Monday, February 25, 2013

1st near 5th, with Theodore Rousseau

This is a 9x12  charcoal drawing looking down 1st Street from Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book, Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Theodore Rousseau, by Greg M. Thomas (an interlibrary loan).  Of course, I have the anti-Rousseau subject matter in a Brooklyn drawing for this post, but there is a tree present.  Anyway... Thomas describes the experience of the 'virtual spectator' viewing Rousseau's masterpiece Winter Forest (in the Met):

"Rather than creating and commanding the view, the virtual spectator struggles to grasp the ideal world over the limitations imposed by his or her own body, by the vastness of space, and by the brute materiality of the surrounding forest... Viewers relive the experience of the virtual spectator who, lost in the muddy fringes of the infinite forest, struggles to grasp the organically interconnected whole.  This is not just realism but, rather, a reorientation of vision that asserts the irrelevance of a viewing subject to the independent order of the land.  Spectatorship itself becomes yet another physical, biological process of organizing activity, another earth narrative in which a humble, peripheral human visitor wanders through the landscape absorbing light and reprocessing it into art."

The 'virtual spectator' can be the artist or somebody like the artist.  We, the later viewer or spectator, sees a scene oriented toward the 'virtual spectator', who is not us.  It's like Rembrandt's painting of the Syndics: they are looking at the 'virtual spectator' and we look at them looking at the 'virtual spectator'.

In any case,  I particularly liked the idea of the viewer/artist wandering through the landscape and "reprocessing it into art."

Here's another quote:  "... the painter [Rousseau] does more than inject passion into the landscape image; he also tries to articulate the passion, the joy and tragedy, inherent in the land itself.  The land has its own history and emotional character, and a landscape painting effects an exchange between the distinct lives of the artist and natural world."

Maybe the title of the book now is starting to make some sense.

Final quote:  "... Rousseau dramatically alters the discourse of impassioned naturalism in asserting that landscape painting is a symbiotic process.  Art is the product of a dynamic exchange between the artist's creative mind and the independent creative intelligence of the external world, a dialogue between self and self-generating world.  This sense of reciprocity underlies one of Rousseau's most overtly ecological statements, an 1852 fragment describing the view from his studio of a weather-beaten little oak grove on a hill: 'Wait there for the sunset, and there will no longer be small or large on the ordinary scale of the senses.  The whole will rise up  in lively silhouettes, you will no longer suffer there; your spirit will be lost in the grandiose....'  'The whole' is apparently the ecological union of all the parts--trees, animals, earth, sky, light-- in the organic interconnectedness of nature.  And, he adds, any small bit such as a bird's beak or a rabbit's ears provides an entry point into comprehending the entire network of things, while any little rural figure conveys belonging to the earth.  Art, he implies, will achieve universal meaning only if the artist can absorb this unified network of life and reproduce it through modeling."

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