Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2017
Peter John Brownlee, Valéria Piccoli, and Georgiana Uhlyarik, eds. Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 280 pp.; 260 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300211504)
Exhibition schedule: Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, June 20–October 20, 2015; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, November 7, 2015–January 18, 2016; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, São Paulo, February 27–May 29, 2016

The global turn in art history is transforming the study of American art, whether that means the art of the United States or the art of the Americas. Since the turn of the millennium, an increasing number of exhibitions, publications, and symposia have been challenging the once-firm boundaries that isolated the Western hemisphere’s national art histories, emphasizing cross-cultural comparison, connection, friction, hybridity, and exchange. I am thinking of exhibitions such as Dennis Carr’s Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia (2015) and Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall’s Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own (2000); of publications that include Edward J. Sullivan, The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) (click here for review) and Alejandro Anreus, Diana L. Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg, eds., The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006) (click here for review); as well as international symposia held at such sites as the Mayer Center at the Denver Art Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, especially their five-part Terra Symposia on American Art in a Global Context (2006–15). Published in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic is an exceptionally valuable contribution to this remaking of the field.

The culmination of an ambitious project conceived by Ivo Mesquita, an eminent curator of Latin American art and former artistic director of Brazil’s Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, and made possible by generous funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the book, like the exhibition which it accompanied, brings together more than one hundred landscape paintings created across the Americas between the early nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. No previous publication has offered such an expansive and inclusive survey of the hemisphere’s landscape art. According to the foreword, it is “the first multi-author publication to offer a comprehensive pan-American perspective on landscape painting in the period of its greatest cultural prominence” (6).

Peter John Brownlee, curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago; Valeria Piccoli, chief curator of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo; and Georgiana Uhlyarik, associate curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, co-curated the exhibition and edited the volume. Forty-nine scholars from the length and breadth of the Americas, many of them leading figures in their fields, contributed their expertise in fifty-four short essays, most keyed to individual paintings. Their collective insights, coupled with the sumptuous illustrations, provide a much-welcome resource for those seeking to internationalize an understanding and teaching of American art.

The anthropologist Ivan Karp contends that when one cultural group represents another, or represents itself to others, two basic strategies are available: assimilating, which underscores similarities, and exoticizing, which highlights differences (Ivan Karp, “How Museums Define Other Cultures,” American Art 5, nos. 1/2 (1991): 10–15). Picturing the Americas embraces the assimilationist approach. The choice of artworks and the terms of comparison create a striking impression of aesthetic and rhetorical uniformity in landscape art across the Americas. Each of the book’s six sections, with titles such as “Land Icon Nation” and “Land as Resource,” draws attention to an area of commonality. The period chosen was a time of nation-state formation throughout the hemisphere, and landscape’s role in national-identity construction is an overarching theme. So too is the influence of European aesthetic theories and formal conventions, from the sublime and the picturesque in the nineteenth century to Symbolism and Cubism in the twentieth. In the nineteenth century, many of the included artists were linked by a desire to contribute to the scientific enterprises of the era, as when, for example, Rafael Troya (Ecuador), Frederic Church (United States), and numerous European traveler-artists responded to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s call to join in the exploration and documentation of American nature. In the twentieth century, artists throughout the Americas, including Lawren Harris (Canada), Georgia O’Keeffe (United States), Tarsila do Amaral (Brazil), and Joaquín Torres García (Uruguay), sought to nationalize and personalize European modernism in what curator Uhlyarik describes as “a search for authenticity—a search for self” (226).

