Romantic Landscapes: Mirrors of Reflection and Appropriation

Velibit Alps Black Mountains

It is a common misnomer that when people speak of the tradition of Romantic landscape, they assume them to be somehow synonymous with an intuitive response to Nature; as if the aesthetic aspects of the natural world are all uniform when subjected to the conditions of a Romantic sensibility. Nothing could be more in fundamental error because there is no uniformity of opinion on what constitutes a Romantic landscape, and more problematically what actually defines the parameters of Romanticism itself (1). Whether speaking of landscape or other Romantic genre, there is no unifying or material principle anymore than there is a basis to secure either a national or international style of Romantic Landscape painting. When we speak of Romanticism we are speaking at best of a particular tendency of creative sensibility. As regards Romantic landscape and/or mountainous settings, a common and sentient focus of both Romantic poets and painters, their relationship exists most often in a tendency to an intensified personal subjectivity. But taken further while there may be a broad agreement that there is a certain sensibility of perception, it might also be argued that these perceptions are also shaped and defined by the topography of the particular landscape or mountain scenes chosen. Therefore any distinction between English and German Romantic landscape theory, while attended by a certain general sense of shared sensibility, is nonetheless different in terms of the particular landscape settings that were perceived. But necessarily and by natural extension they are also differentially framed by the epistemological consciousness of the persons perceiving them.

Awe and Contemplation

Axiomatic to the project, and putting aside the vast number of interpreted subjectivities of Romantic subject matter (fascinations with diurnal transitions, sleep, dream, waking, or with death, history, and natural destruction), or even the many innovatory formal traits (a changed use of line, blurring of form, and the radical use and development psychological theories of colour), the Romantic treatment landscape becomes a mirror of reflection and the appropriation of the natural world as an embodiment of a certain state of emotive consciousness. The landscape is perceived, distilled and then re-presented as something more than a topographical record, and something less than a purely fictional invention. Though what separates fiction and fact is both opaque and often fluid to the Romantic imagination (2). Just as in landscape visions of our modern post-Freudian or Lacanian psychological world, where what separates the substantive ‘real’ from experiences of ‘reality’ in the perception of the natural world is no less problematic for other reasons (3). The Romantic landscape was fretted with ideas about visual sensations and how feelings preceded thought, and consequently how judgments follow from such feelings. Indeed, these ideas often pre-date the privilege that Romantic landscape painters subsequently gave to them. The Enlightenment period preceding Romanticism was a ferment of conflictive ideas as regards the priorities of ‘sensationalist’ and intellectualist’ tendencies; arguments which bore the religious imprint of new attitudes towards individualised religious belief and personal intuition (4).
However, one clear aesthetic impulse underpinned most is not all Romantic landscape painting, and that was the revived and completely re-formulated theory of the sublime whose antecedence in fact derived from antiquity (5). The capitalised ‘Sublime’ and its corollary of implied aesthetic immersion, was not the same when speaking of English and German landscape perceptions or experiences, since they came from completely different perception-forming starting points. The English theory of the Sublime derives from the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and his essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). He argued from inductive principles of contrasts such as light and dark, or a sense clarity and delineation of the thing seen that characterised the Beautiful (6). Conversely, the Sublime created a sense of awe (even horror) and caused physiological effects such as a simultaneous sense of fear and attraction. Hence the Sublime generates a sense of visual obfuscation, but pleasure was derived from the fact that it is a fictional deception. In short Burke used an empirical method, and a use of empirical inductive thinking that had dominated a sense and perception-based tradition of English philosophy established long before by Francis Bacon through Isaac Newton and his followers. Similarly, it built upon earlier seventeenth eighteenth century landscape theories of Cooper and Dennis, both of whom had focused on the same principle of comparative contrast (7). A blurring of pictorial delineation typifies English Romantic landscape paintings and watercolours, the Sketching Club tradition having been a vital force that led to its extended formation. English Romantic painters such as Thomas Girton (1775-1802), Richard Bonington (1802-1828), and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1831), were all thoroughly trained in the medium and use of watercolour.
