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Last Tuesday plans for Crystal Bridges, the Wal-M-Art museum in development in Bentonville, Arkansas, were submitted to the Bentonville planning office. Although Mohshe Safdie’s designs for the building have been available for some time, this submission marks an important formalization of the project in the city. Of course, there was never any doubt that the city would welcome the museum with a parade. Alice Walton, the museum’s benefactress, and the Wal-Mart corporation speak with the same tongue, and in Bentonville particularly, that tongue is silver:

The [Bentonville General Plan Steering Committee] also discussed the importance of Wal-Mart, and making sure the employer wants to stay here. “I’m especially pleased that Wal-Mart is going to have a place at this table,” Community Development Director Troy Galloway said, referring to Jeff Snyder with Wal-Mart Realty, who is a member of the Steering Committee.

Elsewhere in Crystal Bridges country—by which I mean that all country is Crystal Bridges country—all is not well. Sunday, Rebecca Solnit, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times identified the museum as a lamentable mask for Wal-Mart’s scarred true face. Solnit’s unmasking comes in a brief analysis of the museum’s most spectacular acquisition, Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, which was purchased from the New York Public Library last year for $35 million. (I linked to Kindred Spirits in December.) Solnit maintains that the contrast between the painting, which depicts two of nineteenth-century America’s more important idealists and was commissioned by a businessman who supported their ideals and their art, and its current owner, who holds only one ideal, business, and otherwise stabs the rest with a pin to dry out and exhibit in its collection as a marketing tool. “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fing,” Wal-Mart whistles, “I feel no sting from collective bargaining!” Solnit wonders what a Wal-Mart that supports contemporary art might be: a representative box warehouse, called Wal-Art, perhaps, limiting its artists to the materials they can buy at everyday low prices:

Imagine a contemporary artist, maybe with Adobe Photoshop, reworking “Kindred Spirits” again and again. Imagine that Cole and Bryant are, this time, standing not on a rocky outcropping but in, say, one of the puzzle and art-supply aisles of a Wal-Mart somewhere in the Catskills, dazed and depressed. Or imagine instead that it’s some sweatshop workers, a little hunched and hungry, on that magnificent perch amid the foliage and the golden light. Imagine paintings of Edward Hopper’s old downtowns, boarded up because all the sad and lonely people are shopping at Wal-Mart and even having their coffee and hot dogs there. Imagine video-portraits of the people who actually make the stuff you can buy at Wal-Mart, or of the African American truck drivers suing the corporation for racism.

Imagine if Wal-Mart acknowledged what Wal-Mart is rather than turning hallowed American art into a fig leaf to paste over naked greed and raw exploitation. But really, it’s up to the rest of us to make the Museum of Wal-Mart, one way or another, in our heads, on our websites, or in our reading of everyday life everywhere.

It seems, however, that Solnit’s argument fails in the contrast between the very realism she imagines might inhabit Wal-Art and in the vision of the world she argues Kindred Spirits presents. Not until the very end of the nineteenth century did American landscape art, of which Cole and Durand were primary originators, even attempt this sort of realism. The scenes of Cole’s, Durand’s, Church’s, Moran’s, and Bierstadt’s paintings are glorious, and they are patently fabricated. Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for example [see image at left], depicts a canyon that only exists as a composite sketch of views of the canyon from its opposite ends—one that looks up toward the waterfall, and the other that looks downriver from its height. Likewise Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of the west are as open, glorious, and unreal as any scene you can imagine. Landscape painting was a genre which wiped all the faces of naked greed and exploitation from the face of the earth, and by some arguments, embedded that naked greed and sense of exploitation into the man or woman who looks at the painting. That Crystal Bridges holds Kindred Spirits in its cold steel fingers is in one way superbly appropriate. The painting asserts everything that Wal-Mart ever hoped to be, a revision of the world as it is into something else, made in its image.

I object to Solnit’s vision of what Kindred Spirits was from the beginning. Contemporary American art is often as socially conscious as she imagines; nineteenth-century American art rarely was, or it was so conscious obliquely. There’s something insidious in the fact that Kindred Spirits is moving to Arkansas, but the insidiousness is in the persistence of a belief in what Kindred Spirits represents, which Solnit herself ascribes to, and in which it appears Alice Walton and Crystal Bridges also believe, than it is in the absence of realism in Wal-Art.



you are right they are glorious





and, i have more questions, or at least comments..

