A Dialogue with Nature (and more ruins)

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Closely related in subject to Ruin Lust is the Courtauld Institute’s exhibition ‘A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic landscapes from Britain and Germany’. Landscapes from the Romantic period are displayed, and include a range of works by artists including JMW Turner, Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich. Of course, the Romantics didn’t just immerse themselves in ‘pure’ nature: humans had been there before, and so there are ruins aplenty in this exhibition too. Perhaps these ruins are more incidental, though, and have in most cases been taken over by the forces of nature after their abandonment by man. Many of these images could illustrate a Gothic novel (yes, I realise I see Gothic everywhere – but it is everywhere!) – in particular, Theodor Rehbenitz’s ‘Fantastic Landscape with Monk crossing a Bridge’ appeals, as well as Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Haunted Stream’.

20140411-102935 pm.jpg So in the Romantic landscape, humans are revisiting ruins; an absence of figures isn’t necessary, but an absence of other people is: the figures always offer a sense of isolation, related presumably to their status as poetic, somewhat melancholy thinkers, poets and artists. The sublime is displayed in these paintings, then – we are encouraged to turn our eyes and our minds to the towering splendours of mountains and the terrifying depths of valleys to access the terror of the Burkean sublime and understand the limits of our world. And in placing humanity in a clear relation to the natural world as well as the ruins which inhabit it, I find this exhibition strangely more coherent than the Ruin Lust show, but perhaps less thought-provoking. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the differences between German and English Romantic painters (something I’d not thought about before) and to compare the wildness of Turner’s world compared with the (relative) precision of Friedrich’s. Seeing this exhibition on the same day as Ruin Lust was a great experience, and I recommend both!

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