Looking for Paradise Art of America


Looking for Paradise

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America, the land of the endless horizon.

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In the human imagination,

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it's always been a place of new beginnings

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and limitless opportunity.

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A frontier to be discovered, overcome and settled.

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And every step of that journey has been traced through art.

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The story of American art is as epic as the story of America itself.

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In this series, I'll follow the trail left by America's artists,

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from the clash between man and nature,

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to the clashes of different cultures and different ideas.

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I'll be exploring the many ways in which the modern world

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was shaped and structured here in America.

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Because this is about America as an idea,

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reproduced and sold through images.

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The images that helped to forge the American dream,

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yet also mirrored the truths beneath.

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And ultimately, it's the story of America's struggle

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to find a sense of identity and a sense of direction

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in the increasingly fragmented, uncertain

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and image-saturated world of the 21st century.

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People have lived in America for thousands of years,

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yet to the white Europeans who first came exploring in the 16th century,

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it seemed almost virgin territory,

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a barely-occupied wilderness

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that promised the chance of a better life.

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The first Englishmen who set foot on this stretch of coast

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were looking for a new Eden.

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And to promote that idea to others back home,

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they would use the power of art.

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In the summer of 1585, John White arrived here in Chesapeake Bay.

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He was the official artist on an expedition sponsored

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by none other than the enterprising Sir Walter Raleigh himself.

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Its aim was straightforward -

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observe the lie of the land, study the local flora and fauna,

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the natural resources, and then report back.

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Now, because the would-be colonisers didn't know quite what to expect,

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they went ashore in leather jerkins and full suits of armour.

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It was July! The heat was sweltering.

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What a bizarre sight they must have made,

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this whole troop of sweaty Elizabethans,

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clanking and clambering their way into the forests

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of what's now Virginia.

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In fact, the local people turned out to be friendly at first,

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and over the coming weeks John White made a whole series

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of breathtakingly vivid,

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deeply poignant watercolours of the Native American Indian.

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"Every man was attired in the strangest fashion,"

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wrote one of White's companions.

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"They dance, sing,

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"and use the strangest gestures that they can possibly devise."

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White's paintings captured the compelling exoticism of the people,

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the animals and the fruit,

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with a brilliant, wide-eyed sense of wonder.

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And you can see why White truly believed that he'd found himself

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in a kind of paradise on Earth.

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White used his pictures as advertisements

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and recruited more than 100 English settlers,

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including his own daughter and son-in-law,

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to create a colony here.

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But the reality of life turned out to be rather less idyllic

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than White's pictures.

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The ill-prepared settlers had brought no livestock.

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They planted their crops too late, and harvest failed.

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Most ominously, an attempt to go fishing

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turned into a violent skirmish with a local tribe.

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By late 1587, things had gone very, very badly wrong.

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The Indians had turned outright hostile,

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and the colony was fast running out of food and supplies.

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So White decided that he had to get back to England to bring help.

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When he did finally manage to get back to the site of the colony,

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more than two years had passed.

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And he found absolutely nothing here.

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No sign of his daughter, his son-in-law, his granddaughter.

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The whole colony had entirely disappeared,

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and no-one knows to this day just what happened to it.

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White's hopes of founding the first English colony in America

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were dashed forever.

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His beautiful images had turned out to be little more than empty promises.

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But others were not deterred.

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The prospect of a new continent with virgin land was simply irresistible.

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European explorers grabbed whatever they could

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in a ferocious scramble for territory.

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English traders established Virginia in 1607.

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Meanwhile the French, Spanish and Dutch

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all greedily claimed their own territories elsewhere.

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But the New World was also a magnet for breakaway religious groups,

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each hoping to build their own New Jerusalem.

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Like the English Pilgrims who arrived in 1620,

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and the Puritans, who soon followed.

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America in the 17th century was both a land of opportunity,

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and a place of refuge.

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In the heart of present-day Massachusetts

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is the Worcester Art Museum.

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Inside are two portraits by an unknown artist

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that bring us face to face with the kind of people

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who chose the New World over the Old.