That’s one bierstadt, one church, and three heades? (I love the m.j. heades from s. america. the birds and flowers he painted are gorgeous. I sometimes use them as wallpaper on my desktop—which ought to make it desktoppaper, but it was too long ago that UI engineers decided to mix metaphors…)

Maybe it’s time for that Hudson River School post. Tomorrow after my interview I’ll put some thought into it…

Oops. I didn’t see your labels above the pics. It’s Heade, not Meade.

my bad…

that’s one bierstadt, 2 churches and 2 heades

the churches are the churches and they are the second and last painting

the heades are the one’s that i wrote down as meades…my faulty memory combined the m and heade when i put the names

Lest I get ahead of myself, here’s a good one: Church’s The Heart of the Andes. With Church’s paintings, in his heyday, galleries sold tickets, “Come see Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes!” And people would line up out the doors. They would file by the painting, and they would be encouraged to roll up their programs (yes, they had programs) and look at the painting as if through a telescope. That’s how Church could afford the big house he built on the Hudson…

Frederic Church, The Heart of the Andes

clearly I am a philistine, b/c all I can think of when I look at most of these is “thomas kincaid, painter of light”

But Mary! Where do you think Mr. Kincaid got his shizzle togizzle?

no doubt this frederick church will make you think of the painter of light

rainy season in the tropics

hopefully this one, cotopaxi, now larger, will make you think otherwise

though i am not greg…and i anxiously await his enlightening me…i not timorious enough to fear to tread into torrential waters

one big difference is that these are from the mid 19th century, rather than the end of the 20th…so, the romanticized landscape, rather than nostalgic is “awesome,” even if contrived.

also, though light is prominent, the scenes themselves are “wild” rather than “domestic;” they tap into the imagination at the level of unknown worlds (latin america and the west) rather than the well-known/worn world of lost british cottages; or the glories (and so a vindication)of “modern” american “natural” landscape rather than the past utopia of rural britain.

and, i would say that the allegorical possibilities of these paintings are more than simple decorative art (think of thomas cole’s more obvious series the course of empire or even his last of the mohicans). though they are undoubtedly decorative as well.

again, greg may slap me down…

No, focusing on the allegorical possiblities of 19th-c landscape is a good way to think of it, along the lines of, what do we do when we don’t have a history to paint into our history paintings?

But I promised myself I wouldn’t get into this until after my interview, so that’s as much as I’ll say for now.

However, J, I have to say that I don’t know what makes you say Cotopaxi isn’t as much a painting of light as Rainy Season in the Tropics. The sun may be obscured, but it shines through the volcano’s ash either stubbornly or ominously. Two-thirds of the painting’s light is of a deeper hue, yet it is still a subject of the painting. It’s the quality, or the value of light that is changed. (Moreover, I think, though I’ll have to reference this, but I think the mountain at the right in Rainy Season is the same volcano as is erupting in Cotopaxi.)

luck on the interview…

and i didn’t mean that cotopaxi isn’t about light…it is. but that the volcano exploding, isn’t a “safe” as a rainbow…but, then again, waterfalls are just as sublime as volcanoes.

sorry, this comment, is really long...but i didn't know where to cut humboldt off

do you think that humboldt or darwin and other naturalists traveling throughout the americas may have influenced these artists?

i ask, not because of the similarities between the following images, which are simultaneous…but because of passages like the passages below that pepper all of humboldt’s writings, likewise darwin’s voyage of the beagle.

landscape and civilization are so seamlessly merged into each other…and the writer/reader moves across the landscape in panoramic vistas that see, in almost simultaneity, the coast, the plains and the mountains.

darwin, no doubt, is too late for most of these authors, though

“Urwaldlaboratorium am Orinoco (or Jungle Lab on the Orinoco)” by Gemälde von Eduard Ender in 1869

engraving from one of humboldt’s many post-travel books

two paragraphs from Travels to the Equinoctial Regions (a description of Venezuela)

