THIS IS THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF A SPECIAL COMMISSION FOR OUR FOOD FOR THOUGHT SERIES. FOCUSING ON EACH OF THE FOUR CLASSICAL ELEMENTS – WATER, EARTH, AIR, AND FIRE – AMERICAN NOVELIST JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS PLACES OLD MASTER PAINTINGS IN THE CONTEXT OF OUR CHANGING AND THREATENED CLIMATE.
Rainer Maria Rilke, enamored of landscape painting, once pitied those tasked with writing a history of it. After all, the landscape robs the art historian of all her anthropomorphic surrogates: figures, anatomy, hands, gestures and facial expressions. From another view, Rilke’s pity strikes me as misplaced. Compared to portraits, figuration, or Christian allegory, the history of Western landscape painting is relatively brief.
Through the Renaissance, a painting’s subject “matter” referred to the narrative or allegorical content of the work, relegating landscapes to mere settings. The landscape proper, by contrast, presents “matter” as matter: it foregrounds the earth. The first true independent landscapes, defined as presenting the land as both fore- and background, didn’t emerge until the 16th century. These early specimens were unprecedented not only for displacing the human figure, but for their narrative emptiness.
In the era of climate change, this idea of the empty landscape is less a formal exercise than a credible, encroaching threat. There’s a longing to reconnect to the land we’ve ravaged. Writers, artists, and activists increasingly call for work that frustrates and reframes old paradigms of human dominance over earth. In my own private and artistic life, I find myself straining to follow the imperative of locavore, slow travel, and other low-carbon movements: keep closer to the land. I avoid meat. I take trains. I pour myself into essays and literature like this. In the end, I still feel hopelessly anthropocentric, not especially natural at all: the land still seems very far away.
This environmental imperative to stay close to the land self-consciously harkens back to agrarian times, before the West really learned to look at the land through art. I’m reminded of the claustrophobic forests by early German landscape painter Albert Altdorfer, author of some of the first ever landscapes in Western art; at first glance, the perspective seems almost awkward. In Landscape with a Footbridge (1518-20), we view the rickety structure oddly from below, while in Landscape with a Church (1522), the trees tower overhead. The pedestrian perspective is a hangover from portraiture, argues Christopher Wood in The Origins of Landscape Painting, in which viewers are invited to act as participants in a social scene. Altdorfer’s sketches are emptied of humans, but the lingering intimacy reminds me how impossible — even misguided — it may be to erase the anthropocentric element from our approach to the earth entirely. In these works, at least, it brings us closer.
One of the greatest chroniclers of landscapes is the Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto, whose urban compositions balance nature and the human scene. Invited to Dresden by the Saxon court in 1747, Bellotto’s paintings later became the basis for the city’s reconstruction of the historic center — known as the Florence of Germany — after it was infamously destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Today, the likeness of the reconstructed Frauenkirche to Bellotto’s famous Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe, above the Augustus Bridge is especially striking. This is the other role of landscape painting: to preserve our memories.
Released from the close, carnivalesque quarters of Venice, Bellotto embraced, like the German Romantics after him, the sweeping panoramas of nearby Sächsische Schweiz. But he was unique in placing palaces, cities, and forts against this astonishing topography of rocky ridges and mist-veiled peaks. His patron, King Augustus III of Poland, had recently ordered a topological survey of Dresden and its surroundings, and there is something of the surveyor’s eye to Bellotto’s photographic fidelity. Still, through plays of shadow, scale, and perspective, he ferreted in a sense of enchantment. In his most striking experiment, Pirna from the Posta Hills, an exaggerated foreground of cliffs and terraced vineyards seems almost superimposed onto the main panorama. It’s a remarkable complement to another masterpiece of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie collection, Before the Deluge by the Flemish-born painter Roelandt Savery, which, likewise frames a landscape with a landscape. The underbrush in the foreground, crowded with a biblical menagerie, cradles the ominous centerpiece of Noah’s Ark.
In honor of Bellotto’s 300th birthday, the Gemäldegalerie is currently hosting an exhaustive retrospective. I arrived on the hottest day of the year, during one of Europe’s increasingly frequent record heatwaves. My original train was canceled due to overheating of the tracks, and I reached the gallery two hours late, with man-made alterations to the streetscape on my mind.