In contradistinction German Romantic landscape ideas of the ‘Sublime’ derive from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose theorisation began in his Critique of Judgment (1790), and concentrated on graded psychical as well as physiological differences brought about and expressed by the object seen, either as form of formlessness. The latter as the Sublime opened up the potential of a sense of boundlessness (8). If form was a delineation and containment (the finite) as expressed by the Beautiful, leading to a sense of ‘understanding’, the Sublime with its potential boundlessness had to be subjected to reason, and required going beyond mere sensory experience to the transcendent (to the infinite or absolute). Kant’s position reflected a fundamental distinction between English and German philosophy as it related to perception, as the former was based on empiricism (based on sensory observation alone), the latter reflected German philosophical concerns that sought to reconcile the contradictions between sensationalist and intellectualist traditions within the different schools of philosophy. In other words reconcile deductive ideas (Continental Rationalism as founded by Descartes), with English Empiricism as induction (Bacon to Newton and Locke). Hence rather than mere thesis and antithesis, there must be a ‘synthesis’ that dictated any understanding of differing modes of human perception. A synthesis that took place in terms of contemplation and reflection upon the landscape subject at hand; that is to say the Sublime existed in the response to the object (the landscape scene) and not the object itself. The philosophy of Kant and his numerous followers is often called ‘Synthetic Idealism’, and addressed the fundamental dichotomy in philosophy, one first set up in Greek Philosophy, Plato’s idealism (idea) and Aristotle’s materialism (observation). Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who followed are in consequence therefore seen as the founders of modern aesthetics (9). Its relevance to artists like Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), meant their influence was profound, since notwithstanding the sometimes misty or sfumato settings of landscape and mountain-scape scenes of these artists, a sense of delineation and the form of things seen and depicted generally remains intact, even though they seek to suggest at the same time a metaphysical or opaque sense of emotional boundlessness. The introspective archetype associated with German Romanticism.
The greater complexity of the Kantian ideas in the longer run were far more tenable and influential, and a contrast principle of the simpler Burke-ian model was gradually displaced and largely assimilated by the German aesthetic, but never fully to the extent that it completely undermined the empirical attitudes and approaches adopted by English Romantic painters as regards their direct and personal experiences of landscape. The distinction remained because in some measure because English Romantic landscape painting has closer affinities to the ‘picturesque’, which spoke of ‘roughness’ and ‘smoothness’ of material aspects of the objects and scene that was depicted; one might cite the painter John Constable (1776-1827) in this respect. William Gilpin (1724-1804) who reformulated this distinction, spoke of ‘roughness’ that characterised ‘picturesque beauty’ from the neat smoothness of the Beautiful that was earlier championed by Burke, “Both ideas however equally enter into the picturesque, as both are observable in the smaller, as well as the larger parts of nature – in the outline, and bark of a tree, as in the rude summit and craggy sides of a mountain (10).” The contrast principle still remained in the discrimination and treat of the relationship between part and whole, the emphasis on detail and the overall vision of a painting. This argument equally exposed a greater conflicting residue within eighteenth century theories of perception which are always present between the overall vision (the imagined ideals of Academic Classicism) and the particular (the material reality of observation) in what is seen and depicted in a landscape. Much was invested therefore in the distinction placed on the English sense of the observation of Nature, and the German emphasis on the contemplation of Nature. By understanding these distinctions we can begin to comprehend the meaning of the perceptive assimilation and expression that artists gave to any natural landscape experience.

