The artists of the Romantic Movement could see science coming, and it wasn’t pretty. Science seemed to bring an ideology along with it (sort of a technocratic justification and amplification of the worst forms of capitalism) and, schematically, it divided the world into two. There was the outer world (stuff to be perceived, measured and used) and the inner world (perception, thought and emotional responses). Science meant our minds were separate from nature and were to be used to control nature, as if we were secular wizards. The Romantics, however, believed the mind to be a part of nature and connected to nature. Everything was, in fact, ‘spirit’. Friedrich Schelling went so far as to say that nature was visible spirit and spirit was invisible nature.
So how did this outlook affect the arts and how was it revealed in the visual arts? Well, you can get an idea from the current show at the Morgan Museum.
Here’s a piece by Turner called The Pass at Faido, St. Gothard (1843).
In this watercolor we cannot see a differentiation between perceiver and perceived – the viewer is caught up in the dynamic aspect of nature which is being depicted; there is a fusion of observer and natural process in an overarching spiritual awareness. This painting, in fact, shows a mountain pass in the Alps during the thawing season. We see nature in a type of transition, forceful and uncontrollable but benign or even benevolent. The artist does not paint this realistically, but infuses the painting with his sense of engagement. This painting is all about engagement and union between the mind and nature.
I love John Robert Cozens’ work A Ruined Fort near Salerno(1782).
The Romantics liked contrasting human works, which are easily destroyed and fall into ruin, with seemingly eternal natural processes or structures. Here we see an ancient fort in the foreground. At one time it served some strategic importance which has been utterly forgotten to history. It is dwarfed by the magnificence of a mountain – a type of natural structure which has always held spiritual meaning as the place where one can ascend closer to the ‘spirit realm’.
We also see a similar sentiment here in Karl Friedrich Lessing’s Landscape with a cemetery and a church (1837).
The tree represents something eternal contrasted with the crumbling tombstones. A tree, symbolically, can also be considered a type of bridge between the earth and the sky or the ‘lower’ and the ‘higher’. Its roots dig deep into the earth and its canopy stretches up into the sky. The tree has been a traditional spiritual/religious symbol which the Romantics relished.
All in all it’s a small show but I’m glad that I saw it since it forced me to think about our world vis a vis the world before the scientific and technological revolution took place. It also compelled me to think about my own attitude toward the relationship between mind and nature. I’m leaning more toward the Romantic conception now. It’s actually kind of shocking how we just go along with the belief that the mind is separate from nature or the world.
I think a visit to the Morgan to see the show would be worthwhile within the context of the whole museum. I was knocked back, for example, by the amazing collection of ancient cylinder seals at the Morgan Museum. Please remember that this museum does have a free Friday viewing time from 7 to 9pm.
Info about the Morgan Museum
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016
Tel: (212) 685-0008
Fax: (212) 481-3484