Jacques Leenhardt, “Paysage entre nature et art” (English)

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Jacques Leenhardt is currently Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is the President of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art (AICA) as well as a founding member of the Archives de la Critique d’Art. His numerous publications focus on art, literature, and Latin America. He has also organised multiple exhibitions throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.

Text translated by Thomas Riley. Read the original (in French) by clicking here.

The fate of a pure, untouched Nature was sealed from the settlement of nomadic populations, with the invention of irrigated agriculture in Sumer. The systematic exploitation of the land had started to break the deemed harmonious ties between Man and Nature. It has led in feedback to the apparition of a myth that has proven to be fundamental in the history of landscape: the myth of Heaven and Eden, figures of a harmonious occupation of the land by populations that were not stuck by Agriculture. From this ancient past, the original symbiosis between Man and Nature was broken, as begun the major history of the development of land exploitation leading, later on, to modern intensive agriculture and the exploitation of mining sub-soils – only to return in a mythical construction. Simon Schama writes:

« Une fois trahie la cosmologie archaïque, où la terre était sacrée et l’homme un simple maillon dans la chaîne de la Création, la cause était entendue, à un millénaire près. C’est donc la Mésopotamie ancienne qui, sans le savoir, est responsable du réchauffement du globe. » [1]

(Once the archaic cosmology – where the land was sacred and Man a mere link in the chain of Creation, the cause was understood for almost a millennium – was betrayed. The ancient Mesopotamia was then responsible, without knowing, of Global warming.)

Thus, from the origins of urban civilisation, rituals and myths – that instituted the symbolic construction of a natural world called then paradise or garden rather than landscape – relies on the opposition between the urban or agrarian grounds of Man, and the natural ground where gods and spirits are meant to be living.

If one day we could prove that the birth of the city and that of Eden were contemporary to one another, and what’s more, bound by a logical and structural necessity due to the psyche build upon the position of Man in the physical universe, we would understand all the more the influence of these myths throughout so many centuries. And yet still so active.

This would explain the slow and progressive conceptualisation of the notion of landscape with the historical phases of urbanisation. It wouldn’t then be a coincidence that the emergence of the notion of landscape in the occidental world would only go back to the 15th/16th centuries, after a centuries-long maturation through which the production of gardens and paintings of the country played an essential part in the preparation and shaping of aesthetics as it did in Rome.

The linguistic origin of the notion of landscape is quite instructive through the ambivalences it indicates. It originates from the 15th century Dutch word landscap that became Landschaft in German, then Landscape in English. At least it is how those who insisted on the cultural and anthropological dimension of the landscape chose to put it. Essentially in relation to the representations of this landscape in this late Renaissance forms of painting. To think the landscape implies that there should be representations, not only in the psyche but in an objective form in painted images of what we would then pick out as landscape.

It is worth noting, however, that the term landscap does not originally designate a representation, a landscape as history of art would put it – and this would go back to the 12th century – but would stand for a territorial division attached to the indigenous communities.  It would then refer to the use that Man makes of its country or territory and not only to its mere contemplation – although these two activities are connected in many obvious ways.

Contrary to the previous one, this second etymology puts the local custom forward, if not the legal organisation of the territory conceived as ‘an ensemble probably in mutual relations within a system[2].

In this second hypothesis, the term of landscape would have first been used by countrymen. And would have then fallen into disuse, only to reappear two centuries later with the French word contrée – coming from the Latin “contrata regio” – ground or territory situated opposite to the beholder. It would later lead to “country” and “countryside”, meaning the countryside seen and considered from the city. Following this etymology the idea of an object existing only in its dependence to a perception reappears, conceived as what builds up the inhabiting and looking (rural or urban) community.[3]

The confrontation of these two etymological channels, on which rely two ways to picture the landscape, displays the complex relation of what is elaborated in legal, economic or political practicalities, from the one hand, and the representations, discourses and images on the other hand, as highlighted by Michel Foucault. This complex game slowly builds up in the evolution of cultures that are invited to redefine its rules under the effect of the expanding urbanisation process, and according to the differing interest that were involved over time.

The pathway between political or economic interests (security, prosperity, opening, agreement) and more aesthetical categories attributing ‘beauty’ to each of these qualities, comes slowly to reality over time through a new perception of the country by men and women, mostly urban, not struggling anymore through nature for survival, answering thus to fundamental vital needs but also to a secondary symbolic benefit, to which new pleasures will be connected.