Immersion and Assimilation

What relevance today do these now somewhat esoteric and two centuries old arguments have to the current Mountain project, and which are expressed by the three chosen locations in Croatia, Austria and Wales? The argument remains not only as regards how the natural landscapes of the three places have been developed in the intervening time period, but that how they are experienced still carries forward the distinction between the actual landscape or mountain-scape experience, and the nature of the continued historical and period mental consciousness that has continued to engage with it. An engagement with a landscape is always a mental picture of sorts, but they can either be variable detached projections onto what is seen (visions), or serious attempts at mental and psychical immersion into and identity with what is being experienced. It is obvious that persons who permanently live in and experience such environments directly carry with them certain trained intellectual and emotional affinities of consciousness. All sensory experiences bring together what is perceived and the intellectual particularities of the person that has perceived it. It is also quite clear that the topographical idiosyncrasies and cultural identities of a place interact with each viewer in unique way, and the relevance of familiarity with a given locality shapes the nature of an aesthetic response to it. The Romantic landscape painters were most often visitors or travellers to the locations they depicted, and if one wanted to be harsh and use modern terminology one might call them simply tourists. With few exceptions, perhaps Samuel Palmer (1805-81) and the brief rural commune he set up at Shoreham (1826.35), the notion of the artists communing with nature is much later Romantic invention of the second half of the nineteenth century, the most famous of which was probably that of the Worpswede artist-commune near Bremen (founded in 1889).
However, this said, another aspect of Romanticism was frequently used to overlay the landscape, sometimes this included references to historical or folkloric narratives, and at other times site-specific local events and cultural associations. A feature of Romanticism, particularly in English and German speaking countries was a renewed emphasis on local particularities. Oral histories and the gradual emergence taken from archival and folkloric sources were emblems of emotive resonance and specific identities. The initial landscape influences in both Germany and the British Isles had been the seventeenth century tradition of landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain (1620/1-1682), and it was in that century that landscape became an autonomous genre within artistic studio practices. Though they were most often subjected to the fictional emplacements and narrative guises depicting pseudo-historical events derived from antique sources. Landscape purely as landscape had found (of somewhat lower status) in many Dutch and Flemish painters of the seventeenth century a new sense of singularity; Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82) might be a case in point. But in the context of the post-Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution a whole series of Romantic ideas concerning ‘culture’ and ‘cultural identity’ began to take root in relation to the treatment of landscapes. Culture unlike the principles shared by a ‘civilisation’ is invariably based on categorisations of difference. In consequence of the Enlightenment project of taxonomy and classification (so-called encyclopaedism), the differential aspects of cultural identity increasingly emerged. These were later appropriated by nationalism and misused sometimes to severely negative effects, but its source lay in the comprehension of the distinct character of localities and the specific role they played in the formation of a cultural identity. In certain respects Romantic landscape painters appropriated many of these associations to create mental pictures (visions) of pseudo-materialist self-immersion and association within landscape. In the background writers like Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) were particularly influential, not least in the his written history of language that became the grounds for modern philology, but also at the same time played a vital part in creating a sense of a separate German-speaking identity. In this context notions of real or imagined German history were fused into the Romantic sense of personal vision and contemplation, something was lost that needed to be found and re-kindled. This was certainly evident in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, with his fragments of Gothic architecture, religious crosses on hills, and steep viewpoints from below and above (11). To the German Romantic mind, however, the fragment was not something that is broken off from the whole, but is a visionary embodiment of a new whole, as Schlegel makes clear “A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and complete in itself like a porcupine (12).” From this contentious premise was born many would argue a particular vision or nationalist view of cultural teleology, a German identity that assimilated the local and the national sense of unique and particular identity. A German state that only camethe aegis and policies of into existence under Bismarck in 1871. The image of the Romantic German landscape played a crucial role in its formation; still largely agronomous most German speaking peoples and lands were literally land-tied realities. The argument as to man’s fallen relationship to Nature and natural world was potent one, and as the great proto-Romantic Rousseau earlier proclaimed in state of disarray, he had poignantly argued that “Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.”
Within what was an ultimate failure of Romanticism and the Romantic vision of the the natural world, the personal visions became displaced inexorably over the following century by modern industrialisation, globalisation, urbanisation, and rural depopulation. The current landscape project has sought therefore to evoke and question what rural landscape as living micro-environments mean today? The project has examined family, traditions, land usage, local cultural identities, and the general organisation of three mountainous regional cultures.. Since Wales, Austria, and Croatia, all have a long an complex landscape histories, my essay in no way addresses the specificities of the three locations. At best it addresses a historical landscape legacy that still pertains in a much abstracted sense as part of our modern consciousness as it still relates to Romanticism. In the most simple technical aspects the depiction of the immediate topographical aspects of nature were long ago taken over by photography. Landscape painting such as it exists as an autonomous genre today has taken this forward in a direct engagement with photographic sources, obvious examples being the Romantic landscape paintings of a German painter like Gerhard Richter, or those of the British-Canadian artist Peter Doig.
However, one lasting inheritance from the Romantic Age is the displacement of understanding as to what the term ‘civilisation’ or to be ‘civilised’ once meant, derived from the word civilitas in meant simply city dweller. A modern sense nature and the natural landscape has taken on the image of being a civilising experience, though how natural it is remains jighly questionable, particularly in a European context. Today we often see the rural environment (nature if you like) as a place of reflection and repose, a retreat from the pressures of urban life. The immersion within landscape as emotional experience reduced to that of merely a day in the country as a restorative function. This often means for many people no more than the use of former rural village housing as second homes for city dwellers, visits to which are slotted in at the weekend. The Romantic landscape consciousness was itself largely a fiction, a mental picture that claimed for itself an imagined vision, a vision that ironically was disappearing at the very same time it was being envisioned and encapsulated in the Romantic eye of Northern Europe. This was particularly the case in England, since it coincides with the Industrial Revolution. But as any true countryman knows there is no romance in farming, and any form of mastery of the rural environment has always come at a very high and physically arduous cost to those who laboured on the land. Yet somehow a solitary and meditative immersion within the natural environment, still retains a feeling that one is somehow in contact with another order of the world; a temporarily subdued leviathan that sometimes chooses to return with devastating effect. The destructive power of nature was always a central trope of the Romantic ‘Sublime’ vision, avalanches, floods and other natural catastrophes are core images of mental projection to painters like Turner and Friedrich. In some measure these natural catastrophes were emotionally framed by and owe a debt to the Romantic interpretive visions of Nature through landscape. If this is the case then it is due less to the idea of Nature as an objective resource (a contemporary understanding of it material contents), than to the psychical consciousness that the viewer brings with them. While we might assume sense of mastery over nature, it is perhaps like any human life only temporary. This being said personal Romantic visions of Nature, however imaginative, are no substitute for understanding that the natural world is a resource upon which our survival as a species necessarily depends.

