Pastoral to Postindustrial features approximately one hundred depictions of landscapes and city views by British artists. All of them are works on paper, and all are drawn entirely from the stellar collection of watercolors, drawings, and prints at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery.
The history of landscape as an artistic subject, or genre, is a fascinating one, making tangible how our attitudes toward nature have changed over time. The multitude of meanings we attach to nature reveal what we value as well as what we despise. In ancient Rome, artists painted mural-sized images of landscapes in domestic interiors to create illusions of greater space. During the Middle Ages, landscape images served primarily as backgrounds for religious scenes. In the art of the West, landscape painting did not come into its own until the sixteenth century, primarily in Italy and the Netherlands. Heroic landscapes depicted an idealized nature, often further elevated with monumental classical architecture, while pastoral visions conjured up simple rustic settings with grazing farm animals and peasants at work. Dutch landscapes underwent a vernacular shift, demonstrating a new interest in everyday activities. In late- nineteenth-century France, the Impressionists worked en plein air, taking their easels and oil paints out into the countryside and painting on the spot, in contrast to earlier artists’ practice of making only preparatory sketches out of doors and then returning to their studios to create the final works.
In England, the medium of watercolor quickly became entwined with the genre of landscape. Late-eighteenth-century landscape watercolors often were inspired by the classical paintings of artists like Claude Lorrain and frequently were made in conjunction with the Grand Tour, the lengthy, culturally oriented journey to Europe—especially Italy—that was de rigeur for wealthy young aristocrats. Although deemed less important than oil paintings, watercolors began to be exhibited alongside canvases at London’s Royal Academy in the late eighteenth century. In time, various societies devoted exclusively to the watercolor medium were established.
Pastoral to Postindustrial includes examples of “finished” watercolors, or “exhibition pieces” that attempted to elevate the genre. Often these were executed in bodycolor, also known as gouache, an opaque medium that can be manipulated like oil paint, as opposed to watercolor, which is transparent and, once applied to the paper support, is not easily changed. Others are more informal, quick renderings that take advantage of the luminous white of the paper and the possibility of subtle tonal juxtapositions. Some artists painted invented landscapes, taking liberties and creating fictional places that couldn’t possibly exist in nature, while others tried to render faithfully exactly what they saw. Some of the works were executed according to strict rules, while others function as informal souvenirs or visual aides mémoires. In the early nineteenth century, many English artists began to address a sense of loss associated with industrial development and the shift from an ancient way of life rooted in the pastoral countryside to the excitement and confusion of life in the growing urban milieu.
Also included in the exhibition are numerous prints and drawings that, like watercolors, were executed on paper. In the twentieth century, many artists addressed the destruction caused by two world wars. They depicted damaged landscapes and the carnage of war, devastated by what they saw and felt, as we have been since our own Manhattan skyline was so recently and so dramatically altered. Some of their works—executed in various modern styles such as geometric abstraction, Expressionism, Surrealism, and Pop—stretch the limits of what can be defined as a landscape or cityscape. A number of the most recent works blur the lines between photography and site-specific performance art.
The richness of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s collections of works on paper allows for this ambitious survey spanning over two centuries. The Whitworth Art Gallery was founded in Manchester—a major industrial hub in northwest England—in 1889 through a legacy left by Sir Joseph Whitworth, a local engineer who made his fortune from arms manufacture. Erected in 1908, the gallery has also been the recipient of generous gifts and bequests, the most important of which was the Taylor gift of 1892. From the beginning, watercolors—often thought to be the quintessential British medium—were a special focus. In 1959, the Whitworth Art Gallery became associated with Manchester University. The Grey is pleased to have collaborated with the Whitworth in order to present Pastoral to Postindustrial, which, in its entirety, creates a portrait of a nation. It also provides the New York University community and American audiences with an excellent opportunity to reflect on Britain’s contribution to the visual arts, as well as to view outstanding artworks, many of which have never before been shown in the United States.