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I'd like to introduce you to Mr and Mrs Freake.

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These are, we think,

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among the very first paintings of settlers in America,

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so when we look at them, we're looking at the very DNA

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both of modern American civilisation and of American art.

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So who were they?

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John Freake was a Puritan, an attorney and a merchant,

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who settled in Boston in 1658

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and, as his portrait shows us,

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he did very well for himself and he was rather proud of it.

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Look at this elaborate lace collar,

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and with his left hand, he flourishes the jewel

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that is the symbol of his prosperity.

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It's a picture that rather punctures the preconception of the Puritan

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as a joyless individual who's embarrassed by material prosperity.

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Puritans in America were nothing like that.

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If they did well, they saw it as a mark of God's providence.

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And that pleasure in doing well

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is something that still survives in America today.

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There's no need to be ashamed of having got on.

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If we move to Mrs Freake,

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which is actually my favourite of these two pictures,

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what a wonderfully vivid image it is.

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Like her husband, Mrs Freake is very proud of the fact

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that they've done well.

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She, too, has got a very elaborate lace collar,

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she's wearing her jewels, she's definitely in her Sunday best.

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But what is she most proud of?

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She's most proud of her little girl,

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and we know this from an X-ray,

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because X-rays show that, originally,

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she was depicted merely holding a book,

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but then she gave birth to her little girl,

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called the artist back in,

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and insisted that he depicted Mary on her lap.

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Now what does that child stand for, what's going on in this picture?

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Well, I think the child stands for the future.

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This child stands for the fact that these people

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and their descendents are here to stay.

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During the first few centuries of colonisation,

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American art was predominantly Protestant

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and inescapably provincial.

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It was the art of the second-rate portrait,

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the not-quite-van Dyck, the nearly-Gainsborough.

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Although these are still poignant records of their sitters' status

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and ambitions.

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These are the people who brought to America their dreams

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of a spiritual utopia.

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But they also unwittingly brought something else -

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deadly diseases that would prove fatal

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to the local Indian population.

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Decimated by terrifying European illnesses like smallpox and measles,

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the Native Americans abandoned great swathes of land,

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which the new settlers quickly claimed as their own.

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An unintentional genocide through germs

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soon became colonial practice through the power of the gun.

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And so the frontier was rolled out.

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In California alone, there were once 200 distinct Indian groups,

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speaking more than 100 different languages.

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Now, so many of those cultures that had extended across the continent

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exist only as fragments in museums.

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They're the shattered pieces of a broken puzzle

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that can never be put back together.

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I think the very phrase "Native American culture"

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is inherently misleading

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because it suggests we're talking about one thing

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but we're not, we're talking about a hundred,

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a thousand different civilisations, cultures, societies,

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interlocking across a vast continent,

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each one with its own complicated, subtle history.

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Here, we're looking at the last remains

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of one of around 100 societies that lived in the Midwest,

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around the area of the Mississippi,

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at the time that we now call the Renaissance.

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What can we say about them on the basis of these relics?

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Well, they had a very sophisticated, settled society.

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They weren't nomads.

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They were proud and warlike.

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It's thought that this terracotta head

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represents a captive taken in battle.

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They had their own myths and legends,

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their own mythical creatures, in this case the frog.

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They seem to have regarded the frog as the image of a cosmic traveller,

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moving from one realm to another, from water to land.

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But the rest is really a mystery.

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Look at those maskettes, as they're called,

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these extraordinary, staring little faces

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with their elongated Pinocchio noses.

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Nobody knows what they represent. Nobody knows what they meant.

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And there's the thing, because when you destroy an entire civilisation,

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an entire set of civilisations,

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you also destroy the possibility of writing its history.

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The official history of colonised America

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would be a selectively-edited account

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that gloried in the building

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of gleaming new cities like Philadelphia

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but conveniently ignored the grim reality

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of how it was all actually done.

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One of the functions of art in America, then,

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was to be part of a cover-up,

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and the chief cover-up artist was a painter called Benjamin West.

