The Art of the Landscape and the Architect
Posted on August 12, 2014
I usually begin my discussion about landscape painting with an example of art as a palimpsest; those ancient manuscripts on which the paper, or lambskin, on which they were written was so precious that the text before was scrubbed to allow for a new thought or dissertation. However, over time, if one really looked closely, the ghost of past authors remained on the page, cultural memories that sometimes spanned generations, if not epochs.
Art is very similar, in that layers of cultural generations are ghostly evident on the canvas. Take the allegorical painting of Botticelli’s La Primavera; there, buried within the meaning of the paint strokes are stories and tales of Rome, the mysticism of medieval Tuscany, then on the very surface, the bloom of renaissance Florence.
Early American art found its meaning through the Hudson River School and the depiction of the new American landscape. Artist like Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt found not only artistic inspiration in nature, but a deep-rooted meaning- a primordial image of American wholeness. Here they found an ideal relationship between an all-powerful nature and humanity. These artists saw nature as God’s refuge for the Poet-Hero, and the idea that by observing, by really seeing, one would be drawn closer to God and to truth.
Artists like Albert Bierstadt capture the socio-political spirit of America and its newfound brotherhood, and within, a humanity and ecology within manifest destiny. But as American power and expansionism spread, along with industrialization, pollution and poor attitudes towards Native Americans, these artists became our first environmental activist, searching for the balance between expansionism and the preservation of nature.
Thomas Moran saw the manifestation of God in nature. His paintings of Yellowstone so touched the American spirit and the idea of who we were through our landscape, that the painting created our first national park.
Painting is more than a “capture” of an image of a place; it is a representation of what we are and who we wish to be. If architects wish to learn how to better see a place; to know a place, then painting the landscape could be a portal to that path. If architects can better understand how we feel about our landscape then perhaps we can create an architecture of a greater truth and meaning.