BENTONVILLE -- John James Audubon was 58 years old in April 1843 when, carrying a letter of introduction from President John Tyler and accompanied by his son Victor and three assistants, he boarded the steamship Omega for his final expedition up the Missouri River, bound for Fort Union near the present-day Montana-North Dakota border.
His purpose was to gather material on Plains mammals for what would be his last book, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. (Later editions dropped "viviparous" from the title.)
It was five years after the publication of his masterwork, The Birds of America, and Audubon's detailed and dramatic portraits of birds and embellished tales of life on the frontier had made him famous and comfortable; he was as much a businessman as scientist and artist. (Carolina Parrot, published in that book, is part of "Nature's Nation: Art and Environment," a new exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art.)
Audubon had a house on the Hudson River in what is now Manhattan's Upper West Side. He employed his sons in his publishing concern and pre-sold Quadrupeds, which was published in 30 installments, by subscription. He enlisted a co-writer, an amateur naturalist and clergyman named John Bachman, to write the text of the project based on Audubon's field notes. (After Audubon began to slide into dementia in 1846, Quadrupeds was completed by his son John Woodward Audubon.)
It's not that hard for a modern observer to look at Quadrupeds as a cynical attempt at brand extension by an self-promoting artist/mogul who had set up a kind of factory for producing handsome commodities for a wealthy clientele. While the modern flash-card image of Audubon may be as a proto-environmentalist who happened to have a genius for capturing the vitality of birds in his art, reading him reveals a more complicated relationship with the natural world.
In his journals, Audubon confesses to having "trigger itch," and to deriving pleasure and pride from his lethal marksmanship. He shot the birds he painted and carefully arranged them in lifelike poses and social settings. While he lamented the necessity of shooting a mother bird, he boasted about being able to take puffins on the wing and about having killed "hundreds" of red-winged blackbirds "in the course of a single afternoon." When he got to Fort Union in 1843, he was delighted to discover that wolves could be shot from the safety of the fort itself.
Yet as early as 1833, he was lamenting the disappearance of the American wilderness. "Where can I go now, and visit nature undisturbed?" he wrote.
Still, Audubon was a drama queen as a writer (see his account of his alleged encounter with Daniel Boone, a meeting that almost certainly never happened) who seemed eager not to alienate any segment of his potential audience -- he's at once sympathetic to both hunters and farmers and the commercial forces pushing westward. Audubon seems very much a man of his time, convinced of mankind's cosmic right to dominion over the beasts and plants of the earth, reserving his condemnation for only the cruelest and most wasteful of practices.
Yet, reading Audubon's diaries about that last expedition (they were lost until 1896, when two of his granddaughters found them in the back of an old escritoire in the great man's home) we can feel his disheartenment. A few weeks into the journey, Audubon witnessed four barges, loaded with more than 10,000 buffalo skins, heading down the river.
Almost every day on the river, Audubon saw carcasses of buffalo floating in the water or dotting the landscape. His fellow travelers, about 150 rough men -- hunters and trappers -- headed off to join in the slaughter told him that "about a hundred miles above us the Buffalo were by thousands ... the prairies were covered with dead calves, and the shores lined with dead of all sorts."
Audubon describes how some of the men left the Omega for the day to hunt buffalo. They killed four but brought back "only a few pieces from a young bull, and its tongue, were brought on board, most of the men being too lazy, or too far off, to cut out even the tongues of the others; and thus it is that thousands multiplied by thousands of Buffaloes are murdered in senseless play, and their enormous carcasses are suffered to be the prey of the Wolf, the Raven and the Buzzard."
"Nature's Nation: Art and Environment," a new exhibit up through Sept. 9 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, invites us to consider a lot of contradictions inherent in the American Experiment. A nation formed in reaction to tyranny enacts a campaign of Manifest Destiny, spreading over the continent to subsume and subdue whoever and whatever may have been there first.
The story of how we seek to impose our will upon and adapt the natural world to our purposes is rich with irony and sorrow. We wrestled Nature to the ground without imagining that we might injure her.
Or that she might strike back.
One of the things the exhibit suggests is that, before Audubon wondered about where he might find "nature undisturbed" 186 years ago, most people didn't seem to worry about what we now understand as ecological concerns. The assumption was that human beings were more or less at nature's mercy. Nature was what abides, and we had our place in the Great Chain of Being with God, the angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, and nobles outranking most of us, while we could lord it over wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals and other minerals. There was an order, and it was impossible to rise above one's station. And only a god could destroy a planet.
So the story of how American artists consider, celebrate and advocate nature begins before America has a name, in the basalt and stone carvings of the people who were here first, even if they couldn't have imagined themselves affecting any environment that would have them. They were nature themselves, natural men and women who were distinguished from the other beasts primarily by their ability to tell themselves and others of their kind stories about where they had been and where they were going.
The entry point for the exhibition, if not exactly the first work you encounter, is one you've likely seen before, Charles Willson Peale's colossal self-portrait The Artist in His Museum (1822), in which the artist/scientist raises the curtain on and seemingly ushers us into his private museum of natural history, his specimens brought indoors and mounted in glass cases in a handsome hall; Peale's expression registers somewhere between the smirk of a carny barker and Doc Brown's DeLorean-unveiling grin in Back to the Future.
Peale, no less entrepreneurial than Audubon, is welcoming us into his world -- a world that can be partitioned, possessed and taxonomized in ways that might never have occurred to the indigenous carvers.
