Director's Letter Spring 2016

Landscape and the land are much on my mind lately. Whether reflecting on the recent talks in Paris that reached an international agreement in the face of climate change, or seeing roses blooming in Princeton in December this year, or reading today about the new Avi Lewis film This Changes Everything—an epic grappling with the enormity of our challenge in facing climate change, filmed over 211 days in nine countries on five continents—it is difficult not to contemplate the fragile beauty of the world around me every day.

Two exhibitions in preparation here in Princeton attest, in very different ways, to the enduring power of the landscape in art making. The first of these, Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape, brings together works from three centuries to consider the changing ways in which artists have responded to the land and the degree to which the landscape and its representation became key elements in British identity. The earliest works in the exhibition, by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby, remind us that landscape has not always been seen as a fit subject for art. But once that changed, artists—especially those working in Britain—not only found new ways of representing the landscape but also altered the way we see and represent the natural world.

For scholars of early British art, including myself, it is commonplace to talk about the importance of the landscape tradition to the so-called British School. Some would no doubt argue that British art reached its apogee in the work of artists such as Gainsborough, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. But one of the most compelling aspects of this exhibition—all of whose works are drawn from the collection of the National Museum Wales—is the evidence of the continuing passion for landscape in the hands of contemporary artists. Whether in Leon Kossoff’s intensely autobiographical landscapes of London or Jack Crabtree’s strangely beautiful polluted landscapes, or in the most recent work in the exhibition—photographs from 2000 of David Nash’s Ash Dome—absorption by the land continues even as the nature of these artistic responses has been transformed. An accompanying film series at Princeton’s Garden Theatre will further open out these considerations as we rove from the crises of Welsh mining communities in How Green Was My Valley (1941) to one of the most beautiful films ever made, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).

Another project on which we are working intensively takes these matters further. Curated by Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, the exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment began by asking what the relationship might be between the history of American art and environmental history. The exhibition—which will draw together one hundred works of art that range from well-known masterpieces to rarely exhibited works—will open in 2018 to reveal for the first time how American artists across three centuries have both reflected on and helped shape perceptions of the environment. I expect the exhibition will challenge how we all look at American art, from colonial expeditionary art to Jeffersonian natural scientific displays, from Dust Bowl photography to modernist abstraction, from itinerant folk art to postwar environmental activism. We even plan to gather data about the environmental impact of the exhibition itself, inviting us to consider the environmental “footprints” of art and of the work of museums.

Both of these exhibitions afford us opportunities to reflect on the natural world at a time of grave risk, but they are also opportunities to discover extraordinary, and often beautiful, works of art. Both provide historical glimpses of worlds already lost to us from human habitation, whether it be the land impacted by the enclosure movement in eighteenth-century Britain, the wild and wide-open Western landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, or the melting glaciers of our own time. Both exhibitions are also opportunities to engage in dialogue—even with those with whom we disagree—about what is surely one of the defining issues of our time. And isn’t that one of the most important roles that a museum can play?


James Christen Steward

Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director