June 14, 2018
by Luming Guan
Curated by artist Joel Sternfeld and currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime is an intriguing experiment that explores the possibilities in representing landscape with over sixty artworks that range from the mid-nineteenth century to present. As the title indicates, many artworks from this exhibition engage with the landscape tradition. While older landscape paintings were often intended to impress viewers with their scenes of harmonious and magnificent nature and convey a sense of “sublime,” the sentiments and aims reflected in many contemporary artworks often differ or are, in some cases, completely subverted.
The new contemporary sensibility is demonstrated, for example, in Bulgarisches Haus (2001) by German artist Matthias Weischer. At first glance, the painting is an eerie daydream that teeters on the border between reality and fantasy: a plain, modern apartment house, oddly colored in bright orange and dark green, stands amid a curious combination of palm and cedar trees and various other species. There is no sign of location—except in the title that specifies Bulgaria—and no human figure appears. In the foreground, bushes of pink roses forcefully emerge and are dramatically truncated by the edge of the painting. Viewers, as if hiding behind these rose bushes, look furtively into this empty landscape. This brief invitation into the picture’s space is disrupted, however, by contradictions and impossibilities. Although the apartment house seems to occupy a three-dimensional space and the bushy terrain to recede into the distance, the grid-like marks, the unfinished sketches, and the dripping paint all point to a flat surface.
Viewed outside Landscapes after Ruskin, Bulgarisches Haus may not be considered a landscape painting at all. Indeed, in depicting banal, ordinary things in our contemporary environments such as a garage and an apartment house, the painting does not evoke nature, and it barely resembles the majestic scenes in older landscape paintings from those by Jacob van Ruisdael to J.M.W. Turner. A comparison of this painting with German Romantic landscapes painted by Caspar David Friedrich and C.G. Carus nearly two hundred years ago highlights our contemporary loss of an encompassing, awe-inspiring nature and our lack of spiritual attachment to natural surroundings and the land.
We also notice, upon closer inspection, that nothing in this “landscape” by Weischer is natural or depicts any real land. The apartment house looks like an empty shell, and the entire scene evokes a microscopic view of a housing model made of paper-mâché. Miscellaneous plants are randomly and illogically put together; their well-maintained forms and sharply trimmed shapes also imply human presence. However, in this man-made world, humans are absent. The only ones at the site are we, the viewers, and wherever we look in this superficial and fictive “landscape,” we see only ourselves, our own deeds, and their consequences.
However, it would be too boring to read simply moral lessons and environmental concerns into Weischer’s painting. Human transformation of nature began long ago, and how much of true nature was left by the time of Turner and Friedrich, who worked at the height of the Industrial Revolution? Yet for these romantic painters, nature, no matter idealized or fictional, still encapsulated the divine, harmonious order of God and conveyed the notion of “sublime,” which, as defined by Edmund Burke, can “excite the ideas of pain and danger” and “is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Such pious, ennobling sentiment and overwhelming awe have largely disappeared in our contemporary society. On the other hand, Weischer’s Bulgarisches Haus, although differing greatly from landscapes by the Romantic painters, contains something not entirely dissimilar. There is something unsettling and ominous lurking in this fantastic and slightly whimsical landscape. Although the popping colors, crisp lines, and geometric surfaces vaguely spark excitement, the microscopic landscape only reminds us of our banal, prosaic life. Perhaps this is the new “sublime” in our contemporary era: we fear not God but ourselves, and in superficial cheerfulness we find solitude and loneliness.
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Idea of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1757), 13.
Luming Guan is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received B.A. Summa cum Laude with high honors in Art History from New York University in May 2018.