An old man pushes his wife in a wheel chair and stops her in front of "Donner Lake From the Summit" by Albert Bierstadt. At once she is transported to another world. Immersed, she stares and explores and takes a deep breath, because the unpolluted, unindustrialized air is almost palpable. Constrained to a wheel chair, I can only assume she hasn't done much traveling recently, but this exhibit is better than traveling. This exhibit is akin to time traveling.
A good landscape painting can transport you to a different time and place. I'm not saying anything new here. When properly positioned, If one concentrates hard enough, the museum falls away, and you are left alone on a 90-second vacation. I find it very fitting that this particular Calatrava designed Milwaukee museum itself appears to be a vessel waiting to transport you.
Growing up and exploring the art world in various museums as an adolescent, landscape paintings never held my attention. I was always drawn more to the big, bold, expressive contemporary paintings. Pop artists like Warhol seemed to be having fun. Pollack was making a mess, and it looked great!
Truth be told, I hadn't really changed my mind as an adult. That is until I saw this exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum; a collection of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School.
"Rising to prominence in New York during the first half of the nineteenth century, this loosely knit group of painters and like-minded poets and writers—widely considered the country’s first national artistic movement—undertook grueling expeditions through the Hudson River Valley and beyond to see sites firsthand."
Cameras did not exist at the time. Perhaps we take for granted our ease of instagraming photographs of our surroundings in seconds; sharing pictures to the masses instantaneously. These artists explored untamed wilderness. They hiked miles, discovered, sketched, recorded, and captured. A lot of these places have since been tamed by man; never to be the same again. These landscape paintings are like old portraits of historical figures. It is all we have to remember them by. These are screen-captures of long lost Snapchats. The paintings assembled in this show are the best of the best. The feeling of discovery is unmistakable.
With a detailed work of art, as these, I can't help but think of the time invested; the human hours devoted. It represents a certain percentage of a life dedicated to an idea (or in this case a place and time). Dedication! The discipline adds importance to the artwork. Or does it? What waste?
That would be the saddest critique possible:
A waste of time.
This is not a waste of time. The finale of this show is Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire." This five part series represents 3 years of his life, but more importantly the rise and fall of an imaginary city. It starts with a pristine landscape by a bay, and ends in ruins. The climax is a bloody battle in the 4th frame. Epic is an overused word, but I can think of none better to explain the feeling of being surrounded by these 5 works of art. It tells a whole story with no words; a five panel silent film. These paintings command your attention. I suggest you listen.
This show is not to be missed. Move over Bob Ross. If you have been feeling like you need a vacation, but can't get away, look no further. You may see me there, for I will be back.