21 January 2021 - 17 h 00 min - 19 h 00 min
The growing importance of ecological concerns and its transcription into the new discipline of eco-criticism have identified the first half of the 19th century as a possible starting point for the Anthropocene, a period when the profound effects of the two Industrial Revolutions could be felt and seen, when man’s imprint upon Nature became primordial, essential and irreversible.
A sharp awareness of nature and of the profound transformations it was undergoing is perceptible in the art and literature of the early 19thcentury in England. Unrelated to the Anthropocene, the subject has often been identified and discussed in poetry, from the early, premonitory signs found in the works of William Collins, Thomas Gray and the so-called ‘graveyard poets’, to the predominance of recollection and of a pre-lapsarian childhood in Wordsworth, whose poems often express grief and regret for the loss of natural spontaneity, for the way ‘the man-made world has severed the link, strayed from the source, detached itself from what otherwise assures man’s harmony in the order of nature.’
Taking into account the remarkable coincidence, in Britain, of the industrial revolutions with the triumph of landscape as the greatest pictorial genre in the English school of art, I wish to argue that the main subject of landscape art as Turner (and Constable) conceived it is a more deliberate acknowledgement and exploration of this frictional inscription of man’s presence within Nature, a momentous re-classification of the genre, which endowed it with such remarkable philosophical and epistemological force that, in their eyes at least, it could be seen as modernity’s new form of history painting (the highest genre).
Quite strikingly, in Constable and Turner’s works, the “natural world’ is not considered as man’s “environment”, something peripheral surrounding man’s central presence, but Nature IS the centre, and has become, or is restored as, the dominating force. This subtle displacement of what is central, of what matters, between man and nature is, to my mind, the main revolution introduced by the English landscapists of the period who replaced the centrality of man and of man’s control over Nature—the main characteristic of classical history painting but also the main tenet of colonialism—with the extraordinary symphonic force with which they endowed Nature in the “real” scenes they depicted.
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