Battleground of the Eye

In the Pacific Northwest, more than any other region of America, landscape painting embodies all our conflicting views—our hopes and delusions, our regrets and ambitions—about the natural world and the place of human beings in it. The author travels across time and ideology, canvas by canvas
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Landscape—if you give that rather slippery term its full weight—is one of the great divisive issues in the Pacific Northwest. The landscape paintings of the region, from the eighteenth century to the present day, are pictorial dispatches from a long war that is more heated now than at any time in the past 200 years.

Landscape is land shaped—land subordinated to a vision or a use. A picture frame or a Claude glass* converts land into landscape; so, too, does a logging road or a barbed-wire fence. The railroad magnate and the painter of majestic wilderness scenes have in common their designs on the land: James J. Hill and Albert Bierstadt are brothers under the skin.

Consider this curious tale of two pictures of the Pacific Northwest. In 1999 Slade Gorton, the Republican senator from Washington State, tacked an ingenious rider onto a bill intended to provide American aid for Kosovo. Gorton's rider concerned a proposed cyanide-leach gold mine in Okanogan County (he was for it). Eighteen months later, in the race between Gorton and his Democratic challenger, Maria Cantwell, the gold-mine rider came back to haunt him. (It may have lost him the election, which Cantwell won by a cigarette-paper-thin majority.)

In the Gorton-Cantwell race landscape turned into the central topic of debate, as the candidates fought over such questions as the Okanogan County mine, logging in national forests, and the breaching of dams on the Snake River. From the barrage of television ads that were broadcast by both sides, two pictures emerged, each executed in a style familiar to any Northwest gallery-goer. Gorton's was a tame Augustan landscape, with irrigated farms and gardens and orderly plantations, in which nature was tailored to human needs and specifications. Cantwell's was a landscape in the manner of Bierstadt or Thomas Cole—a Romantic wilderness, with free-swimming salmon and untouched stands of tangled old-growth forest (spotted owl calling to spotted owl), a realm of aboriginal solitude and grandeur.

Rural voters east of the Cascade Mountains showed an overwhelming preference for the Gorton picture, with its promise of money and jobs. West of the mountains, along the urban corridor that stretches north and south from Seattle, the Cantwell landscape found favor with hikers, bird-watchers, fly-fishers, and the mass of college-educated white-collar voters, who bear out the interesting paradox that Seattle is the first big city to which people have swarmed in order to get closer to nature.

One might hear echoes of that debate almost anywhere in the United States, but in the Pacific Northwest it is conducted with a peculiar and obsessive intensity, because here the wilderness itself seems to possess a tenacious memory. In this damp, dauntingly fertile climate the creeping salal and salmonberry, and the green spears of infant Douglas firs, are bent on restoring everyone's back yard to the temperate rain forest that it once was, not so long ago. The towns and cities of the Northwest tend to have a makeshift, provisional air, as if the forest might yet swallow them alive. Because the region was settled by whites more recently than elsewhere, its Indian past—10,000 years of it—lies very close to the surface, and Native American conceptions of landscape and land use remain live political issues here.

Last year's Senate race was fought on terms that go back to the eighteenth century, as the painted landscapes of the Pacific Northwest remind one, with their endless variations on the themes of wilderness, white settlement, tribal rights, and the competing claims of industry and nature. These paintings haven't dated. The questions they raise are all around us, even now.

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The Portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber
Webber's portrait of Captain James Cook, along with biographical information about both Cook and Webber. Posted by the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

John Webber was the first white artist to unpack his paint box in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring of 1778 Captain James Cook's Resolution put in to Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, after a long northward haul up the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand, with stops in Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii. En route through Oceania, Webber, the official expedition artist, had painted a series of watercolors that are dominated by exotic tropical greenery in which every palm frond has a life of its own.

Cook's ship left the palms, wili wilis, breadfruit, and hibiscus of Hawaii on February 2; on March 29 it sailed into the great funnel-shaped approach to Nootka Sound, on the same latitude as the mouth of the English Channel. To British eyes the Pacific Northwestern light falls at a familiar and homely angle. The vegetation is Scottish, the weather Irish. After Hawaii, Nootka Sound must have felt to the voyagers like a wet and windy corner of their own country, named New Albion, in honor of its teasing similarity to home.

