by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St Petersburg
Landscape with Two Figures by Caspar David Friedrich, 1830-35

Cosmos: From Goya to De Chirico, From Friedrich to Kiefer, Art in Pursuit of the Infinite

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 April 2000


To trace the history of ideas through the visual arts alone is to see their development 'through a glass, darkly.' Much in the human mind cannot find a direct representation in plastic form, thus art can only reflect in a fragmentary manner the progress of thought.

Inspired by the millennium, 'Cosmos: From Goya to De Chirico, From Friedrich to Kiefer, Art in Pursuit of the Infinite' is an exhibition of 400 paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, photographs and other objects. Principally curated by Jean Clair, it aims to trace the responses of artists in the Western tradition over the last 200 years to the exploration of the earth's remoter corners, from the North and South American wildernesses to the polar regions, and on into the era of the conquest of space and the moon. The show continues at Palazzo Grassi until July 23.

At the beginning of the period covered, expanding horizons were offering new challenges and opportunities to the painters, draftsmen and photographers who were responsible for capturing and diffusing images of the wealth of discoveries by land and sea that characterized the age.

The push westward and into the inhospitable frozen north gave a particular boost to nascent national artistic schools in the New World, and the show's sections on these, with pictures by the likes of Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt (who also took photographs) are instructive.

But the claim made in the catalogue that landscape painting, 'in Europe considered a minor genre subservient to history painting,' in America 'was transformed and elevated to a major art form' is an astonishing one. All the more so since the visitor has, moments before, passed a pair of Turners that display this artist, the beneficiary of a European landscape tradition stretching back over 300 years, boldly taking the genre yet another step forward by abandoning the literal outlines of the scene and distilling its essence in a maelstrom of light and color.

More coherent and compelling from the historical and interpretative point of view is the central section on the impact of space on the visual arts. Artists had, of course, been representing the heavens and celestial bodies since time immemorial, but the invention of the telescope provided a more detailed, complex and nuanced vision of the constellations. Transferring what the eye could see through a telescope into photographic format took a surprisingly long time to perfect, hence artists remained throughout the 19th century not only keen observers, but also key contributors to the task of charting stars and planets.

The ubiquity of space pictures by the close of that century had a major effect on a wide range of artists, from Kandinsky and the Futurists to Picasso, Arp and Ernst - as the well-selected works here amply demonstrate - and was an important factor in the birth of abstract art.

Photographic technology continued to advance in tandem with space flight, making it possible to take sharply defined shots in space, although, ironically, NASA's scientists were initially opposed to the astronauts themselves carrying cameras, lest they waste precious time taking 'touristy snapshots' - a taboo broken when John Glenn took his own camera into orbit in 1962. In the end it was the 'snaps' taken by the men who walked in space and on the surface of the moon that brought out the human drama of the enterprise, even if they were taken without conscious thought of their 'artistic' potential.

Such photographs also proved a potent propaganda tool in the space race. And, in fact, although the show does not address this issue, what is unwittingly highlighted is that, rather than offering genuinely spontaneous and fresh insights, artists' visions of the world and of man's triumph over land, sea and space were often the means of disseminating national and political ideologies.

The majestic landscapes of the American West, cleansed of indigenous inhabitants, presented these 'virgin' territories as ripe for exploitation; the Italian Futurists' obsession with frenetic machine-age modernity went hand-in-hand with Mussolini's fascism, and the Russian architect Georgi Krutikov's utopian fantasies of air-borne communal apartment blocks, sanctified, through pseudo-science, Soviet totalitarian ideals.

Some of the post-modern works in the final section, such as Lucio Fontana's series of 'Spatial Concepts,' seem related to the cosmic theme more in the names attached to them than in their content. Thomas Ruff's giant, long-exposure pictures do look out into space, but are primarily expert exercises in photographic technique.

But the overall, unintended message seems to be that as the limits of our universe have continued to expand, the horizons of many post-modern artists, including a host not represented in the show, have inexorably contracted into a narcissistic world of gimmickry and self-promotion. And while the rest of humanity watches with wonder the unfolding of the mysteries of the unknown, the fashionable artist of today is content to gaze spellbound at his or her own navel.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024