Though Bellotto’s oeuvre revolves around sweeping panoramas of the Frauenkirche and the Dresden skyline, I was immediately drawn to a rare picture of ruin, The Ruins of the Former Kreuzkirsche in Dresden, which captures the skeleton of the central cathedral after it was destroyed by Prussian shelling during the Seven Years’ War. The piece disrupts Bellotto’s role as guarantor of the city’s undisturbed, pre-war appearance. As a record of destruction, it carries a certain contemporary weight.
The Gemäldegalerie is famous for its Dutch and Venetian collections, as well as for hosting the world’s largest collection of Cranachs. Bellotto’s experiments echo throughout. In Cranach the Elder’s Paradise (1530), one of his many studies of Adam and Eve, the landscape begins to gain authority vis-a-vis the narrative allegory. The sprawl of the garden asserts itself. The shift to leveraging narrative as an excuse for landscape, rather than the other way around, is even more pronounced in Dutch painter Herri Met de Bles’ Monkeys Plunder the Wares of a Sleeping Trader (ca. 1550). The scene is a coded critique of the Pope, but it’s the rock formations and forest that dominate the view. Like Savery, Bles reveals a cartographic influence common to early Dutch landscape, dividing the canvas into a three-tiered system of earthy foreground, green center, blue sky.
It’s fascinating to me that when earth becomes the actual medium of an artwork, it leads not to landscapes, but fanciful figurines — at this crossroads, we really do “become” earth. Global mythology is filled with stories of culling life from clay. This is how the Hindu goddess Parvati shaped her son, the elephant-headed Ganesh. In Jewish folklore, the humanoid golem is made from mud.
In the Christendom, the European frenzy to transform clay to porcelain equal in quality to China’s extended through the mid-18th century. The Meissen factory, based just outside of Dresden, was the first to solve the mystery. King Augustus the III ordered director Gottlieb Kirscher to produce life-sized animals to populate his “porcelain palace.” These are the largest works the Messein factory ever made, and the strain shows: I felt for a cracked elephant with its gravity-defying trunk. The overall effect, however, is captivatingly grotesque. Today’s porcelain collection is home to an entire aviary of parrots, swans, ducks, and other birds. Gottlieb was known to give animals exaggerated human expressions, and a pair of lions evokes Venetian theater masks. In Origins of Landscape Painting, Wood argues that prior to the 16th century, landscapes were often seen as “useless” or “purposeless” — as pure symbols of leisure, and therefore peripheral to work (not to mention to the artwork). Here in the Dresden collections, it’s the porcelain that conjures a true sense of decadence. I pass a dinner service replete with nymph and dolphin coverings; a tureen topped with a Venus; a swan-shaped sauce boat captained by a cupid.
Out on the street, it’s 40C. I walk through the deserted city center to visit the reproduction of Bellotto’s paintings in the Dresden skyline. It reminds me: There is something about a landscape that isn’t supposed to change. It gives a cynical spin to the idea that, with the onset of climate change, human will simply “adapt.” In 2009, the Elbe Valley was stripped of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site when Dresden built a four-lane commuter highway across the river, disrupting the continuity of the 15th- and 16th-century “cultural landscape” of palaces, cathedrals, historic bridges, and parks. I head to the banks of the Elbe to assess the damage — it’s true the new bridge doesn’t fit. I cross the Augustus Bridge to view the Frauenkirche from the point where Bellotto painted it. It looks just the same, except for the fact that in a painting you can cheat: in Dresden from the Right Banks of the Elbe, the Frauenkirche is scaled down to make the surrounding city appear more sprawling. Because of course landscapes change — if only through a trick of the light, or a slip in the memory.
Through my headphones, a German podcast I like is streaming updates on the looming energy crisis; the Bundesregierung is scrambling to secure emergency fuel, should Putin turn off the gas this fall. Standing in the tinderbox of the Elbe’s dry banks, anticipating near-future crises to come, I’m reminded of South Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, in which a woman attempts to transform into a plant. Protagonist Yeong-hye allows herself to be painted entirely in flowers; she refuses to eat; at the very end, we find her in a handstand in the backyard of an asylum, attempting to send roots down into the earth. Does it say more about us or Yeong-hye, I wonder, that everyone else considers her insane? Rilke, I suspect, would understand. The true purpose of a landscape, he writes, is to allow human beings and nature to “discover one another.” They help us to “achieve that perfect unity which constitutes the essence of the work of art.” The periphery doesn’t exist.❖