Webber, who trained as a painter first in Switzerland and then in Paris, clearly seems to have experienced a bout of déjà vu. In sharp contrast to his Tahitian and Hawaiian watercolors, his Nootka sketches render the local scenery (and "scenery" it is) in brisk pictorial shorthand, the water, rocks, pines, and mountains composed into a strikingly efficient and conventional landscape. We might be on the shore of Lac Léman or Lake Windermere here.

Like Cook, in his posthumously published Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784), Webber seems to have barely noticed the land itself, so preoccupied was he with the Indians in the foreground—their swan-necked cedar canoes, their curious timber dwellings, the frames on which they dried their salmon. In Paris he had specialized in "picturesque peasant scenes," a useful preparation for his studies of Indian life. Though the figures are small on the page, they are exquisitely detailed and individuated. With a magnifying glass one can pick out their conical hats, woven from cedar bark, and capes made from sea-otter hides. Given his education, Webber almost certainly had encountered the ideas of Rousseau, and his Pacific Northwest is the habitat of "natural man," drawn with the fastidious zeal of a keen amateur anthropologist.

In 1791 and 1792, more than a decade after Resolution's flying visit to the Northwest (from Nootka, Cook sailed offshore to the Gulf of Alaska, sighting land to starboard but not stopping there), Spanish and British expeditions cruised through the region, proving the insularity of Vancouver Island and charting Puget Sound. The Spaniards shipped professional artists (Tomás de Suría, José Cardero, Atanásio Echeverría), whereas the English, under Captain George Vancouver, made do with the artistic efforts of a bunch of talented young midshipmen, including John Sykes, Harry Humphrys, and Thomas Heddington. From the mass of sketches that came home to London and Madrid one can see something of the Pacific Northwest but much more of the tastes and interests prevailing among cultivated young Europeans in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

One catches the artists' excitement at the strange customs, costumes, and architecture of primitive man, and their elation at finding themselves in a real-life Salvator Rosa landscape, with all its shaggy cliffs, tangled woods, blasted trees, and lurid skies. Rosa, the Sicilian Baroque painter, was a great and much imitated favorite in Georgian England, where the novelist Tobias Smollett called his work "dreadfully picturesque." So the young men had a fine time, in their journals and sketchbooks, with granite precipices, waterfalls, and snowcapped peaks, as the land steepened around them along the Inside Passage.

Dread was in fashion in the 1790s, when the word "awful" still had a precise meaning, and images of the vertiginous crag, the dark forest, the storm at sea, were calculated to induce a delicious sensation of vicarious terror. It happened that the Pacific Northwest was discovered by whites just as the idea of the Romantic Sublime was gaining sway. The lonely and forbidding geography of the place perfectly fit the reigning conception of how a Romantic landscape ought to look. It conveniently combined, within a single view, the essential iconic features of the Swiss Alps, the German forest, and the English Lake District.

There was a single dissenting voice on the voyage—that of George Vancouver, known by his men (though never to his face) as Captain Van. At thirty-four, Vancouver was far behind his time. He was a provincial (from King's Lynn, in Norfolk, where his father was employed by the Customs Service); his education had been mostly acquired at sea (he'd been one of Captain Cook's midshipmen); and the Sublime left him cold. His posthumously published Voyage (1798) gives a candid, heartfelt portrait of the Pacific Northwest as seen through the eyes of a young fogey who was out of touch with the intellectual currents of his age.

Captain Van took a great shine to Puget Sound and its surroundings. Among the low hills and forest clearings he was able to imagine himself in a reborn England of close-shaven lawns, artful vistas, rolling fields, and country houses. Remembering the stretch of coast over which the retirement homes of Sequim are now sprawled, he wrote,

The surface of the sea was perfectly smooth, and the country before us exhibited every thing that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view. As we had no reason to imagine that this country had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man, I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture.

But his pleasure in this newfound land soon curdled into repugnance as the expedition sailed north and west into the narrow, mountain-walled channels of the Inside Passage. While his juniors, along with the expedition naturalist, Archibald Menzies, thrilled to the dramatic sublimity of their surroundings, Vancouver recoiled from what he saw. The snowcapped peaks were "sterile," the cliffs of dripping rock and vertical forest were "barren," "dull," "gloomy," "dreary," "comfortless." Of the much admired waterfalls he complained that their incessant noise made it impossible for him to hear any birdsong.

