In Search of Lost Innocence
Landscape as metaphor and stage
Cloud Phenomena of Maloja. Film by Arnold Fanck, 1924
Landscape, long before being image, was literature and longing. Since ancient times, almost every civilization led an educated class that longed to return to the simple life of the countryside, back to nature with its deeper order and less troubled appearance. In the West, despite its widespread tradition against the city life and akin to recover the rural simplicity, it is only during the Renaissance that the joy of those running away from the maddening crowds turns into the full enjoyment of nature, first in poetry and only afterwards as a growing presence in paintings. In the East, at least since China’s Tang Dynasty, a fertile dialogue is established around the landscape between poetry and painting, and the genre develops very soon and evolves in multiple aspects.
Centuries later, while other visual media were confronted by the emergence of photography to take in and emphasize the subjectivity of their gaze over this topic, photographic landscapes devote their attention to exoticism or the magnificence of natural views and offered a deceptive closeness to a naturalist interpretation. The romantic vision of nature took root strongly across images ranging from the Bisson brothers to Ansel Adams. In them, beauty was something external to be captured in each shot, a reserve where solitude was a regained innocence and open spaces offered an inexhaustible source of peacefulness for the contemplative eye under the changing light’s mantle.
Gradually, as these perspectives became advertising and marketing leitmotifs, this genre had to be reinvented and new possibilities sought elsewhere. Already in 1975, with the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, it became clear that human intervention was inseparable from our new perception of landscape. The aseptic style of the authors gathered in this exhibition, considered almost forensic and where the emotional charge seemed absent, caused the sensation of being somehow close to a crime scene’s lingering memories, but devoid of its dramatic charge. During the following years, some authors, with a similar methodology but against this trend, looked after landscapes as representation of their own temperament, metaphor of an inner life that finds in the environment an affinity and a strong individual expressive capacity. Finally, photography assumed the same subjectivity of other means. As an example, Hiroshi Sugimoto wrote about his Seascapes: "Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home". In that phrase, anyone can guess a sort of poetic inclination and a strong artistic weight that facilitates dialogue with paintings, as was done in 2012 by exposing this series with Mark Rothko’s work.
However, Eden’s innocence became impossible in a world where human presence outreach tainted glaciers and forests with the same nonchalance. In the second half of the twentieth century, the landscape was transformed from man facing nature, to be a metaphor for our own humanity and, at the same time, scene of our fears, hopes and tragedies. We read as landscape every place where a scenario simulates an open space, no matter whether an emotional or conceptual projection of ourselves, but also we read it under the titanic action of mining, between the megalopolis’ streets or against the inventiveness of major transformation projects. Hybridization of genres has allowed the unreal calm of sensationalist scenes as in Fernando Brito’s pictures and the catastrophe of Chinese dumping sites of Yao Lu to be shown as images of bucolic appearance. We bit the fruit of our pride and today paradise is a shy promise. We need to build works, with concrete actions to transform the announced catastrophe in a redemptive epiphany. The landscape is, with its potential for imagination and denunciation, the much needed tool.