Let’s be honest: landscape painting isn’t exactly the sexiest subject for an exhibit. It sounds like something you’d bring your 903-year-old grandma to. The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Seeing Nature, though, packs a punch. After walking through just three compact but generously-stocked galleries, you might just leave seeing the world a little differently.
The work on display in Seeing Nature — which arrives in Minneapolis after stops in Portland and Washington, D.C. — exclusively contains works from the collection of Paul G. Allen. The Microsoft co-founder still has a lot to make up for after foisting the animated paper clip on the world for years, but at least some of that corporate lucre went to a good cause.
As site curator Rachel McGarry pointed out at a media preview, landscapes weren’t always such respectable museum pieces as they are now: painters like J.M.W. Turner had to make the case that landscapes were just as worthy as more edifying subjects drawn from history or the Bible.
Turner is represented here with Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Rendentore, Venice. His sweeping vista, in which the city seems to emerge from billowing mists into ruddy sunlight, is just one of multiple takes on Venice in the 39-piece show. Such 19th-century paintings often functioned as “postcards for the Grand Tour,” as McGarry put it; one effect of Seeing Nature is to remind us how crucial landscape paintings have been in the romanticization of place. If Venice wasn’t built, Canaletto would have had to invent it.
Canaletto’s works are just two of the examples of meticulous technique on display in Seeing Nature. The show also includes a Maxfield Parrish (Riverbank, Autumn) so vividly detailed it almost defies belief; two of Gerhard Richter’s famously photorealistic (in that they realistically resemble photos) paintings; and, as the exhibit’s signature showpiece, Klimt’s immersive Birch Forest. Then, there are the richly ornate Five Senses paintings by Jan Brueghel the Younger, against all odds preserved as a set for nearly four centuries.
“Delight in light and shadow is at the core of what landscape means,” said McGarry, and several works on display are nearly obscene in how unashamedly they glory in the dynamic potential of paint on canvas. Volaire’s Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a striking nighttime scene, has foreground spectators alternately fleeing and fascinated by the sight of the towering volcano belching lava skyward. Thomas Cole’s Plains in the Campagna di Roma, Morning situates a ruin squarely in the way of a glowing sunset, drawing the eye laterally towards the crisp shadows and upwards at fleecy clouds. Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset is another dramatic twilight view, Frankensteined together from sketches the iconic Western painter made during visits to the landmark.
By the third of the roughly chronological galleries, as we enter the 20th century, perspective is increasingly called into question. David Hockney knew an impossible view was the only way to do justice to his own Grand Canyon, assembled from a grid of canvases both for convenience and to emphasize the brightly hued landscape’s unreality. April Gornik’s Lake Light, the only 21st-century piece on display, offers a purely invented view, inspired by Africa’s wide grasslands.
The work here also undercuts the stereotype of landscapes as uniformly soothing. Some certainly are — for example, the water lilies that fill just one of the five (!) Monet canvases tucked into a single corner of the central gallery — but then there’s Max Ernst’s nightmarish Paysage avec lac et chimères, Ed Ruscha’s ominous Standard station, and Magritte’s surreal La voix du sang. Not bad, for a show you can bring your grandma to.
Image: David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998. Oil on canvas. 48-1/2 x 169 inches.