Vancouver's voice seems to come from the wrong end of the eighteenth century, when mountains were conventionally seen as rude geologic excrescences—chaotic, useless, and offensive to the mind and eye ("vast, undigested heaps of stone," as the theologian Thomas Burnet described the Alps in 1681). Yet most of the effusive paeans to the region's scenic grandeur conspicuously lack the real depth of feeling in Vancouver's response to a grim and spiritually corrosive landscape whose epicenter he named Desolation Sound. Captain Van ought to be adopted as the patron saint of all northwesterners who have felt walled in by their mountain ranges, or suffered a jolt of depression when faced by the black monotony of the fir forest under a low, wintry, frog-spawn-colored sky.

The back-of-beyond aspect of the Pacific Northwest heightened its romantic allure. Even after the Oregon Territory came within reach of the enterprising tourist, Washington and British Columbia remained comparatively remote. The famously grueling sea passage from Portland to Seattle was a serious deterrent, and it wasn't until James J. Hill's Northern Pacific Railroad at last arrived at its Tacoma terminus, in 1883, that Puget Sound became easily accessible to the casual traveler. In the meantime, a growing mystique attached itself to the area: people who had never been there spoke of it as the last resort of unspoiled wilderness, romantic solitude, and wild indigenous inhabitants.

It was the Indians who drew the Irish-Canadian painter Paul Kane to British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon on a long and adventurous trip in 1846-1847. But Kane's noble red men, alone with their primeval forest and steam-belching volcanic cones, are disappointingly generic, and look as if they stepped straight out of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. What Kane's pictures celebrate is, rather, the intrepidity of the artist—the solitary white man out in the Far West, ahead of the crowd, communing with primitive people in their natural state. His sketches and studio canvases document the progress of the artist as romantic hiker-hero. Kane's journey is the real subject; his Pacific Northwest is an adequately wild backdrop for a sequence of pictures in which one's attention instinctively fastens less on the land than on the personality of the painter.

In 1855, when the artist George Catlin was pushing sixty, he stopped in the Northwest, breaking a voyage that took him from Cape Horn to the Bering Sea. At the mouth of Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, then as wild a site as any in the region, he painted a prophetic elegy on the fate of wilderness in an industrial, land-hungry age. A Whale Ashore—Klahoquat is as ambitious a painting as Catlin ever attempted—half moody seascape, half grim morality tale. Set against a troubled sunset over the Pacific, the stranded whale is not the only creature in the picture that is seeing its last day. The Indians swarming around the carcass, in canoes and on foot, are observed from such a distance that one can tell little about them except that they are members of the same species. They might just as well be a colony of prairie dogs. The swirling pattern made by the crowd on the beach has the organic coherence of a shoal of minnows or a flock of gulls. In the middle distance a trim schooner rides at anchor. A boat has just put off from it. On the far horizon, to the right of the schooner, is a flattened contrail from a steamship going south. Numerous as the Indians may appear, it's the smoke in the distance that signals the inevitable outcome of this story. Historically speaking, we are just seconds away from the arrival of the logging crew, the pulp mill, the cannery, and all the rest of the machinery that will change forever the life of the unsuspecting people on the beach.

Since 1830 Catlin had been chasing Indians westward across the plains, trying to capture them on canvas before they were swamped by the tide of white conquest and settlement. By 1855 great tracts of the land that he had known as wilderness had been claimed for civilization by the barbed-wire fence. That Catlin could see the Indians as doomed even here, in the last outpost of the truly wild, reveals the depth of the visionary pessimism he had acquired on his travels. And he was right, of course. Ten years before he stood above the beach at Clayoquot, the Hudson Bay Company had made Victoria its western headquarters; three years before, the Seattle city fathers had staked claim to their settlement on Elliott Bay. Catlin's nearing steamship was as unstoppable as the setting sun.