If we look into the historical process of the transformation of the notion of landscape, the distinction that John Brinckerhoff Jackson makes between what he calls landscape I and landscape II could prove interesting. Landscape I would stand for a perspective on the country attached to the community itself, without any external influence.  It would be a centripetal perspective for which the landscape would be felt and interpreted with the categories of those who inhabit a rather closed world. To this somehow introspective and communitarian vision, John Brinckerhoff Jackson would oppose another one that would be more strictly ‘political’ linked to an organisational perception of the territory: Landscape II. While landscape I would be built around ‘vernacular’ worth, valuing the land as a memory of the self, as the origin, as the enclosure. The idea of landscape II shows a distance capacity emerging, historically, when arise the opportunity for circulation or spreading of the closed communities. However, to this day, these two notions coexist and we would be mistaken to imagine a mere transition from one to the other. Landscape II a priori assumes less emotional and therefore more political categories through which the position of the observer is redefined in the world and faced to nature. As Panofsky managed to demonstrate, this redefinition resorts through the invention of perspective and ends up directly in an aesthetic dimension.

The  intertwining basic elements that are country, obeying  to the laws of nature, and the human group who inhabits and cultivates it, split under the effect of these two symbolically distinct perceptions that we will describe at endogenous and exogenous: Landscape I and landscape II.

This quadruple root of the landscape proves that it was always a memorial reconstruction of the original land and the symbol of a group which tore the sacredness of this land to the profane by humanising it. « Memory » means here the imaginary constructions that tell again and again, but always in a different manner, the companionship between Man and Earth. Should this companionship alter the terms of the relation, should it be, over time, more and more instrumental, the memory of the landscape is characterised from the very beginning by this primitive scene. One could say that from the origin of the conception of landscape lies the traumatic encounter of the establishment of Man with the rape of the sacred land which falls from it. Two figures entangle here: the plough and the house, signs of the act of possessing his territory by Man, and nature, conceived as a temple of the other. This primitive scene, mythical by definition, will be revisited throughout history in narratives and pictures, constantly renewing the contradictory dyad of Nature and Culture.

What is more riveting is the capacity this myth of the rupture of the natural and sacred bound – formalised in our occidental culture by the exclusion from Paradise of Adam and Eve – to mute throughout history.

In constantly renewed forms, as goes the anthropisation of territories, we can retrieve it in the invention of the suburban landscape in the 19th century United States, where the lawn and the absence of fences become symbols of a mythical primitive rural community and its brotherhood. This figure of a reconciling social landscape appears like an imaginary antidote to the frenzied individualism developing in industrial metropolises. The same myth goes with the current suburban ideology.

The different values that cultures relate to the landscape – economic, national, aesthetic, religious, scientific to name but a few – exist through a dual modality: from the one hand they physically shaped in the landscape to which they refer, and on the other hand, they symbolically exist in the objects in which they are acknowledged. It would be worth showing how these different axiological registers articulate. Let’s take for example the travel accounts of Arthur Young. Travelling through France just prior to the Revolution, this British agronomist was, above all, interested in the agronomical techniques and in the landscapes they were shaping. Yet in his narrative, his economic considerations become aesthetical values: in Arthur Young’s general perception of the landscape, a fertile soil becomes thus a beautiful landscape. Inversely, the romantic vision of Chateaubriand in his Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811) considers a sterile scenery with outstanding beauty:

« Ce ne sont point les prairies et les feuilles d’un vert cru et froid qui font les admirables paysages, ce sont les effets de la lumière. Voilà pourquoi les roches et les bruyères de la baie de Naples seront toujours plus belles que les vallées les plus fertiles de la France et de l’Angleterre. » (the marvellous landscapes are not made of prairies and raw green leaves but of the effects of light. That is why the rocks and heather of the bay of Naples will always be more beautiful than the richest valleys of France or England)

In the same way, as one could assert with the scientific interest for the process of formation of landscapes, the debates between vulcanians and neptunians, and also meteorological and sky studies, a aesthetics representation of landscape is drawn from different aspects of scientific knowledge. The Lettres sur la peinture de paysage by Carus, represent an excellent testimonial of the interchange between scientific discoveries and aesthetic conception of the world through the painting of landscape.

The reference values, in terms of landscapes, constantly slip from a register to another. Economical or even geological considerations end up coating aesthetical values that play a role of legitimation criteria.

One must be careful to the way the different axiological registers combine in each usage of the landscape.

