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Battleground of the Eye - Page 3
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n 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.

he 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.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Battleground of the Eye - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 40-52.