The Indians in A Whale Ashore are squarely seen as part of the Pacific Northwest's nature, not its culture. It's no accident that one of the best collections of Native American art from the Northwest coast is housed not in the National Gallery but in the American Museum of Natural History, where the Salish, Haida, and Kwakiutl tribes take their place alongside stuffed elk and bison. In the basic grammar of nineteenth-century landscape painting, no stretch of Northwest water is complete without its canoeful of Indians—a native aquatic species whose presence gives the stamp of regional authenticity to a canvas. As the same water filled in real life with square-rigged lumber ships and steam tugs, its painted counterpart became an exclusionary zone in which white vessels were banned and only cedar canoes allowed.

In 1863, on his second swing through the West in search of material for his enormous pictures of the American Sublime, Albert Bierstadt planned to visit Puget Sound. However, his companion, the journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow, fell ill in Oregon, and the two men sailed instead from Portland to San Francisco, en route to New York. The unvisited territory evidently loomed large in Bierstadt's imagination, and in 1870 he produced a curious painting titled Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast, in which he depicted a landscape of artistic myth and rumor, a Pacific Northwest de l'esprit.

By Bierstadt's usual seven-by-twelve-foot standards, the canvas is quite a modest one, but every last inch is packed to the bursting point with the stock ingredients of the Sublime, all lusciously painted in the artist's best theatrical style. Here are rocks, precipices, withered trees, the darkness of a howling storm, a shaft of golden sunshine of the kind that might herald the Second Coming, a thunderous cascade descending a mountain face, a turbulent and angry sea, and Indians, hauling their canoes to safety out of the exploding surf. The picture turns Puget Sound into a brand name for the dreadfully picturesque.

More effectively than the Oregon paintings that Bierstadt drew from the life, Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast formulates the terms on which the Pacific Northwest made its appeal to the aesthetic tourist. The region was soon dotted with established vantage points offering painterly views of the major landmarks: Mount Hood seen from the northwest bank of Lost Lake, Mount Adams seen from the Oregon side of the Columbia River, Mount Rainier seen from across Commencement Bay, on Puget Sound. It was a quickly established convention that Northwest water—river, lake, or branch of the sea—was sufficiently still to hold a faithful reflection of a mountain for hours at a time. This despite Bierstadt's suggestion that Puget Sound waves break on the shore like those of the Mediterranean in a full gale.

Sanford Gifford, a Luminist painter and a close friend of Bierstadt's, was another early visitor. In 1874 he pitched his easel on what I take to be the beach on the southeastern tip of Vashon Island and painted Mount Rainier mirrored in the lakelike water of Commencement Bay. The snowcapped summit, rose-tinted in the light of a late-summer afternoon, rises above a layer of hazy cloud like an apparition, or (in Gifford's own terms) a manifestation of the divine. The water is made radiant by the diffused brilliance of the mountain's reflection. On the scored-glass surface of the bay float two Salish canoes. On the far shore the most prominent trees are as green and, more surprisingly, deciduous as any in Gifford's English and Hudson River landscapes. It's a picture of an undisturbed American Arcadia, in which Indians—with their pathless woods, their peaceful water, and their inspiring alp—are seen to be living apparently beyond the reach of time.

It's Gifford's determined erasures that catch the eye. Gone (from the patch of land immediately above the canoe in the foreground) is the young town of Tacoma, with its new lumber mill, new docks, and fleet of moored cargo ships. Gifford's lovely Arcadia, so seemingly present, belongs to an imagined past, and the painting is suffused with nostalgia for a period that never really was, when bushy elms grew out over the water, and Indians were the nymphs and shepherds of European pastoral tradition.

Fifteen years after Gifford painted Mount Rainier, Bierstadt at last reached Puget Sound, having completed a painting tour of southeastern Alaska. Camped out on what appears to be the same spot that Gifford had used for his view of the mountain, Bierstadt set to work. By 1889 Tacoma had grown to a smoke-and-steam-wreathed city of 30,000 people. Bierstadt obliterated it from his vision. To accentuate the enchanted solitude of the scene, he painted just one Indian canoe in place of Gifford's two.

