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"The Virginia Landscape" explores the many depictions of the state throughout history.

A Sense of Place


Seldom a day passes when "sprawl" isn't in headlines, jumping off the page menacingly like some dreaded germ or the shark in "Jaws." From road rage in Northern Virginia to the fairgrounds controversy in Henrico, land use and growth debates are increasingly histrionic. In Virginia, the issue is often complicated by fears that our natural and historical landscapes will be further compromised or lost entirely. Outside Fredericksburg, residents fought building a Wal-Mart on Ferry Farm, Washington's boyhood home. And Civil War battlefields are often scenes of tug of war between slow-growth advocates and developers.

It is timely then that the Virginia Historical Society recently opened "The Virginia Landscape," an exhibition examining how Virginians and artists have viewed the evolving topography since 1585. It is the most ambitious locally produced exhibition in recent memory, but then Virginia's tale is epic in scope and requires the museum equivalent of a Michener novel. Curators James C. Kelly and William M. S. Rasmussen and their colleagues at the society have tackled this project with obvious enthusiasm and open minds. They have assembled 240 paintings, drawings and photographs by such internationally renowned talents as B. Henry Latrobe, Rockwell Kent and Wayne Thiebaud, and such regional artists as Adele Clark, Nora Houston and Jeanne Campbell whose mid-20th century work is infrequently shown.

Through this dizzying display, curators Kelly and Rasmussen posit that not only is Virginia's landscape constantly changing, but the way artists depict the land aesthetically is also in constant flux. Rare, 17th- and 18th-century scenes of urban settlements were produced for real estate speculation, while J.J. Lankes' 20th-century Depression-era print, "Worn Road," delivers both social commentary and a starkly formalistic image.

Adding to the complexity of landscapes are personal and collective memories, something Virginians know a thing or two about, the state having been the home of patriots, a battleground of the American Revolution, and the place where thousands died in fields and streams during the Civil War. An entire section of the show is devoted to hallowed landmarks Mount Vernon, Monticello, Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. And paintings such as Albert Bierstadt's 1862 "Guerrilla Warfare (Picket Duty in Virginia)" and photos like an 1863 Wilderness battlefield scene show the chilling landscape of war.

The curators have divided the beautifully hung exhibition into four sections that interestingly, are not chronologically organized. "Land Without Landscape," "Methods of the Artists," "Identity from the Land" and "Living on the Land, 1750-2000" establish major themes that are then further defined.

"Land Without Landscape" makes the point that for hundreds of years there was little depiction of the landscape. Native Americans made no visual record, and there are no comprehensive views of Jamestown or Williamsburg, the colony's major settlements, from 1607 to 1779. Academically, Kelly and Rasmussen point out that in the 18th century landscape painting was at the bottom of the hierarchy — below portraiture and historical, religious or mythological painting. And unlike in Europe where landscape painting evolved as landowners consciously manipulated their land, the Virginia wilderness had economic worth, not necessarily picturesque worth.

It would take the European Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the sublime (the capacity to thrill viewers), to bring artists to fully appreciate Virginia's natural wonders. Depictions of Peaks of Otter, Harpers Ferry, Weyer's Cave and Natural Bridge — especially Natural Bridge — are well-represented.

But in the 18th and 19th centuries, cities and towns were also drawn and painted, often framed for picturesque effect like views from Richmond looking eastward toward the James or scenes along the Petersburg or Norfolk riverfronts.

In the 19th century, economic depression and the cloud of slavery kept many painters from viewing Virginia's landscape with a loving eye. But by the 20th century and with increased industrialization and urbanization, a certain nostalgia set in. This is exemplified by Gari Melchers' "Rainbow," a 1925 oil of a farm setting.

Curiously, works from the 1950s and '60s, when Virginia was building its interstate highway system, are omitted from the exhibition. Certainly few factors more altered the landscape. But aside from O. Winston Link's 1955-60 photo of a railroad and highway bridge crossing, or Theresa Pollak's "The River," a 1967 depiction of Richmond's Lee Bridge, there are few works from those two decades. The curators address this indirectly in the catalog: "Few [artists] painted cities at a period when many Virginians were moving into them. When Virginians lived on farms, hardly any painted the farms. When Virginians moved to cities, few painted cities. Images of suburbs are rare although most Americans live there."

"The Virginia Landscape" is stronger, however, in recent works reflecting technological impact with John Younger's "The Bridge," Stephen Fox's "Point of Departure" and "Meeting Ground," and Jan Knipe's "View of Pulaski" with its tangle of overhead power lines.

A visit (maybe repeated visits) to the exhibition and a reading of the excellent accompanying catalog will prove to be memorable and thought-provoking. Landscape painting may have been slow to develop in the Old Dominion, but according to Kelly and Rasmussen, as our society grows farther detached from the soil, the landscape increasingly inspires artists. While place is not important in an electronic world, they maintain, as we move into the future, landscape art keeps us "spiritually rooted in the land, something our computers do not require, but our souls do."

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