In these uncertain and volatile times, how do contemporary artists re-imagine the earth and its appearances? Landscapes after Ruskin explores this question through artworks that address an increasingly troubling notion of the sublime. Curated by artist Joel Sternfeld, the exhibition is drawn from the Hall and Hall Art Foundation collections. Some 60 works by 46 artists span many styles—from realism to expressionism, abstraction to figuration—revealing how environmental concerns are depicted now.
In the 19th century, humanity was understood to be under the dominion of nature, which had to be placated for survival. Landscape artists such as J. M. W. Turner depicted the natural world as ethereal and majestic—but also overwhelming and, at times, threatening. Turner’s great champion, John Ruskin—a Victorian art critic and social activist—argued that an artist’s principal goal should be “truth to nature.” In eliciting sensations of both beauty and terror, Ruskin asserted, Turner was able to render an authentic representation of the sublime, evoking feelings of awe and human insignificance. Later, Ruskin voiced his broader concerns about the planet, speaking out against industrial pollution and effectively becoming one of Europe’s first environmentalists.
Between the mid-20th century and today—an era that some scholars have dubbed the Anthropocene—humanity itself has come to be viewed as a significant geophysical force. Many of the works seen here confront disasters that humans have inflicted on their environment. Others propose that, in our post-industrial era, terrorism may be the sublime’s most spectacular form—a new landscape riven by destruction and filled with constant surveillance. Landscapes after Ruskin demonstrates how, in a world overwhelmed by rapid technological advances, natural disasters, and a sense of heightened anxiety, it is still possible to discover unexpected beauty and, in so doing, to redefine our sense of the sublime.