It should not be thought that Bierstadt took no interest in the great industrial developments of his time. He was acutely sensitive to them. His major patrons were financial, timber, mineral, and railroad magnates for whom Bierstadt's pictures (like those of Thomas Moran) were grandiose souvenirs of the West as it had been before their own work crews landscaped it to the industrialists' design. When Bierstadt finished his Rainier painting, in his New York studio, he sent a hopeful letter to James J. Hill. Mount Tacoma (the alternative name for Rainier) was, he wrote, "one of the grandest of mountains," and it was happily situated "on the line of your road." The railroad baron didn't bite.

In a spirited counteroffensive to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the Romantic painters made it their great mission to depopulate the Northwest of all but its aboriginal inhabitants. It was left largely to amateurs—and, interestingly, to painters of Indian scenes such as Catlin and John Mix Stanley—to tell the other side of the story. No one had a keener sense of the fantastic pace of white settlement and industry than the artists who spent their lives searching for authentic Indians in the ever decreasing wild.

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Oregon City on the Willamette River
John Mix Stanley's painting, posted by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Though John Mix Stanley specialized in Indian portraits, he was an accomplished, if conventional, landscape painter. His Oregon City on the Willamette River (c. 1850) is a conspicuously fair-minded treatment of the theme. The Sublime survives in the immediate foreground, where a bluff overlooks the Willamette Valley, but it has mostly been exiled to the back of the canvas, where sandstone cliffs and thick forest frame a splendid river-wide waterfall. Sandwiched between wilderness in the distance and wilderness nearby lies an infant city of neat rectangular plots and newly painted houses, dominated by an English-style church and a three-story sawmill. Covered wagons are rolling down Main Street. The low light is falling from the east; it's early morning, and this is just the beginning of what is going to happen to Oregon in the near future.

Cut to the figures on the bluff—still in shadow, for the morning hasn't reached them: two Indians, a man and a woman, with what looks like a bedroll between them. The man is leaning on a staff, so he's a pilgrim, or a vagrant. Both figures look directly at the viewer. They might be homeless people on a modern street, begging passersby for change. With hindsight, we know where the couple are headed. In 1857 Stanley painted an allegory titled Last of Their Race, in which ten Indians, wearing the costumes of different tribes, are perched on a pile of rocks at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, their last toehold on the West that was once their domain.

Yet Stanley rendered the fatal city so affectionately that the painting seems to shimmer with ambiguity, like a hologram changing shape as it is tilted under a light. Now you're with the Indians, now you're with the whites. At first glance the picture looks like an advertisement for the civic pleasures that await travelers at the end of the Oregon Trail; it promises space to build and to breathe amid tranquil natural surroundings—a school for one's children, a waterfall to delight one's eye. At second glance that cheerful promise seems callow and heartless—but not so callow, or so heartless, that it cancels out one's first impression. As in the hologram, both images are equally there, but never quite at the same time.

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Album: Licton Springs
Photographs of the Denny family homestead.

In the 1880s an amateur, Emily Inez Denny, a member of one of Seattle's founding families, took the robust, monocular view of settlement in a painting of Smith's Cove, on Elliott Bay. The artist is standing in the middle of a stump field, where timber is being logged to make way for future development. (The space just behind her will turn, eventually, into a chain-link-fenced compound for imported Japanese cars, fresh out of their containers.) Beyond the field lie the already substantial accomplishments of Denny's ingenious, hardworking family and friends: a handsome homestead, with barns, outbuildings, and an orchard; ships, under steam and sail, in the harbor; a locomotive hauling a line of cars on the railroad, which is carried on trestles over the shallows at the north end of the bay; two horse-and-buggy outfits, heading into town down a southeast-trending lane. The sky is dominated by a roiling billow of steam, issuing from the impossibly tall smokestack of a mill somewhere over on Vashon Island, or beyond. Emily Denny's picture, with its proud detailing of modes of transportation, makes that most poignant of provincial boasts: we may seem to live miles from anywhere, but we are really very well connected. In that respect her painting is bang up-to-date 120 years later.