In all those parts of Spanish America in which civilization did not exist to a certain degree before the Conquest (as it did in Mexico, Guatimala, Quito, and Peru), it has advanced from the coasts to the interior of the country, following sometimes the valley of a great river, sometimes a chain of mountains, affording a temperate climate. Concentrated at once in different points, it has spread as if by diverging rays. The union into provinces and kingdoms was effected on the first immediate contact between civilized parts, or at least those subject to permanent and regular government. Lands deserted, or inhabited by savage tribes, now surround the countries which European civilization has subdued. They divide its conquests like arms of the sea difficult to be passed, and neighbouring states are often connected with each other only by slips of cultivated land. It is less difficult to acquire a knowledge of the configuration of coasts washed by the ocean, than of the sinuosities of that interior shore, on which barbarism and civilization, impenetrable forests and cultivated land, touch and bound each other. From not having reflected on the early state of society in the New World, geographers have often made their maps incorrect, by marking the different parts of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, as though they were contiguous at every point in the interior. The local knowledge which I obtained respecting these boundaries, enables me to fix the extent of the great territorial divisions with some certainty, to compare the wild and inhabited parts, and to appreciate the degree of political influence exercised by certain towns of America, as centres of power and of commerce.
We find, first, cultivated land along the sea-shore, and near the chain of the mountains on the coast; next, savannahs or pasturages; and finally, beyond the Orinoco, a third zone, that of the forests, into which we can penetrate only by the rivers which traverse them. If the native inhabitants of the forests lived entirely on the produce of the chase, like those of the Missouri, we might say that the three zones into which we have divided the territory of Venezuela, picture the three states of human society; the life of the wild hunter, in the woods of the Orinoco; pastoral life, in the savannahs or llanos; and the agricultural state, in the high valleys, and at the foot of the mountains on the coast. Missionary monks and some few soldiers occupy here, as throughout all Spanish America, advanced posts along the frontiers of Brazil. In this first zone are felt the preponderance of force, and the abuse of power, which is its necessary consequence. The natives carry on civil war, and sometimes devour one another. The monks endeavour to augment the number of little villages of their Missions, by taking advantage of the dissensions of the natives. The military live in a state of hostility to the monks, whom they were intended to protect. Everything presents a melancholy picture of misery and privation. We shall soon have occasion to examine more closely that state of man, which is vaunted as a state of nature, by those who inhabit towns. In the second region, in the plains and pasture-grounds, food is extremely abundant, but has little variety. Although more advanced in civilization, the people beyond the circle of some scattered towns are not less isolated from one another. At sight of their dwellings, partly covered with skins and leather, it might be supposed that, far from being fixed, they are scarcely encamped in those vast plains which extend to the horizon. Agriculture, which alone consolidates the bases, and strengthens the bonds of society, occupies the third zone, the shore, and especially the hot and temperate valleys among the mountains near the sea.

Sure—I mean, as I understand it, though I myself never read much by him, everybody was influenced by Humboldt. I’d say, though, that there’s other reasons, parochially North American reasons at that, which influence Church in particular, especially since Cotopaxi (some argue) has a northern-continent twin.

so, my observation is something along the lines of…

sure, freud influenced surrealism…he FREAKIN’ INFLUENCED EVERYBODY

Yeah, that’s about right!

Seriously though, it’s in the way that civilization/nature appears in landscape that reveals the Humboldt, or the Cole, or the ? in the painting. And landscape painters developed their own cliché images depending upon the scenes and/or regions they were representing. And unfortunately, I can’t say much about the South American expeditions because I don’t know much about them. I’ll think more on the passage you cited, though. Humboldt’s influence might also be more clear if you consider the perspective of the painting—the viewer’s elevation, as it were, compared to all s/he sees/is shown.

I knew I’d find it eventually:

In the 1840s and 1850s, religious convictions were entirely compatible with scientific interests; indeed, for many, including Church and [John] Ruskin, the insights of geology, botany and meteorology were merely (in the words of the Revd Henry T. Cheever, a New England divine) ‘revelations to [mankind] of the way in which God works…a slow, gradual and partial tracing of His footsteps’. Church, a devoted follower of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, was deeply affected by Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Church’s admiration for Humboldt led him beyond the confines of the United States—he travelled to the most distant and exotic landscapes of the Americas, which Humboldt himself had explored a generation earlier. Indeed, Church first perfected his characteristic fusion of scientific observation, religious faith and symbolic use of light in The Andes of Ecuador (1855)... Church envisioned landscapes which, like Humbold’s textual analyses, fixed upon the essential characteristics of a particular environment.

from Wilton & Barringer, American Sublime: Lanscape painting in the United States, 1820-1880. Princeton UP, 2002.