “the countryside into town” according to Walter Benjamin.6 Although one could not experience this nature, one could immerse in it visually; perhaps more importantly, it could be controlled.

Claude Monet, Wild Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873, Musée d’Orsay. (Image source: WikiArt)

With the advancement of the railway, travelling to the countryside also became more convenient. Nature tourism in France became a popular past time for the city dweller. Similar to the flâneur of the city, walking about in the countryside was a common activity. When nature became the health tonic for cities, people came to recognize the countryside as a place of leisure. Strolling, walking, and water sports were popular activities in landscapes. Analogous to the “painter of modern life” in the Parisian boulevards, the modern artist also observed, experienced, and recorded the recreational life of the countryside. Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, and Caillebotte painted many images of these types of activities. Instead of peasants of the pastoral ideal, human figures in the paintings were modern men and women in refined landscapes. For example, Monet’s Wild Poppies at Argenteuil shows a lady and a child casually walking through a field of poppies in the countryside. Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo and his Dog Dick, at Petit Gennevilliers shows a man and his dog as the focus of a leisurely stroll in a suburban landscape. Another of Caillebotte’s paintings, Canoes on the Yerres displays visitors in recreational activity. All of these paintings were created from the viewpoint of a participant or a close observer. Compared to traditional landscapes, we are no longer viewing the panorama at a distance. Humans and the landscape are in a new kind of relationship, an imagined harmony as seen from the perspective of the modern human. Unlike the power of nature and untouched landscapes, these landscapes are tame, unchanging and serviceable in the eye of the tourist or recreationist.

Gustave Caillebotte, Richard Gallo and his Dog Dick, at Petit Gennevilliers, 1884, Private collection. (Image source: Gopixpic)
Gustave Caillebotte, Canoes on the Yerres, 1877, Milwaukee Art Museum. (Image source: Peabody Essex Museum Blog, Connected)


When modernity conspicuously overtook France in the 19th century, the mental construct of landscape was shaped to echo the ironies of modern life. The landscape images from the 2nd half of the century especially embodied the paradoxes of modern/anti-modern values. While images of the modern cityscape, infrastructure, and industry portrayed the “rational” side of modernity, landscape images that stressed traditional aspects of nature, expressed what could be called as the romantic yearnings of the modern world. While romanticism is often sidelined as merely sentimental, a notion that is inferior to rationality and the calculative nature of modern progress, it is romanticism that makes the duality of modernity possible.

A narrow worldview would associate modernity with spontaneity, objectiveness, commodity, and industry, while romanticism would be associated with eternity, subjectivity, mystique, and the nostalgic pastoral. However, we have seen that in these landscape paintings these contradictory themes were often interdependent on each other. For example, the relatively new technology of photography was used to capture a moment, preserve an ideal, document a fact, and imagine a montage. In the context of nature, there is the longing to return to a time of greater unity, the desire to preserve a vision of nature as mysterious, and the excitement of nature as a recreational commodity, which is quite ironic because it was progress (in the form of railways, employment, and tourism) that allowed the modern person to even access this kind of nature. For the artist, no matter how affected by objectivity and empirical methods, the expression of individuality remained the most crucial of purposes.

Even today, these contradictions remain in our current images of landscapes and modernity. We still see images like Fields in the Month of June as the romantic anti-modern past that we wished modernity did not destroy. At the same time, an image like Canoes on the Yerres is not unusual for the contemporary person; you may even have a similar photograph from past vacations. Through ads of wines from luxurious vineyards and jams from country farm orchards, tourist postcards and wonders-of-the-world calendars, travel brochures and photo blogs, the romantic image of landscape is continuously fed to us, triggering this dualistic side of our modern lives. We may not produce the same type of images of the French in the 19th century, but we do experience the similar paradoxical predicaments when encountering the landscape image today. And that is because the landscape image captures much of our modern doubts as well as our anti-modern dreams.

1. Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 146.
2. Ibid, 148.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid, 154.
5. Ibid, 172.
6. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (1935)” in The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 6.