Close by on an opposite wall there's a pairing of Albert Bierstadt's famous luminist painting Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (ca. 1871-1873)
with its imagined future, Valerie Hegarty's Fallen Bierstadt (2007), a portrait of the painting as a charred and melted ruin. Bierstadt paints an enduring vision, Hegarty deconstructs it. Maybe the first rule of nature is things fall apart -- our planet's destiny is to be blasted, burnt and eventually disintegrated. (Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair.)
Later in the exhibit, the Bierstadtian impulse is mocked by Cree painter Kent Monkman's The Fourth World (2012), which defaces a typical Bierstadt with blond white Indians herding buffalo into the mouth of Richard Serra's sculpture Tilted Arc.
Similarly, Thomas Moran's, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park (1893), also offers a romantic notion of "untouched wilderness [that] fostered an elusive desire for a pristine environment devoid of human presence, as if people were somehow fundamentally external to and 'set apart' from the natural world."
But Moran -- who single-handedly transformed the popular image of what would become Yellowstone from a nightmarish hellscape to a sublimely beautiful resource demanding preservation -- was uninterested in the people who lived in the shadow of the spectacle (and who were evicted when the national park was established).
Moran and Bierstadt present nature as something that occurs in the distance, that might be watched and admired but exists apart from our experience. Nature is something we might enter, not our encompassing environment. This idea of nature as something apart persists in a series of portraits, where the artists selectively rail their subjects off from the nature roiling in the background, as though we can choose whether to engage with it or not. As though we can fence off as part of it.
Something interesting and counter-intuitive is going on in one of the exhibition's highlights, a series of 19th-century landscapes that, presented in context, seem to resist and subvert our national mythology. Thomas Cole's Home in the Woods (1847) presents us a pastoral scene that feels like toned-down Thomas Kinkade, with pioneers homesteading beside a glimmering pond. It is juxtaposed with Mohawk artist Alan Michelson's Home in the Wilderness, a model of the log cabin depicted in Cole's painting composed of rolled-up pieces of parchment that spell out the Treaty of Fort Wayne, the 1809 agreement that resulted in the removal of American Indians from 3 million acres in what is now Illinois and Indiana to make room for white settlers.
Some parts of the exhibition work better than others. While beautifully executed, there's nothing subtle or particularly insightful about Alexis Rockman's Aviary (1992), positioned near the end-of-the-exhibition as a kind of closing argument. A few of the pieces might depress (or irritate) those disinclined to marry art with overt political expressions; there's generally a wit and poignancy to the exhibit.
One of the best moments comes in a riff on extinction, where three paintings of the Carolina Parakeet are presented in series.
The first is a stiff and clinical painting from 1731, by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist living in South Carolina. It's only notable as one of the earliest representations of the bird, which was once common, ranging from Florida to the Great Plains. The second painting is of seven parakeets, lively and social in a cockle bur, interacting with each other and the viewer. It was painted by Audubon in 1844, during that expedition up the Missouri River Valley. He'd shot the parakeets, then posed them.
Whatever else he was, Audubon had a wonderful feel for how his subjects moved and the forces that drove them. His birds evince curiosity, playfulness, maybe even a little trepidation.
The final image is by Walton Ford, a contemporary artist whose work leans into the meticulous realism of 19th-century naturalists like Audubon, tweaking the tropes to fashion allegories about colonialism and the idea of natural history. His Dying Words (2005) depicts 13 parakeets assembled around a dying colleague, arranged in the poses of the officers surrounding the dying British General James Wolfe as depicted by Benjamin West in his famous 1770 painting. (I don't know that I've ever before encountered a painting that made me laugh out loud in a gallery.)
Taken together, the three paintings offer a pictorial essay on the sad history of a lost species but also mark the evolution of art itself, moving from the flat, static and serviceable depiction Catesby provides and Audubon's dynamic realism to Ford's simultaneously funny and troubling anthropomorphization.
'A DISCURSIVE ESSAY'
Despite its rather straightforward and prosaic title, "Nature's Nation: Art and Environment" probably isn't what you imagine it to be. It's difficult to find fault with it. Initiated by the Princeton University Museum of Art last year (co-curators are Karl Kusserow of the Princeton museum and Alan C. Braddock from the College of William and Mary), the exhibit works as a discursive essay, touching on dozens of grace points that might be profitably explored in more depth.
There are some discrete points of pleasure, like Jamie Wyeth's whimsical Portrait of Lady (1968), a gestural image of a woolly (and somehow bemused) sheep, along with a few undeniable masterpieces, like Alexandre Hogue's Dust Bowl cri de coeur Crucified Land (1939). Photographs by Edward Burtynsky, Chris Jordan and Matthew Brady take on uncommon power in context with the other work. You can see how the emergence of photography as a tool for artists pressured painters to move off the hazy and idealized landscapes and into grittier and more impressionistic territory.
It might have been nice to pick up Audubon's depiction of buffalo from Quadrapeds.
Not that the buffalo story -- the species was reduced from tens of millions to a mere 325 (conservation efforts have returned the herd to about 500,000) -- doesn't loom large in the exhibit; some of the most affecting images derive from the slaughter of the buffalo.
There's even a small Bierstadt illustration, The Last of the Buffalo (1891), that depicts an Indian astride a horse amid the corpses of thousands of buffalo.
It's another lie, the exhibition makes clear, but some will find it pretty.
Style on 06/09/2019
Print Headline: CRITICAL MASS: Exhibition takes viewer on a tour of America through the last 175 years