Nature is Imagination Itself

In preparation for his Curator’s Perspective tonight, Seeing Nature Curator Klaus Ottmann shares some thoughts on the exhibition.

Install shot_dow cezanne

Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912). At right, Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1888–90)

But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination
Nature is Imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.
                                     — William Blake (1799)

What is the power of landscapes? What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself?

Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence. These moods and feelings are not merely in our brains, our heart, and our senses; they are also inherent to the landscapes themselves. For the ancient Greeks, each landscape evoked particular divinities. For the 17th-century English travelers crossing the Alps to Italy, it was the feeling of the Sublime, a “delight that is consistent with reason yet mingled with Horrors, and sometimes almost with despair.”

As William Blake noted in 1799, there is a special connection between Nature and the Imagination. For this exhibition, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been investigating this special link: “People talk about how our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them—so there’s something about landscapes that seems almost universally attractive,” Paul Allen has said. “It’s a way of looking outward.”

Landscape Parallels: Gornik’s Lake Light and Irish Skies

April Gornik_Lake Light

April Gornik, Lake Light, 2008. Oil on linen, 72 1/4 x 108 1/4 x 1 5/8 in. Both Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Phillips fan Candace Carota Pollack saw April Gornik’s Lake Light (2008), on view in Seeing Nature, in a photo the Phillips shared on Facebook and noticed a striking similarity to some pictures she took during a trip to Ireland. Candace’s photos are below; I can’t help but agree that the ominous clouds and blue-green color palette of Pollack’s photos are echoed in Gornik’s painting.

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Candace Carota Pollack_panorama

Panorama of a stormy sky in Ireland. Photo: Candace Carota Pollack

Candace Carota Pollack_Ireland sky

“Then it got too close and we just got in the car in time to not get soaked,” says Candace of this photo.

Thomas Moran’s Most Inspiring Place

Moran_Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection

If you stopped by Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection in its opening weekend, you might have noticed that several works within the exhibition take that majestic national treasure, the Grand Canyon, as a focal point. Chief among them is Thomas Moran’s captivating Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset.

Moran’s almost yearly trips to the Grand Canyon were sponsored by the Santa Fe Railway, but the artist’s belief in the majesty of the place was deeply felt. “Of all places on earth the great canyon of Arizona is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities,” Moran once wrote, addressing his fellow American artists and advocating for the subject’s place among the worthiest for art. “Its tremendous architecture fills one with wonder and admiration, and its colors, forms, and atmosphere are so ravishingly beautiful that however well-traveled one may be, a new world is opened to him when he gazes into the Grand Canyon of Arizona.”