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Benjamin West was America's first internationally-famous artist.

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He was born here in Pennsylvania, a Quaker,

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and he circulated the legend that when he was a child,

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Native American Indians taught him to paint,

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taught him how to grind pigments.

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But while he liked to play on his exotic origins,

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he was, in fact, a thoroughly modern American,

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a brilliant salesman of his own reputation,

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and he invented a new kind of storytelling art,

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one that would be profoundly useful to those

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who would forge the future of this nation.

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The Pennsylvania Academy

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is the oldest picture gallery in the United States.

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Within it is one of Benjamin West's most celebrated works,

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a fine example of his main invention,

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the modern history painting.

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Yet it's also a picture that pulses with the energy of a dark secret.

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Penn's Treaty With The Indians was created,

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quite literally, in order to frame history,

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in particular, the history of the settlement of Pennsylvania

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and the foundation of its capital city, Philadelphia,

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to frame those histories as dignified, orderly, just,

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compassionate and tolerant.

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On the left, we've got William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia,

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and he's presenting the Indians with a treaty.

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And on this side of the picture,

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he's depicted the Native American Indians as a group.

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West said the subject of his painting

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was the civilisation of the savage.

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How does he represent this notion that they're going to be civilised?

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Interestingly, he relegates the treaty to shadow,

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and what he casts into light

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is this bolt of white cloth,

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held by the generic figure of the trader.

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It's an image that exactly, exactly recalls

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the adoration of the shepherds at the birth of Christ.

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This is the sanitised version of American history,

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that the god of free trade

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transformed noble savages into civilised men,

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effortlessly absorbing them into the republic.

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The painting soon became THE classic image

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of the bloodless colonisation of America,

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but it's propaganda, a blatant lie.

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William Penn may indeed have looked kindly on the local tribes,

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but by the time this picture was commissioned,

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some 50 years after his death,

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the colonists and the Native Indians were locked in a bitter war.

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This was a war marked on the British side

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by all kinds of appalling skulduggery.

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On one occasion in 1763, during supposed negotiations for peace,

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the British representative handed to the Indians

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a pile of blankets that they'd taken from their own smallpox hospital.

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This was an early example of germ warfare

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and it proved horribly effective,

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and it certainly gives a really unpleasant twist,

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an ironic twist, to that bolt of white cloth

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in the centre of West's painting.

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Even as they trampled over the Indians in the name of progress,

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colonists in America felt that they themselves were being abused

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by their Imperial masters back in Britain.

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The 13 North American colonies

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traded with the rest of the British Empire

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through thriving ports like Boston.

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But they quickly became frustrated with the harsh terms of trade

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being imposed on them.

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The trouble began when the British

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put the squeeze on their American subjects,

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principally by raising tax on imported goods.

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In particular, they had a monopoly on the import of tea,

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for the privilege of purchasing which Americans were now forced

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to pay an increasingly exorbitant level of import duty.

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Things came to a head in 1773,

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when a group of some 60 Bostonians came down to the docks,

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seized an entire consignment of tea from a ship belonging to

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the British East India Company, and hurled it into the water.

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The Boston Tea Party, as it came to be known,

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was copied in other cities across the Eastern seaboard.

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The British response was ruthless.

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They passed a bill declaring the port of Boston itself closed.

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And as George Washington famously said,

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"The cause of Boston is now the cause of America."

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What had begun as an act of rebellion

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had become all-out revolution.

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The story was told in cheap, hand-coloured prints and engravings.

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The first battle between the British troops

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and the American revolutionaries took place at Lexington in 1775.

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Through six years of bloody conflict,

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the rebels, with the help of England's old enemy, the French,

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gradually gained the upper hand.

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In 1781, General George Washington

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secured the decisive American victory at Yorktown.

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A young, provincial nation had won its liberty.

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Now, America's founding fathers

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needed a capital worthy of the noble aspirations

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laid out in their Declaration of Independence.

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And so they chose to build a new Rome.