And so would prove the debates that were undertaken in the Alpine Club, and singularly centred on John Ruskin. The Alpine Club – that played such an important part in the conception of alpine landscape, first nurtures a pragmatic view and then, only on the second hand, an aesthetical view of the mountain scenery.  Its Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, A Series Of Excursions By Members Of The Alpine Club anthology, develops an aristocratic ideology where value doesn’t derive from mountaineer’s social origin but to the courage and physical strength they experimented in the ascent itself. And when the Mont-Blanc became a mundane rendez-vous, when Albert Smith entertained the masses with his ascent, the Gentlemen from the Alpine Club turned their back to the Mont Blanc only to look for less frequented summits. They elected the Matterhorn, but also the Jungfraujoch and the Eiger, as the only grounds where they could live the exception trial that his the experience of a mountain.

Leslie Stephen, author of the puzzling The Playground of Europe (1871), will oppose the experience of the mountaineer, characterised by an astounding fright of the precipice, the proximity and also the knowledge of the rock, to the love of the alpine landscape witnessed with Ruskin or Turner whose watercolors are the pictorial expression. For Ruskin, the mountain is the image itself of Paradise, he claims it to be ‘the alpha and omega of all natural scenery’ and pursues:

« La meilleure image que la terre donne du paradis, ce sont des prairies en pente, des vergers, des champs de blé au flanc d’une grande alpe, avec des rochers violets et des neiges éternelles au-dessus. » [4]  (The best image that the Earth makes of Paradise  is that of slopping prairies, orchards, wheat fields at the flank of a big mountain with purple rocks and eternal snows on the peak)

Thus, in the heart of the London Alpine Club, two vues on the high-peaks contrast. Ruskin prolongates the memory of the paradisiac scenery that haunts the dominating scheme of the landscape, as I tried to demonstrate in my presentation so far, whereas the gentlemen from the Club revive the epic conquest of the harsh and sporty, therefore noble, ascent to the unreachable heights. Using Nature to axiological ends: performance, effort and so on…

Turning from Chamonix, the demanding mountaineers were also expressing an alpine landscape moral: a moral of the effort and not the sublime, an imperial moral rooted to Olympic origins:

« Ils luttèrent contre la nature, comme jadis contre les dieux, Les Titans ; comme les Titans ils tombèrent, précipités de leurs espoirs, jetés au fond des abîmes d’effroyables rochers. De tels fils, Angleterre, tu en as encore ; sois fière de les avoir. » [5] (As once did the Titans against the gods, they fought against nature; and as did the Titans, they fell, precipitated from their hopes in frightful abysses of rocks. Such sons, Britannia, you still behold; be proud to have them)

Ruskin opposes this conquering and dominating moral because of the perversion expressed through their love of performance towards sacred nature:

« Vous avez méprisé la nature ; j’entends par là, les sensations secrètes et profondes du paysage naturel. Les sans-culotte ont changé les cathédrales de France en écuries ; vous, vous avez changé en champs de course les cathédrales de la terre. » [6]

(You have despised nature; and I mean by that the secret and profound sensations of natural landscapes. The ‘sans-culotte’ have changes the cathedrals of France into stables; And you have changed into racing tracks the cathedrals of the Earth)

In the second part of the 19th century, numerous voices will denounce this characterisation of the alpine landscape. Viollet-Le-Duc is an interesting case of those rising voices. This painter and illustrator is fascinated by mountains. But he sees that the new developments linked to tourism have led to a multiplication of equipment roads and cultures on a territory that was before then only inhabited by a few countrymen. He denounces the devastating landscaping of the high-mountains that trigger unstoppable erosion processes. In his protest lies an ecological thought – that is still vivid nowadays – rooted to a geological reflection and heading to an ethos of the occupation of a territory by its inhabitants.

Hence, for Viollet-Le-Duc, primes the scientific analysis of the geological origin of the Alps under the effect of the crystallographic type orogenic process. As these images can tell, he proceeds by a retrospective reconstitution of the original form of the mountain, he draws then paints it as it was 100 000 years ago in order to show the erosion process. It is then, from this scientific demonstration, that a moral discourse on the responsibility of human intervention can be enunciated.

This theme of the erosion put to light by Viollet-Le-Duc reminisces in the analysis of landscapes but has taken a major symbolic ground in our era of doubt and worry. It opens, nevertheless, differing perspectives according to their authors or period. As a matter of fact, the methodological use of crystallography is to be contrasted with the one of the American artist a century later.