Denny's work belongs to a tradition of vernacular landscape which includes picture-postcard photographs of the Pacific Northwest. Photographers and painters used many of the same views and vantage points, but these coincident locations serve only to expose the huge rift between their visions of the land. Turn-of-the-century postcards abhor solitude. They represent nature as a resource, for industry and for recreation. One wonders what Bierstadt, for instance, would have made of the diagonal line of twenty-five people "nature coasting" down a snowy slope of Mount Rainier and waving to the camera as they slide by. Every river has its fisherman, every lakeshore has its picnic table. A postcard from Oregon shows Mount Hood mirrored in Lost Lake, a favorite view of painters—but here a man in a bush hat sits in the foreground cradling a gun, as if he were about to unzip the reflection with a bullet. Mountain scenes afford a pretty backdrop for early Oldsmobiles and Fords, shown parked on dirt tracks in the heart of the Sublime.

As the postcards promote the luxury hotels, the parks, the zoos, and the electric lighting of the new cities, so they take a boosterish line on the sources of the cities' wealth. Loggers are represented as gnarled western heroes, grinning widely from halfway up the trunk of some monarch of the forest, which they are about to dethrone. Massive balks of cut timber, a hundred feet long and seven feet square, are captioned "Washington Tooth Picks." A class of twenty-five grade school children is shown sitting atop the flat stump of a single logged cedar. Bridges, ships, farms, mills, and railroads figure on the postcards as triumphs of civilization over the wilderness—a wilderness that by 1905 or thereabouts could already be thought of as a lavish extension of a civic park, to be valued in terms of its facilities for tourism and sport.

A postcard from a later date—circa 1950—qualifies as one of the few iconic Northwest landscapes. It shows the vast glaciated extrusion of Mount Rainier, grandly outclassed by a B-17 Flying Fortress that appears to be cruising directly over the summit. Here is the awe-inspiring, Seattle-manufactured Technological Sublime, putting nature in its place. The dormant volcano and the Boeing bomber are up to the same deadly waiting game. This was the card to send, with love, to Moscow.

The most powerful and dramatic landscapist of the Northwest was the timber industry, which has turned the forested mountainsides into a new kind of wilderness, of skid roads, stumps, and slash. I saw my first clear-cut eleven years ago, when I was out here on a visit. It was unexpectedly stirring to see the sheer totalitarian scale of damage that the chain saw can inflict, and the sight ranks in memory somewhere alongside my first view of the Manhattan skyline, or of the Pyramid of Cheops, as one of the great eccentric wonders of mankind. I understand perfectly why Paul Bunyan was a leading mythological god in the American pantheon, before his activities came to be regarded as commensurate with spilling oil and dumping untreated sewage.

No sooner had the Pacific Northwest been established as the last outpost of the Sublime than it was recast as a battlefield in the war between man and nature. The loose group of Seattle-based painters whom Life magazine would in 1953 label "The Northwest School"—Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan—lived within view of the clear-cuts. If their best-known work leans toward the calm restraint and stylization of Japanese and Zen Buddhist art, that may be—in part, at least—a response to the violence and upheaval that figure so prominently in their early paintings. Against Graves's later, light-infused and delicate studies of birds, animals, and potted plants should be set his Logged Mountains, painted from 1935 to 1943.

The upstanding dead and withered trunks left by the loggers are identical twins to the lightning-blasted trees found in the spooky landscapes of Salvator Rosa, such as Mercury and the Dishonest Woodman and Landscape With Tobias and the Angel (both in the British National Gallery, in London). But they are the least of it. The land itself has turned into slurry; it's pouring in a viscous, yellowish-green waterfall right through the bottom of the painting. The grand cascade, central to Romantic pictures of the Northwest in the nineteenth century, has here been perverted into a Niagara of waste. The draining land leaves behind bare chunks of rock, like rotten molars, under a stormy and sinister sky. The dominant colors—russet, ocher, greens that verge on black—are the true colors of Washington as seen by an unillusioned resident rather than by tourists like Gifford and Bierstadt.

From the archives:

"The Liquid Earth" (January 1999)
Landslides and other "ground failures" cost more lives and more money each year than all other natural disasters combined, and their incidence appears to be rising. By Brenda Bell

Graves was only describing what actually happens when a mountain is indiscriminately logged and its drainage system wrecked: it turns into a mudslide. His landscape—as dreadful as anything conceived by the Romantics—is based on close observation. Similarly, House in a Landscape (believed to date from the 1930s), his exquisitely precise depiction of a collapsing homestead, its timbers warped and splayed as the house melts back into the earth, is at once a bold statement about the decay of human hopes in an unkind land and a cool exercise in pure draftsmanship. In both paintings one feels Graves's fierce intimacy with his region and its areas of darkness. This is a northwesterner's bleak version of the Northwest—and it is little wonder that Graves later escaped into the light and airy simplicity of his post-1960s work. It's not for nothing that rainy Seattle leads the country in the per capita sale of sunglasses.

