by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Call of the Wild

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROVERETO, Italy 24 January 2004
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford
The Great Falls of the Reichenbach by J.M.W. Turner, 1804



Until relatively modern times mountains, on the whole, received a bad press. The 18th-century literary giant Samuel Johnson, on being invited to admire a peak, dismissed it as 'a mere considerable protuberance,' while another writer of the same period, in pressing the advantages of the flat fertile countryside of Northhamptonshire, noted that 'here are no naked and craggy rocks, no rugged and unsightly mountains, or vast solitary woods to damp and intercept the view.'

Consequently, in the West at least, though there were some notable exceptions, mountains were seldom judged in themselves a suitable subject for art. But there was a radical alteration in sentiment during the 18th century, which ushered in an explosion of interest in mountains and of their depiction in words and paint, something that has continued until this day.

The fascinating story of mountains in art is related in an ambitious exhibition here: 'Mountains: Art, Science, Myth.' The venue for this magnificent show of more than 400 thoughtfully selected paintings, sculptures, drawings, books and other pieces from collections all over the world is the newly inaugurated Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Rovereto and Trento, amid the grand, currently snow-covered scenery of the southern Alps. The exhibition spans more than six centuries, from anonymous icon painters to the German Expressionists, Renaissance Flemish masters to contemporary pop artists. It continues until April 18.

In medieval times, mountains were held in general awe and horror and deemed an appropriate habitation only for wild beasts, hermits and those seeking to mortify the flesh, the classic Christian symbol of this being the church father Jerome with his pet lion, domesticated by the saintly ascetic.

Even those who lived near mountains shied away from scaling them, believing their slopes and caves to be the domains of evil spirits. So it was an extraordinary event when in 1336 the Italian poet Petrarch, as he recounts in a letter displayed here, climbed Mount Ventoux in Provence, despite the warnings of the local people not to attempt this perilous ascent into the unknown. His motive for the enterprise, incomprehensible to his contemporaries, was the simple desire to see what it was like up there and to admire the view. In this respect, Petrarch anticipated by several centuries the 20th-century adventurer George Mallory. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he famously replied: 'Because it's there.'

Far ahead of his times, too, was the Swiss humanist, physician and naturalist Conrad Gerner, who in a letter published in 1541 extolled mountains not only for their fresh air, but also for their spiritually uplifting qualities, a sentiment that did not become widespread until the advent of the Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century.

In the artistic realm, Dürer was certainly one of the pioneers of the appreciation of the beauty of mountains, and several of his panoramas and alpine vignettes, painted on his journeys between Germany and Italy in the late 15th and early 16th century, are gathered here. These are also groundbreaking as some of the first plein-air works ever to be executed.

Paradoxically, it was Netherlandish artists of the 16th century, many of whom encountered on their peregrinations between the Low Countries and Italy the mountain scenery in which their homelands were signally lacking, who became the great masters of mountain painting. The Flemish Joachim Patinir was perhaps the first to make mountains the main focus of his compositions. Thus, for example, in his 'Landscape With St. Jerome,' the figure of the saint is tiny in comparison with the vast, craggy panoramic view.

As a contemporary critic observed, while the Flemish knew how to paint mountains, the Italians were more skilled in representing men and gods. Leonardo, an enthusiastic drawer of mountains and of the details of their geological formations, as well as some of the Venetian painters, were exceptional in being adept at both. But Michelangelo declared Patinir's superlative landscapes suitable only for women, monks, nuns and other inferior beings 'deprived of the musical sense of true harmony.'

The scientific element in this unfailingly absorbing exhibition is a vital one, given that the 'discovery' of mountains was led by science no less than by the arts. In this sense, Goethe, a fine selection of whose landscapes appears here, was an emblematic figure, in that he was writer, artist and scientist all in one.

Goethe and the other Romantics were perhaps the most successful propagandists in changing public perceptions of mountains, but the influences in this significant shift in sensibility came from several sources. Religious commentators, having long maintained that mountains were a waste of space and little more than noisome piles of refuse and disorder, began to justify them as an integral component of God's complex design.Another major factor was the expansion of towns and cities. In response to this, the Romantics found in mountains a refuge from over-civilization, a place where men and women could commune with the wild nature that urban sprawl was in the process of destroying.

At the same time, solitude no longer seemed a manifestation of anti-social behavior, but a positive state of being. So, the modern layman, like the hermit of old, could now wander 'lonely as a cloud' refreshing his spirit amid impressive scenery. This mode of thinking also had political implications, from Rousseau's concept of the 'noble savage' living out his life in a unspoiled environment, to Wordsworth's declaration that, 'A wilderness is rich with liberty.'

The visual arts played a vital role in both reflecting this shift in the public attitude to mountains, and promoting it. Literature inspired artists to paint solitary places, mountains and 'romantic' views that would have been regarded by many of their forbears as sinister and dismal prospects.

In due course, the wider public came to look at wild nature more and more through the eyes of painters. Thus, the whole concept of 'landscape' had artistic origins, for 'a landscape' was initially a pictorial term later applied to the subject of the painting. And a view of the physical reality was praised as being 'picturesque' in as much as it looked like a picture.

During the 19th century, paintings of mountains became an important independent genre. In some cases, as in Norway and the United States, it became the means for young nations to define their identities and lend iconic status to the lands they inhabited and were struggling to tame.

It is now impossible to look at mountain scenes without subconsciously referring back to the spectacular images created and captured by painters, draughtsmen and photographers. And these artistic images have to a great degree encouraged tens of millions of people to go, as Petrarch did over 650 years ago, and see for themselves.

In past times, a 'mountaineer' was a hardy dweller among peaks and crags, a proud Montenegrin or exotic Circassian perhaps. Now he or she is an amateur or professional sportsman. Mountains, once shunned and abhorred, have become the victims of their own success. The wild reality is disappearing, and the danger is that the only unspoiled prospects left will be on canvas and paper.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024