Smithson mentions entropy as he observes the landscape under the scope of its degradation. This statement, linked to the second principle of thermodynamics (the Carnot principle) establishing the fact that all energy deteriorates, all organisation, or shape, leads necessarily to deterioration. Unlike Viollet-Le-Duc, Smithson doesn’t draw any moral argument from it : he does not question the landscape from its shape, but from the submission of these shapes to the universal principle of entropic degradation.

From the spectacular degradation, Smithson emphasises on the power of the perception, power that can qualify for conceiving the landscape. This ‘artist perception’ is a know-see, a skill relying on the deterioration process in order to create a new object, an object of wonder and unseen artistic practice.

This way, Smithson invents what he calls  the ‘non-site’ : a pile of stones, a mound of sand extracted from a landscape will become, once displayed in an art gallery , the memory of a site carried away in its own deterioration movement, these stones and this sand being the traces of the landscape they are extracted from. They are its memory but also its essence as this landscape being in permanent mutation, only the traces it leaves behind, the drawings, the maps that were collected , only those multiple and random documents form the very existence of this landscape. In the eyes of the artist, who wishes to escape from the deluding fixity of postcards and other snapshots, the landscape confines to these fragile witnesses. The landscape as it mutates and vanishes and the collecting work (of photographs, maps or materials) constituting the truest of ‘representations’ of what we ordinarily refer to as ‘landscape’.

From the fifty’s, Yves Klein and his cosmographies, then Robert Smithson sixty’s, and the whole conceptual movement that followed, the landscape ceases to be a mere physical and aesthetic object, it becomes a pure cerebral process.

“….. The last monument was a sand box or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans-no longer were there green forests and high mountains-all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust.”
Robert Smithson : A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey

To reach such a conception of the landscape, it was necessary that the whole of our pictorial tradition was questionned and that the idea of the ‘representation’ of a scenery  was rendered – if not nul and void – infinitely more complex and ambivalent.

The study of a peculiar painting will surely help us the conceive this transition to contemporary art:

Max Ernst, “Le Jardin de la France” (1962).

At first glance, this painting belongs to the ancient tradition of the symbolic landscape. Ernst reminds us thus that our relation to nature is built in a history marked by the representations given by painters.

In the meantime, a second tradition seems to appear on the canvas: that of cartographers as all elements are gathered to recall the narrative of geography in this painting thanks to the notable presence of the river’s written name and the direction of its flow marked by the arrow that follows the curve.

Furthermore, be observant of the geological characteristics and their incidence on the riverside’s flora. See how they are indicated in the manners of cartographers.

However, we are not in the universe of cartography at least not in the way modern science conceives it. Under Ernst’s brush, the river gains a symbolic dimension induced the reviewing of his space and his shapes in relation to the symbolic dimension of the feminine body that superimposes with that of cartography.

In doing so, Max Ernst tides his painting to the tradition of the ‘nude in a landscape’ in the way such artist as Corot, Bouguereau or Cambon did in the 19th Century.

These word and image tricks, and the mythology of France’s most cultural river, ‘France’s coat of arms’ as would Victor Hugo put it (Odes III,7), get a more complex meaning as we notice the snake curling on the thigh of the Loire, the woman, a modern Lorelei with venomous lures.

The image of the snake is traditional in landscape vocabulary: it is a traditional metaphor: ‘the river Loire snakes through’. But by literally using the traditional metaphor, Max Ernst creates an obscure imaginary scenery.

The evocative power of this image, the title of which, Le jardin de la France, adds to the ambivalence, as it also holds a double meaning and leads in the end to the idea of the Eden, and therefore the idea of Woman as a naturalist phantasy and to the forbidden fruit.

In the topical question, the different levels of analysis suggested by Max Ernst in his painting echo with the multiple aspects of the landscape.

And to understand how this complexity is layered, one needs to distinguish the role played by the different social groups that empanel the opinion on the landscape and who are also resulting to numerous social expectations towards the landscape.

Michel Conan notes that ‘the expressions about the landscape of social groups vary profoundly. They usually express themselves to protect a territory from mutation’. [7]

It would then first be a reaction questioning the transformations induced in the space by other activities. The Sunday stroller, the industrialist, the hunter, the tourist, a farmer, all these social actors exert, consciously or not, a certain ownership right on the territory.  The concept of landscape led by these different practices cannot rely on a consensus. On the contrary, it indicates the opposition of each group interest. But how can one define these interests and their mutation into landscaping claims? Each of these categories of actors obeys to behavioural rules and attempts to impose them on to the other groups. These rules are the determining values that transform in ‘best practises’ all of which are enjoyment rituals – a stroll for instance – and also protection rituals – for example, the demonstrations organised by defence organisations -.

