This Exhibit Examines Nature and Environmental Justice in Three Centuries of American Art
By Patrick Rogers
The fact that nature and nation share a common root—the Latin verb nasci, "to be born"—might rate as trivia to most people. But in the context of early American art, at least, the connection has profound cultural meaning. Paintings of natural vistas, from New York's Hudson Valley to the purple mountains and red deserts of the West, became early symbols of a young nation and its so-called manifest destiny. In the minds of many early Americans and pioneers, the land was out there for "us" (as in, men of European decent) to celebrate—but also to conquer. The very idea of American civilization meant destroying some of those beautiful, natural vistas to build the cities, farms, and factories of the future.
That is just one of the contradictions set up—and rapidly deconstructed—in a sweeping reappraisal of American art seen through the lenses of environmental justice and the emerging theory of ecocriticism now on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. First developed in the 1990s as a cultural inquiry into the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau and others, ecocriticism has expanded into the study of the ecological significance of visual art, music, architecture, and other creative fields.
Albert Bierstadt, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, ca. 1871-73North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
In Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment, museum curator Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock, a professor of art history and American studies at the College of William and Mary, play with the meaning of more than 100 paintings and objects from the Colonial period to the present day. With fresh research and interpretations, the exhibit peels back traditional views of early American art to raise questions about colonialism, racial and ethnic representation, pollution, and humanity's ethical responsibilities to nature.
The free exhibition starts off with the juxtaposition of Albert Bierstadt's Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, an iconic 19th-century Romantic landscape, and Valerie Hegarty's 2007 Fallen Bierstadt, a facsimile of the same painting. Bierstadt, who visited Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, described it as America's Garden of Eden and depicted it as a divine creation untouched by human hands. In Hegarty's version, however, the painting has been slashed and burned, with its missing pieces sitting on the floor below. Hegarty, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, sullies Bierstadt's scene in ways similar to how humans have damaged the environment, and in so doing, she skewers the antiquated notion of nature as sublime and beyond our reach. "She literally dematerializes that vision of nature to suggest it's not necessarily the only vision," said Kusserow.
Valerie Hegarty, Fallen Bierstadt, 2007© Valerie Hegarty. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum
The exhibit's intention, however, is not to deny or disparage the power of artists like Bierstadt to shape prevailing views of the environment. Bierstadt's popularity in the late 1800s helped encourage the creation of California's first state parks and the launch of modern conservationism. Take, for example, the large-format 2002 photograph Caribou Migration I by Subhankar Banerjee, which captures a vast section of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as seen from an airplane overhead. Single-file lines of barely discernible female caribou cross the icy landscape on their way to calving grounds to the north.
The image has a quiet, peaceful quality to it but caused an uproar back in 2003 during the second Bush administration. As the Indian-born photographer was preparing a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, he became caught up in the political fight over Arctic drilling when a congresswoman displayed the caribou image on the House floor to counter claims that the refuge was a frozen wasteland. Suddenly, Banerjee's major exhibition at the government-run museum was downsized to a gallery in the basement, an act that some saw as censorship. The move galvanized activism against drilling the Arctic, and Banerjee's photograph is now an icon of the environmental movement.
Caribou Migration I by Subhankar BanerjeeCollection Lannan Foundation © Subhankar Banerjee
Nature's Nation also zooms in on the production of some earlier American works of art, such as a chest of drawers by Philadelphia cabinetmakers circa 1761. The exhibit presents the highboy of tulip poplar, white cedar, and imported mahogany as an artifact of exploitation. As the museum commentary explains, this gleaming mahogany, meant to embellish an elite Colonial-era home, was probably harvested in Jamaica or Central America by enslaved Africans living in cruel and deplorable conditions. In a short amount of time, loggers cleared much of the region's tropical forests, along with the wildlife they supported. The land then became sugar plantations, where once again slaves suffered terrible fates.
Probably Henry Cliffton and Thomas Carteret, high chest of drawers, ca. 1760. Princeton University, Prospect House. Photo by Bruce M. White
The production origins of Morris Louis's color field paintings of the mid-20th century are also highlighted. Louis used thin washes of color in large abstract compositions like Intrigue, 1954, by diluting acrylic paints with gallons of turpentine. Praised for their flatness and airy immateriality, Louis's "veil paintings" are brought back to earth by an essay describing the notorious "turpentine camps" of the American South. A Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange accompanies the essay. The 1936 image shows a mother and her barefoot children and is titled Turpentine worker's family near Cordele, Alabama. Father's wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. Needless to say, these mostly African-American laborers have, until recently, never been seen or acknowledged as playing a role in the production of museum-quality art.
Morris Louis, Intrigue, 1954Princeton University Art Museum © 1954, Morris Louis
Nature's Nation argues that in the dawn of the Anthropocene period, in which humans play the predominant role in shaping the planet, we urgently need a new way of seeing the world around us—including within art and culture. "One of the great things about ecocriticism, which is the approach we take, is that it enables you to see as if through a new pair of glasses the environmental stories in any kind of work of art, not just in landscape paintings," said Kusserow. For many viewers, this mind-expanding art show at Princeton will be the first step toward that new understanding.
Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, through January 6, 2019. Admission is free.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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