A love of landscape paintings feels built into humans alongside our general and primordial need to spend time in nature. It’s possible that this affinity even extends to other cultural artifacts. Do people really like Hollywood blockbusters with sweeping helicopter shots, and video games where you can ride a horse over continent-sized tracts of land? Or do we just yearn for the days when we could stroll through a gallery of paintings and indulge the eye in a series of strange new territories that may or may not reflect the unknown continent within?
Maria Luigi Raggi (Italian, 1742 – 1813), ‘Capriccio View of the Roman Campagna with Column’, 1730-1740. Gouache on paper laid down on canvas, 12 1/8 x 23 3/8 in. (30.8102 x 59.3598 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 47-64/1
A new show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art embraces these dynamics right in the title. “Landscapes: Real and Imagined” features work from the 1700s and 1900s by Camille Pissarro, Emil Nolde, Edward Lear and Lyonel Feininger, among others.
Frequently inspired by travel, these works can be a curious mixture of documentary and embellishment. Take Lear’s Temple of Horus at Edfu seen from the Northwest (1854), which is based on the artist’s real trip to the temple of the falcon god, captured here in watercolor and gouache. The temple is portrayed as brooding over the surrounding territory, with a shadow at least twice as big as could be possible for something that size.
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Its opposite can be found in Maria Raggi’s Capriccio View of the Roman Campagna with Column (1730-1740), a fairytale, arcadian view of a ruin-strewn countryside that feels fertile and vibrant. There’s a dewy soft focus to the pale colors, so kind and welcoming that picnickers and tourists lounge on the memento mori pretty much without irony. Raggi was from a prominent Genoese family and forced to enter a convent at age 18, painting under a pseudonym that was only linked to her true identity in 2003. It’s possible that despite her circumstances, her imagination was this sunny, but the “capriccio” was a genre popular with tourists on the Grand Tour of Europe, meant to blend the real with the artist’s creativity for the sake of a better souvenir.
True to the exhibition’s title, these landscapes are not exactly real, but neither are they modernist reflections of the self. They seem to be pulled from dreams, like Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at L’Hermitage, Pontoise (1879) and Feininger’s Vollersroda III (1914). These works fold into themselves like kaleidoscopes to form images of unbelievable fertility or brutality, respectively. Nolde’s Hamburg, Mild Atmosphere (1910) is so scribbly with its smoke, water and buildings that it is almost abstract. It reminds you of William Gibson’s name for the supercity that engulfs the East Coast in his first trilogy: the Sprawl. These landscapes have their origins in reality, but that’s just a jumping-off point to bigger and better things.
“Landscapes: Real and Imagined” is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through March 17, 2024.