In their public claim, these interests enunciate a certain idea of the common interest. And yet, the later can offer differing line of argument to those who assume economical and industrial development policies, like the government, and those who oppose these policies in the name of common good.  In the case of a motorway construction plan, the politicians will raise the arguments of timesaving, fret efficiency, and debottlenecking of urban areas, and so on.

Immediately, organisations of farmers, landscape protectors, ecologists will they oppose to this motorway construction plan preferring the development of waterway, operating slowly but less polluting, or even the train, less individual. In the same way, one would oppose the construction of an airport in order to preserve the wetland biotope. In this circumstance, rises the traditional opposition between development and preservation, economic benefits and precautionary duties (shale gas).

In practice, if not in the absolute, it is societal acknowledgement that legitimates the debates. The mere usage of a territory according to a group – hunting or jogging, doesn’t define the territory. However, if they become a significant practice, to the extent that they produce touristic flows, they gain a legitimacy that could prevail, with the aid of the media. A series of prescriptions (worshipping, silence, interviews) would then complete a ‘way to think and express what gives the experience of a place its singularity’. [8] These prescriptions and discourses as a whole, the repetition of mediated images, in which an intimacy toward space and nature is expressed, can prevail and sacralise the space as a landscape, it will be impossible for other actors to touch. The sanctuarisation of a landscape is the end to these claims, and the materialisation of the legitimacy conquered through these debates.

The stronger the ritualisation of the landscape – as a product of ancient practices or resulting from violent fights, the more emblematic it gets. That is what happens when a whole nation identifies with a landscape. The Quatre Cantons lake and the Grütli prairie are quite exemplary in this matter. André Corboz shows how in Switzerland, the whole nation identifies to emblematic landscape pictured by the romantic painters and the popular scenery of William Tell’s myth and the assumption of the alpine landscape[9].  This raises the large issue that is the contribution of landscapes to the construction of national identity.

The case of Switzerland and the Alps is exemplary and we can find the same mechanisms in other countries. Thus, Amari Peliowski-Dobb and Catalina Valdés have just published a study, in the line of François Walter’s Les figures paysagères de la nation, (2004)  shows the usage of the Chilean landscape by the various governments in different eras of this country’s existence.[10]

We understand here that the moral investment on landscapes refers to the use one can make with the memory and myth of a landscape. It is true as regards the national myths but also as regards landscaping conflicts. In both cases, the argumentary line, either polical or ethical, resorts to images that strike the conscience or subconscious of the citizens. In fact, these images always represent, repeat and strengthen aesthetic schemes. The question of the landscape, I have attempted to tackle a bit hastily, is thus, always and inextrically, the result of a historical construction involving the territories and their representation, the memories where use and traditions lie and desires inspiring endlessly new construction plans and therefore new conflicts.

Notes

[1] Simon Schama, Le Paysage et la Mémoire, Paris, Seuil 1999, p. 20

[2]John Brinckerhoff Jackson A la Découverte du Paysage vernaculaire, traduit de l’américain par Xavier Carrère, Arles, Actes Sud-ENSP, 2003, p. 264

[3]  Et cela indépendamment même de tout lien de propriété. Marc Bloch souligne, à cet égard, que l’idée de propriété, à cette époque, convenait mal à la complexité des rapports d’usage et de responsabilité qui constituent l’ordre féodal ? cf Marc Bloch, La société féodale, Paris, Albin Michel 1939, ed de poche 1994 p. 173-174, cité par Jackson, op. cit., p. 267

[4] Simon Schama, op cit., p. 575

[5] A.G. Butler. « Oraison funèbre pour quatre alpinistes du Club alpin, morts dans l’ascension du Cervin ». Ce texte a été gravé sur le monument qui leur est dédié. In Simon Schama, op. cit p. 570

[6] idem p. 573

[7] Michel Conan, L’invention des identités perdues, in Cinq Propositions pour une Théorie de Paysage, Seyssel, Champ Vallon 1994, p. 35

[8] Michel Conan, L’invention des identités perdues, in Cinq Propositions pour une Théorie de Paysage, op. cit., p. 37

[9] André Corboz, Au fil du Chemin, le territoire, ses assises et ses doubles,  in Voie suisse, l’itinéraire genevois, De Morschach à Brunnen. Genève, 1991

[10] Amari Peliowski-Dobb et Catalina Valdés : Una geografia imaginada. Santiago, 2014