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American landscape painting, from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic

Peter John Brownlee–AGO-PTA-cover-additional options_5a.indd

Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic culminates nearly five years of collaboration and cross-cultural exchange. Featuring essays by 48 scholars from across the Americas, the book reflects the dialogic manner in which the exhibition and catalogue came together. Developed over the course of several curatorial meetings and scholarly gatherings, both exhibition and publication were enhanced by the diverse perspectives and methodologies of regional specialists.

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In early March, 2010, the Terra Foundation for American Art (TFAA) visited the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (PESP). It was the first stop on a tour of museums and cultural institutions in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Lima. During our meeting with the Pinacoteca’s then Director Marcelo Araujo (now Secretary of Culture for the State of São Paulo) and then Chief Curator Ivo Mesquita, the latter mentioned a “dream project” of theirs: an exhibition of landscape paintings from North and South America. Soon after, the Pinacoteca and the Terra agreed to collaborate and invited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) as the project’s northern partner.

The Pinacoteca hosted our first curatorial meeting in São Paulo in April 2012. Along with the three organizing curators—Valeria Piccoli, Chief Curator PESP, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Associate Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Peter John Brownlee, Curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art—invited advisors Natalia Majluf, Director of Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), Roberto Amigo, Curator at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, and Alberto Nulman, PhD Candidate in Art History, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Mexico City engaged in three days of intensive brainstorming.

To begin, participants offered brief overviews of landscape painting traditions within their respective art histories. Discussion ensued, attending early on to the importance of recognizing differences in the face of the tendency to look for patterns, categories, similarities. The immensity of the subject—including its evolution over time and the various art historical approaches applied to its study—was stultifying.

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This became even clearer as we hung hundreds of color reproductions of paintings on the walls of our meeting room in São Paulo (see above). We placed like with like, under broad categories such as “scientific exploration,” “work and leisure,” “encounter and conflict,” and “literary themed landscapes.” Though preliminary, these categories began to illuminate broader tendencies as well as regional distinctions.

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As the curators puzzled over the structure of such an unwieldy subject, they also looked ahead to the question of how to present a cohesive narrative in the museum. The need for a conceptual roadmap assumed the form of a paper placemat from a lunch during which the curators shared news of their progress with the directors (see above). The exhibition’s narrative was beginning to take shape.

The second curatorial convening was held at the AGO in October 2012, which also included an advisory committee of academics and curators to discuss the exhibition’s concept and scope, the working checklist and ideas for the publication. The curators gathered again another five times and traveled extensively to see works firsthand and discuss loans, visiting museums and private collections in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and the United States. Through these meetings, and over a series of regular conference calls, the curatorial team finalized the working checklist and the catalogue’s table of contents.

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Picturing the Americas stemmed from an inquiry that eventually generated the exhibition’s driving questions: what does it mean to bring together landscape paintings made by artists across the Americas? What do these images tell us about the preoccupations and practices of landscape representation in, and of, the continent’s many cultural regions, divergent physical topographies, and wide ranging climate zones? What do they tell us about the connectedness of the American landmass and the many disparate histories of the diverse peoples who have inhabited and traversed it? What do they tell us about the capacity of landscape painting to convey political, economic, scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual meanings? How do they express and/or encourage in viewers sentiments of national identity or, in the opening decades of the twentieth century, a sense of personal belonging?

Paintings made during the long nineteenth century tended to draw upon a common, European inspired set of compositional principles and painterly techniques premised on the well-established aesthetic categories of the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime. However, the subject matter of landscape paintings made in the Americas varied wildly from its European predecessors. Along with the depiction of the continents’ many natural wonders and extreme topographies, ranging from towering mountains and majestic waterfalls to extensive plains and expansive valleys, scenes were also devoted to the everyday landscapes of haciendas and farms and other sites of production, including scenes of timbering in the vast forests of the Atlantic seaboard. Such paintings articulate our complex relationship to the land, which during the nineteenth century was rooted in a proprietary sense of ownership and dominion. Artists in the early twentieth century, by contrast, painted pictures that revealed a more intimate view, emphasizing the meaningfulness of belonging to a particular place.