©Mark Gisbourne
Tuesday, November 23, 2010



(1) The term romantisch is attributed to the brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), of which the latter was the most influential leader and theorist of the Romantic Movement. His early essay Studium creates the distinction between the ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ turn of mind; arguing that while ancient poetry strove to be beautiful and for what was considered objective and ‘ideal’, the then contemporary writing aimed at what was ‘characteristic’ and ‘individual’, was original or even sometimes ‘mannered’. The general Romantic notion of ‘originality’ as a basis for poetry and art could be argued to derive from this time. Similar ideas were expressed by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) See, Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, London and Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1991

(2) Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) A New Method of Assisting the Invention of Drawing Original Composition of Landscape (1785), quoted in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (eds.), Art in Theory 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, London and Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, pp. 848-54. Alexander Cozens, a master shipbuilder to Peter the Great, was the father of the later painter and famous watercolour artist John Robert Cozens (1752-98), he generated a system of creating imaginary landscapes derived from chance inkblots dropped onto paper, in consequence he was a later influence of Romanticism and their interest in imagination and the blurring of forms through chance effects.

(3) Jacques Lacan (1901-81), The ‘Real’ is one of the three psychic structures in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as distinct from the ‘Symbolic’ and the ‘Imaginary’ which are alternatively either absent or present (images of perception are part of the ‘gaze’). The ‘Real’ is always present and authentically structured as part of the being/the self, reality could be said to be linked to language and the chain of signifier and signified, images of landscape are therefore determined by latter cases of the ‘Symbolic’ and/or ‘Imaginary’ and subject to their interpretation through the ‘wall of language’. See, Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, New York & London, 1978, and subsequent editions.

(4) Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) Addresses on Religion (1799) “Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.”

(5) Longinus Treatise on the Sublime, a text attributed to Cassius Longinus (1st cent. CE), and sometimes to Dionysius of Hallicarnassus (though contested on literary-stylistic grounds). It was published by William Smith in London, in 1739, and informed the background of Edmund Burke’s subsequent treaty on the sublime. “The effects of the Sublime are: loss of rationality, an alienation leading to identification with the creative process of the artist and a deep emotion mixed in pleasure and exaltation.” translated from the French Boileau’s (1674) edition (which begins modern scholarship though there were half a dozen edtions in the 17th cent), see, Jules Brody, Boileau and Longinus, Paris, 1958.

(6) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, London, 1757 and subsequent editions.

(7) Anthony Ashley Cooper ((1671-1713) 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury) The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody, London, 1711. Cooper speaks of the nature of the divine aspects of nature, alongside the ‘sublime’ aspect which is capable of producing terror. John Dennis (1657-1734) was an English dramatist and critic who introduced ideas of the ‘mock sublime’ in the theatre of the eighteenth century.

(8) Immanuel Kant Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft) 1790, and subsequent editions. Kant expounded his theory of the ‘Sublime’ at length through both this major publication (particularly sections 32 to 49) and extended it within his other aesthetic writings.

(9) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, (1818-29), first compiled and published in 1835; see Oxford University Press, 2 vols., New York and Oxford, 1998.

(10) William Gilpin, ‘On Pictureque Beauty’ and ‘On Picturesque Travel’, London, 1799, as quoted in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (eds.), Art in Theory 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, London and Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, (pp. 657-62), p. 858

(11) The word ‘Gothic’ derives from the Visogoths and the Ostrogoths, the Germanic tribes that sacked Rome in the fifth century. Hence its use in the Renaissance was largely pejorative, as when Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) used it to mean simply ‘German and vulgar’, since it was seen as anti-classical. It took on a positive aesthetic role only in the eighteenth century at the time of Strawberry Hill Gothic and the private villa (built 1749-53) of the writer and polemicist Horace Walpole (1717-1797). However, it was the Romantic painters and poets who fervently championed the Gothic style in direct opposition to the Classical. The rival movement to Romanticism (and its foil) was of course the Neo-Classical Movement.

(12) Friedrich Schlegel, (Athenaeum Fragments) op cit, aph. 206, p. 45