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The decision to make the neoclassical style

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THE style of government in Washington, in America,

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was loaded with significance.

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It said this new republic is a democracy.

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It's based on the principles of order, clarity, rationality, purity.

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But as well as expressing the supposed values

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of Ancient Greece and Rome,

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I think a building such as this also looks forward,

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because what's truly new about it is its enormous, monumental scale,

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and I think what that expresses is the founding fathers' sense

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of the scale of the task that lies ahead of them.

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The shaping of this vast continent into a single nation.

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And I also think its scale expresses a hope, a proud hope,

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that perhaps this new republic, this America, may turn out to be

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one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known.

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As well as creating an architectural legacy,

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America's founding fathers

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wanted a pictorial tribute to the birth of their nation,

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to be installed inside the grandest of their new government buildings,

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the Capitol.

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They turned to an artist called John Trumbull,

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an adequate portrait painter who struggled to rise to this challenge.

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And what you see here is the familiar language of portraiture,

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applied rather uneasily and stiffly to grand historical narrative.

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Perhaps I should whisper it in these august precincts,

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but John Trumbull,

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whose principle works decorate the rotunda of the Capitol,

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was quite possibly the single most boring painter

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in the entire history of American art.

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What's he done here?

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He's taken one, two, three, four events

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at the centre of the American War of Independence

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and turned them into nothing more

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than a sequence of stultifyingly dull group portraits.

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The Declaration of Independence,

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depicted with all the panache and excitement of a school photograph.

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The surrender at the Battle of Saratoga,

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depicted as an encounter between two groups of utterly bored generals

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and their hangers-on.

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Trumbull was profoundly incapable of depicting action,

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so when he painted war, he didn't actually paint the battle,

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he painted the surrender.

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Here, we've got the surrender of Lord Cornwallis,

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depicted as an encounter between two rows of tin soldiers.

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And, finally, another school photograph,

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George Washington handing in his commission

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so that he can become President of America.

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But in a funny way,

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by presenting history as this succession of dull friezes,

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by making history so boring,

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Trumbull also made it seem inevitable.

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This was destined to happen,

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and that sense of inevitability was carried on by other artists

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who work in this space, notably Constantino Brumidi,

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who, in the 1860s - he was an Italian painter -

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in the 1860s, completed this space

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with this truly absurd Baroque flourish of a fresco

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depicting the apotheosis of Washington.

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There he is in his purple toga, being wafted up to heaven.

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It's a true deep-pan pizza of a picture.

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But in a strange way, I think it is an apt topping to this space.

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For much of the 19th century,

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American artists would divide into two camps -

0:25:310:25:35

those who supported government and all it stood for,

0:25:350:25:39

and those who questioned it.

0:25:390:25:42

Washington policy favoured unlimited westward expansion,

0:25:480:25:51

towards a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils.

0:25:510:25:56

The myth of the conquest of the West

0:26:040:26:06

is deeply engrained in America's national identity.

0:26:060:26:09

And no painting depicts that myth more vividly

0:26:140:26:18

than Emanuel Leutze's picture, Westward Ho, of 1865.

0:26:180:26:23

Here are all the familiar elements of a thousand movies -

0:26:280:26:31

the covered wagons,

0:26:310:26:34

the plucky pioneers

0:26:340:26:36

and, on the horizon, the Promised Land itself.

0:26:360:26:40

But if you really want to see the pioneer spirit in art,

0:26:430:26:46

you need to look elsewhere,

0:26:460:26:50

to the work of a man who was himself a pioneer, John James Audubon.

0:26:500:26:56

He celebrated the beauties of America's Promised Land,

0:26:560:26:59

but also counted the cost of the push west.

0:26:590:27:03

It's a heck of thing, isn't it?

0:27:050:27:08

It's huge. It's the double-elephant folio.

0:27:080:27:11

'Audubon's great work was an illustrated book,

0:27:110:27:15

'which he began in 1827.

0:27:150:27:18

'It's one of the masterpieces of world art,

0:27:180:27:21

'The Birds Of America.'