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The exhibition and publication open with a selection of iconic paintings by major artists across the Americas. From the icy scene depicted in Cornelius Krieghoff’s Monmorency Falls of 1853 to the golden light of Albert Bierstadt’s majestic 1868 painting Yosemite Valley, and from the vast openness of José Maria Velasco’s grand View of the Valley of Mexico from Santa Isabel Hill of 1877 to the panoramic expanse of Félix Émile Taunay’s 1828 scene of Rio de Janeiro’s famed Guanabara Bay Seen from Snake Island—these works make visible the cultural aspirations of emerging nations through the depiction of each region’s unique topographical features. Together, they frame the exhibition’s continental perspective.

Scientific inquiry and a desire to depict grand, awe-inspiring views of America’s remotest regions led artists to join expeditions of discovery. German traveler-artist Johann Moritz Rugendas, Frederic E. Church of the United States, and Canadian Paul Kane, among others, created majestic views of America’s unique ecosystems from the dense interiors of the tropical rainforest to the icy peaks of the Arctic. Landscapes by Thomas Cole, a founding figure of landscape painting in the United States, Canada’s Joseph Légaré, and Brazil’s José Maria de Medeiros reimagine the violent and contested history of territorial expansion as romanticized encounter. In their images, the land itself figures prominently as a character in the development of national myths and symbols.

America’s abundant riches—fertile soil, timber, and minerals—shaped the territories and galvanized the economic future and identities of its emerging nations. Paintings of coffee plantations, ice harvests, and timber extraction glorified the dominion of man over nature. These often romanticized views are paired with iconic paintings that foreground the picturesque and sublime aspects of natural landscapes. Widely admired works by leading artists such as Asher B. Durand of the U. S., Canada’s Lucius O’Brien, and the Italian born founder of the Chilean art academy, Alessandro Ciccarelli, lodged themselves in the national imagination, offering beauty as a significant natural and national resource.

By the opening decades of the twentieth century the industrial encroachment on the land became a new subject within landscape painting. Innovative compositions depicting factories and dense urban centers by Mexico’s Juan O’Gorman, Charles Sheeler from the U. S., and Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia effectively dismantle nineteenth-century aesthetic and pictorial conventions in the pursuit of a new idiom. This spirit of modernity also infused the seductively impressionist and symbolist works of Mexican painter Joaquin Clausell, Uruguay’s José Cuneo, and Ozias Leduc from Canada. The exhibition and catalogue culminates with a group of twentieth-century icons. The singular and visionary paintings of Canada’s Lawren Harris, Georgia O’Keeffe from the U. S., Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral, and Pedro Figari of Uruguay invoke a powerful sense of individual belonging inspired by the spirit of the land.

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Lookout points, akin to what visitors might find atop a grand prospect at a national park, are located throughout the exhibition to point out and describe the contents of particular paintings and engage visitors in close looking (see above). We wanted to provoke visitors to consider the construction, and the “constructedness,” of landscape paintings by offering them the tools needed to “unpack” or “dismantle” images whose codes and cues have been lost to history.

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Exhibitions of this scale and scope, regardless of their subject, are extremely difficult and costly to assemble. But, of course, they are also extremely rich and culturally enriching. Picturing the Americas is particularly rewarding in this regard, as it is the first exhibition to take an expansive view of landscape painting across the entire hemisphere; in numerous instances, it represents the first time that works by several of these artists have ever been exhibited together, which makes for a truly amazing viewing experience.

As with all exhibitions, this project evolved significantly over the course of its development. But we are proud that our curatorial vision, premised on the integrated, thematic approach to arranging the exhibition’s checklist, the inclusive attempt to geographically represent as many areas of the Americas as available landscape paintings would allow, and our desire to engage and include regional specialists in the interpretation and contextualization of the works, remained intact throughout and enhanced the process at every turn.

Peter John Brownlee is curator, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

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