The book is at its most interesting when individual authors challenge, problematize, and push back against the parameters of the project. Some are forthright about this, others more subtle. They point out issues with the project’s inclusive dates, its focus on landscape painting, the power relations embedded in the pictures, and the silences they impose. In one of the book’s most provocative essays, “Indigenous Lands/Settler Landscapes,” Canadian scholar Ruth Phillips queries “the cross-cultural validity of landscape as a mode of artistic representation” (93). Colonizers and settlers transplanted the European genre of landscape painting to the Americas, she observes. From the first, it embodied and advanced the interests of these groups. In its conception, Phillips writes, it is “incommensurate with traditional Indigenous understandings of land” (93). Choosing landscape painting as the focus of the project, rather than a more capacious category such as the “representation of nature” or the “representation of relations to the land,” excludes indigenous voices. Phillips counters this by including in her essay images of works such as a stunning Coshocton (Ottawa) black-dyed deerskin bag (ca. 1790) embroidered with cosmic imagery in porcupine quills. The book does not make clear whether such illustrated objects were included in the exhibition.

During the years spanned by the publication, from the early nineteenth century into the 1940s, dramatic and often violent upheavals transformed the Western hemisphere. It was wracked by revolutions, civil wars, the brutalities of slavery, and the devastation of indigenous peoples by disease, massacre, and enslavement. The hegemony of European powers gradually gave way to that of the United States, which flexed its imperialist muscles through multiple military interventions intended to secure and advance U.S. political and economic interests. Through such strategies as representing indigenous-occupied territories as empty “virgin land,” landscape painting facilitated such violences, yet it rarely addressed them directly.

Some of the book’s essayists, however, draw attention to them. Argentine scholar Roberto Amigo stretches the boundaries of landscape art to include panoramic battle scenes of the devastating Paraguayan War (1864–70), in which Paraguay, in conflict with the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil) lost sixty percent of its population (109). In his contribution, Sullivan illuminates the subtle ways in which Francisco Oller’s placid images of Puerto Rican sugar plantations were inflected by the U.S. invasion and annexation of the island during the Spanish-American War.

In another compelling intervention, Mexican scholar Fausto Ramírez pushes the beginning of his narrative in “From Urban Metropolis to Cosmic Spectacle: The Valley of Mexico in Landscape Imagery” back to the 1521 Spanish Conquest, including an image of a late seventeenth-century standing screen that represents, on one side, the conquest and, on the other, a bird’s eye view of Mexico City’s neatly gridded streets. The physical format of this work, based on Japanese models, is the book’s only reference to the substantial trade with Asia that shaped so much of the region’s visual culture from the sixteenth century onward. Ramírez also deploys the screen’s imagery to underscore the historical orientation and urban-centric character of Mexican landscape painting that distinguishes it so markedly from that of countries such as the United States and Canada. Subversively, he reinforces this point with a painting by Pedro Gualdi, Grand Plaza of Mexico City, Following the American Occupation of September 1847 (1847), in which the U.S. flag flutters above the national palace. These are moments, and there are many more in the book, when the aggressions and atrocities that shaped the hemisphere’s political and economic geographies rise into visibility.

No exhibition or book can be comprehensive, and perhaps it is churlish to harp on omissions. Yet it is curious that a volume committed to offering a hemispheric perspective on landscape art places less emphasis on cultural interactions within the hemisphere than on the flow of artists and ideas from Europe to the Americas. The risk is the reinscription of the old center-periphery model in a project intended to counter and complicate it. I missed, for example, some reference to the work of Mexico’s los tres grandes, such as David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Collective Suicide (1936), painted while the artist was conducting his Experimental Workshop in New York City, a workshop attended by Jackson Pollock. Incorporating works like this one, if only in the essays, would have been a reminder of the flow of ideas from south to north within the hemisphere and disrupted the centrality of Europe to the book’s core narratives.

Nevertheless, with its collectivity of voices, Picturing the Americas substantially enriches the still-opening conversation about pan-American art. The inclusiveness of its approach, with its cross-continental gathering of landscapes, catalyzes comparisons impossible before and facilitates the imagining of a new transcultural narrative of American art. If we are fortunate, this project will provide a model for many future hemispheric collaborations, stimulating discussions and debates that will explode the old nationally bounded histories of American art, promoting alternative comparisons and contexts, and allowing us to see even familiar objects anew.

Rebecca Bedell
Associate Professor, Art Department, Wellesley College