Poignant Landscapes: First Encounter

Lucious O’Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880), National Gallery of Canada

From painting to pilgrimage

It’s a rare occurrence, but this is the story I tell when I’m probed to explain why I am so interested in landscapes. It is the story of my first encounter with a poignant landscape. But this landscape was not real; it was a painting. It was not even the original, as my first encounter with this poignant landscape was through an image reproduction of 19th century Canadian artist Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880) in an encyclopedia I saw as a child. Ironically, I only recently learned that the painting was more of a Canadian version of Luminism than Romanticism. It’s been decades since my first glimpse of the image but even as I glance over at the postcard version hanging above my desk, as I stare into the misty glowing sunrise over the serene waters, I can still feel that pang in my heart as I write this post.

Since then, I have been enchanted by the idea of poignant landscapes. I like to indulge myself thinking that there is something magical in landscapes. But I admit that deep-rooted ideologies created by socio-historical constructions of utopia and romanticism shape my landscape vision. These ideals have led me into an experiential perspective on landscape that is similar to a pilgrimage for transcendence in “real life” landscapes. However, neither as a landscape architect nor a sightseer have I ever felt an absolute satisfaction in the results of this “pilgrimage.” I have doubted at times whether the power of landscapes do exist or are they just cognitive constructions. In a way, this research project is a personal attempt to re-affirm the poignant power of landscapes. I have found that poignancy relies on the observer as much as it does on the landscape. Because I don’t want to let go of my belief in the magic of landscapes, that’s why I can still hope to experience it.

What does it mean to be poignant?

The term poignant had been part of my project title from the very beginning, but there had been times when I had considered dropping it and replacing with a more definitive adjective. When I say to someone that I study poignant landscapes or the poignancy of landscapes, the other person doesn’t know what I’m talking about. To be honest, most of the time, I find it difficult to explain what it really means and it ends up being simplified as the emotional or the sacred landscape. At other times, I’m not even sure if I know 100% what I’m referring to! But that is the mystery of poignancy. It is ambiguous. When my advisor insisted that I keep the term because of its perplexity, I realized that it was the most fit for what I was doing. If landscape is a mystery to the human mind, the poignant landscape is a mystery to the human soul.

My two favourite words in the English language are “poignant” and “nostalgia.” Not only do I love the meaning of the words, I also love how the words sound. To me, the words are embodied with emotions. I imagine that this is more revealing of who I am as a person than if I listed my favourite colours or foods. As much as I like the enigmatic feel of the words, being too obscure is certainly unsettling. Especially when I have to write academic papers on the subject and was encouraged early on by my advisory committee to at least start with some definitions to ground my thinking. That said, here is my attempt to describe the essence of a poignant landscape. While poignancy implies the acute evoking of melancholic or sentimental emotions, landscapes are poignant for me in that they can trigger emotions through conscious and subconscious contemplation of life and existence. That’s a tall order, so of course not all landscapes are poignant. But a part of me believes that all landscapes can be poignant because it is up to us to feel the emotions. Changing the trigger in the landscape or changing how we perceive the trigger is how we can experience more poignant landscapes.

Thank you for reading my first post. Please see the About page for more of my general thoughts and rationale for this blog.

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