The response of Graves's friend and colleague Kenneth Callahan to the clear-cuts was a sequence of big, almost Bierstadt-sized canvases that tip their caps ironically to the Romantic Sublime: same mountains, same rivers, same forest—except that the forest has been stripped from the picture, and the landscape rendered in a monochromatic muddy brown and littered with the machinery of the timber industry, so that it recalls a strange, alpine version of the battlefields of the Marne and the Somme. One might expect to see the tin hats of dead soldiers hung on the crosslike projections of Callahan's surviving stumps.

In the 1940s, before he entered his squiggly, Zen-inspired, drip-painted white-writing phase, Mark Tobey was paying close attention to the art of the Northwest-coast Indians, as in his Drums, Indians and The Word (1944). Since John Webber first sketched at Nootka, Indians had often been in the foreground of Northwest landscapes, as the obligatory genii loci of the region, but their art had made only incidental appearances, in the form of carved and painted canoes, house posts, totem poles, and embroidered hats. The rediscovery of primitive art was part of the core curriculum of twentieth-century Modernism, with Braque and Picasso rivaling each other in their extensive collections of Amerindian and Pacific-island trophies. Borrowing from the stylized and abstract vision of the world as represented in tribal art became a Modernist mannerism, and on the Northwest coast the white artist had immediate access to an extraordinary body of native work. The art of the Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit Indians was as vital, strange, and complex as any in the world. On bentwood boxes, muslin wall hangings, housefronts, masks, and domestic equipment the Indians left their own, often highly enigmatic, landscapes of the Pacific Northwest—a great treasury of techniques and images to which twentieth-century white artists began freely to help themselves.

Tobey—like Morris Graves, who took on Oregon—accepted a commission to paint Washington for a United States series that was funded from 1946 to 1949 by the Container Corporation of America. Graves's Oregon is a delicate, feathery, Japanese-looking study of northwestern evergreens. Tobey's Washington is an intensely busy Indian-inspired pictographic puzzle, like the totemic heraldry on a Kwakiutl painted chest. It's a labyrinth of interlocking rectangles, each one packed with images and symbols, on a ground as luminously gray as a Seattle sky. Inside the rectangles are dozens of ovoids or "eye shapes"—the basic building blocks of Northwest-coast Native American design. As with a Kwakiutl chest, the painting demands to be "read" by the viewer, and, as with the chest, some of its meanings readily disclose themselves whereas others appear to be deeply secretive and private. One sees immediately the salmon, the Pike Place Market scene, the seascape with a sailboat, the tribal masks, but the larger code is not so easily cracked. On one level the painting resolves into a game of Can You Spot (... the killer whale? canoes? logs? mountains? the Indian bird-rattle? Skagit Valley tulips? the artist in his studio? the oyster? clams?). On another it's a palimpsest—writing-on-writing, some legible and strongly foregrounded, some faint and obscure, with the whole composition giving the impression of infinitely recessive depth. More than any other painting in the Container Corporation series, Washington succeeds in condensing an entire American state—its nature, industry, and recreations—into a square of paperboard; and it does so by summoning the aid of the state's aboriginal inhabitants, whose art informs the whole conception of the piece.

It was Tobey who nagged at Emily Carr, a British Columbian painter, to get the Indian-folklore material out of her pictures. After training in Paris, where she fell for the work of Derain and the Fauvists, and after a long spell in an English mental hospital, where she filled an aviary with British songbirds, hoping to import them to Vancouver Island, Carr traveled through coastal British Columbia, painting Indian canoes, house posts, and totem poles in the forest. In 1930, when he was forty and she was fifty-nine, Tobey appointed himself Carr's mentor and critic, advising her to drop the Indian subjects and follow his lead into greater abstraction. The famously spiky Carr was not a natural follower. "Clever but his work has no soul," she remarked of Tobey in her journal (published posthumously as Hundreds and Thousands [1966]).