0:27:210:27:24

-I'm curious to know, what is the very first bird?

-OK.

0:27:240:27:27

I'm assuming it's going to be the American eagle.

0:27:270:27:32

-Au contraire!

-No?

0:27:320:27:35

-Oh, my God, is that beautiful? Wow!

-Wow!

0:27:350:27:40

It's the turkey!

0:27:400:27:42

Yeah. Audubon's first plate of Birds Of America

0:27:420:27:46

was the wild turkey.

0:27:460:27:48

It's a stunning big bird

0:27:480:27:50

and of course, part of the reason for the double-elephant folio

0:27:500:27:54

was so that he could do everything lifesize.

0:27:540:27:57

That's beautifully detailed.

0:27:570:27:59

You are yourself an artist as well as a scientist, aren't you,

0:27:590:28:02

and a draughtsman?

0:28:020:28:05

When you look at Audubon, what excites you?

0:28:050:28:09

What makes him a great ornithological artist?

0:28:090:28:13

Boy! Well, up until this time,

0:28:130:28:16

birds were portrayed in a very static, scientific way...

0:28:160:28:23

..without the vivaciousness

0:28:230:28:26

of them actually alive in their natural habitat.

0:28:260:28:30

That's what Audubon did.

0:28:300:28:32

This bird, it looks like it's ready to walk right off the page.

0:28:320:28:35

In fact it's going to, it's not even looking where it's going.

0:28:350:28:38

(LAUGHS) I was going to say, it's got attitude.

0:28:380:28:41

This turkey is so human.

0:28:410:28:43

How many times have you walked through the woods

0:28:430:28:46

or down the sidewalk

0:28:460:28:47

or to the coffee shop and you've just been striding along

0:28:470:28:51

and you're looking back over your shoulder

0:28:510:28:54

to see who might be looking at you

0:28:540:28:56

and who's recognised you?

0:28:560:28:58

This is a sort of turkey on Broadway, checking somebody out.

0:28:580:29:01

-Yes!

-He's got a wonderful, beady eye!

0:29:010:29:04

Can we look at some more, please?

0:29:050:29:07

Sure, OK, We'll turn deeper into volume one.

0:29:070:29:12

And thank you for assisting me.

0:29:120:29:14

You tell me, I need to put my hand...?

0:29:140:29:17

-Yes. And don't touch the image of course.

-No, no. I won't.

-That's it.

0:29:170:29:22

And then, just let it...

0:29:220:29:24

-..fall.

-Oh, what a contrast.

0:29:250:29:28

Bewick's Wren.

0:29:280:29:29

It's lovely, isn't it? What is that?

0:29:320:29:34

Fragile, cautious little creature,

0:29:340:29:36

looking around to see if anyone's watching.

0:29:360:29:39

I like the way detail is just like, flipped up,

0:29:390:29:44

the movement of it.

0:29:440:29:46

He does look like he's ready to take off.

0:29:460:29:49

He almost wants to have the bird like a wildlife filmmaker would,

0:29:490:29:53

actually caught in life.

0:29:530:29:55

Exactly.

0:29:550:29:56

And you've just nailed it, really, because these birds are alive.

0:29:560:30:00

That bird is alive. I mean...

0:30:010:30:03

..you flip a page and you think,

0:30:040:30:06

"God, can we contain it in the book?"

0:30:060:30:09

Is it going to get away from us?

0:30:090:30:11

(LAUGHS) Like that's going to fly away!

0:30:110:30:13

We'd better flip the page before it gets away.

0:30:130:30:16

Where are we going to go next?

0:30:160:30:17

-Just concentrate for this bit.

-Yes, OK, we're OK.

0:30:210:30:24

-The Ruffed Grouse.

-That's another spectacular one.

0:30:260:30:30

I mean, I guess the big question is,

0:30:300:30:32

what do you think was the driving ambition behind it all?

0:30:320:30:36

Is it that he wants to record every single bird in America?

0:30:360:30:42

That was his obsession.

