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.
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
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’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.
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.
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.
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. ↩