Though Tobey's opinion of her work rankled, it evidently made its mark, because the canoes and totem poles began to disappear from Carr's canvases, allowing the turbulent shapes of the forest itself to emerge as her great subject. Before, she had concentrated on re-creating, in two dimensions, the swooping curves and expressive distortions of carved figures like Raven and Thunderbird. After about 1930 the foliage of the fir forest, and its undergrowth of bracken, blackberry, and salal, became for her a kind of painted sculpture in its own right. Every leaf and twig looks chiseled, in Indian house-post style, and Carr's forest is thick with fortuitous visual echoes of the mythological creatures who dominated her earlier paintings—especially Dzonogwa, the female Kwakiutl child-stealer; Raven; and Eagle. This is animistic nature—a realm of gross and copious fecundity, where powerful half-seen beings live in the shadows.

In her journal Carr took a dim view of people who "stay outside [the forest] and talk about its beauty."

Nobody goes there. Why? Few have anything to go for. The loneliness repels them, the density, the unsafe hidden footing, the dank smells, the great quiet, the mystery, the general mix-up (tangle, growth, what may be hidden there), the insect life. They are repelled by the awful solemnity of the age-old trees, with the wisdom of all their years of growth looking down upon you, making you feel perfectly infinitesimal—their overpowering weight, their groanings and creekings [sic], mutterings and sighings—the rot and decay of the old ones—the toadstools and slugs ...

If this passage seems to be at least as much about the dank and smelly mystery of sex as about trees, so do Carr's paintings—though the explicit sexuality of her forest is far from being its only signification. In August of 1937 she wrote of an unfinished picture of the woods, "It all depends on the sweep and swirl and I have not got it yet." In her best paintings the forest is literally a whirlpool of meanings, in a state of constant dissolution and recombination. Sex is to be found there, but so are worship, peaceful refuge, fear, revulsion, beauty, power, pathos. It's a complex and accommodating place, which answers equally to, say, George Vancouver's desolation and the Romantic sense of wonder. It seems as close as any white artist or writer has ever come to the Indian version of the Northwest forest as it appears in the native stories collected by Franz Boas and other early anthropologists.

The Pacific Northwest is now entangled in a rancorous quarrel about landscape: "Wise Use" has become a sly euphemism for chain-saw liberation; farmers rally to protest the reintroduction of wolves into the mountains; salmon-first conservationists plan on dynamiting the hydroelectric dams about which Woody Guthrie used to sing.

Here's a contemporary Pacific Northwest landscape: On the Olympic Peninsula the carcass of a northern spotted owl was found nailed to a fence post. The bird had been expertly shot with a high-powered small-caliber rifle. Beside it was pinned a typewritten note, or caption: "If you think your parks and wildernesses don't have enough of these suckers, plant this one." The anonymous artist left behind two beer cans, a Band-Aid, and a spent match.

This stretch of land has been so fought over, painted and repainted, laden with partisan and contradictory meanings, that it tends to invite the response of a tired postmodern shrug. A recent New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress shows a vacationing couple standing beside their RV atop a dizzy precipice, from which they're looking down at the usual natural amenities of the Pacific Northwest—fir trees, mountains, waterfalls, winding trails. The man, in baggy tartan shorts and wraparound sunglasses, is saying to the woman, "So this is the famous environment everyone's so hyped up about?"

It's "the famous environment" that the Portland artist Michael Brophy depicts with sardonic cool in People's View. At the turn of the twenty-first century Brophy has achieved the ambition of every nineteenth-century Romantic painter: he has voided the land of its people. Not even a solitary Indian disturbs his denuded Northwest, with its lonely geology, water, and dark-green vegetation—though field lines and bridges survive, and the hills have been largely shorn of their timber. Nature (or what little is now left of nature) has become a prettily lit stage set, from which the audience has been divorced by a proscenium arch. In the immediate foreground of the picture the spectators are assembled, their backs to the painter—a dense crowd of urban types, in Birkenstocks and earth-toned leisurewear from Eddie Bauer. We're in there too, dutifully gazing at this empty spectacle, this picture of a picture, which is what the Pacific Northwest has become. We're in exactly the same position as the people who look at the sea in Robert Frost's poem:

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
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