0:30:420:30:44

He travelled all over the United States, he went out west,

0:30:440:30:47

he went all the way down south to Florida, Louisiana,

0:30:470:30:50

he was an early, true, in the sense of the American...frontier,

0:30:500:30:58

an adventurer, a frontiersman, an outdoorsman.

0:30:580:31:04

His mission was to take trip after trip,

0:31:050:31:08

to discover these birds and paint every damn one of them.

0:31:080:31:13

Whoa, that is stunning.

0:31:150:31:17

That is absolutely stunning.

0:31:180:31:20

I love this one.

0:31:210:31:23

He's looking right at you.

0:31:230:31:24

Looking straight at me.

0:31:240:31:25

It's the only parakeet that occurred in North America.

0:31:250:31:30

This is an example of a bird that went extinct.

0:31:300:31:35

Farmers viewed them as a pest and these did get shot in large numbers.

0:31:350:31:41

And Audubon used this phrase, which is shocking,

0:31:410:31:43

but he talked about the murderous white man

0:31:430:31:47

and how everything was getting pushed westward.

0:31:470:31:51

The birds, the mammals, nature itself, you know,

0:31:510:31:57

our idea was we have to control it, we have to own it,

0:31:570:32:01

we have to fight it into submission, we have to grow crops.

0:32:010:32:05

So in his imagination the march,

0:32:050:32:08

the onward march of civilisation west, also represents...

0:32:080:32:12

It also represented a fleeing from the murderous white man.

0:32:120:32:15

WHISTLING

0:32:180:32:19

As settlers fanned out across the Continent,

0:32:210:32:24

they transformed the land.

0:32:240:32:27

To the south were great plantations made possible through the import

0:32:270:32:31

of hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

0:32:310:32:34

To the north sprang up industrialised cities and factories.

0:32:360:32:40

And as the frontier pushed west towards the sea,

0:32:420:32:45

so in its wake followed the machine

0:32:450:32:48

that did most to change the face of 19th-century America,

0:32:480:32:52

the train.

0:32:520:32:54

The pace at which the railway network expanded in the US

0:32:590:33:03

was truly staggering.

0:33:030:33:05

Between 1828 and 1840, they laid some 3,300 miles of track here.

0:33:050:33:10

That's twice as much track as existed in the whole of Europe.

0:33:100:33:15

Of course, the railway companies billed this

0:33:150:33:17

as the inevitable march of progress,

0:33:170:33:19

but many other people regarded it with alarm,

0:33:190:33:22

in particular, the writer Henry David Thoreau counted the human cost

0:33:220:33:26

of constructing these networks of iron.

0:33:260:33:31

He wrote, "We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us.

0:33:310:33:36

"Did you ever think what these sleepers are

0:33:360:33:39

"that underlie the railroad?

0:33:390:33:42

"Each one is a man, an Irishman or a Yankee man.

0:33:420:33:47

"The rails are laid on them

0:33:470:33:49

"and they are covered with sand and the cars run smoothly over them.

0:33:490:33:54

"They are sound sleepers, I assure you."

0:33:540:33:57

The people who suffered most at the hands of the advancing white man

0:34:120:34:16

were, of course, the Native Americans.

0:34:160:34:20

By the 1820s,

0:34:220:34:23

the last vestiges of the great Indian nations of the Northeast,

0:34:230:34:26

the Iroquois and the Mohicans,

0:34:260:34:28

had been corralled into remote reservations

0:34:280:34:31

where they faced an uncertain future.

0:34:310:34:33

Against this backdrop,

0:34:370:34:39

a little-known artist-frontiersman began an ambitious project -

0:34:390:34:45

to make a record of America's vanishing tribes,

0:34:450:34:48

much as Audubon recorded the country's birds.

0:34:480:34:51

The result was a series of more than 500 paintings,

0:34:540:34:58

produced over a period of almost 40 years,

0:34:580:35:00

of which these are just a few.

0:35:000:35:04

George Catlin, the man who preserved these solemn,

0:35:090:35:14

beautiful, melancholy faces,

0:35:140:35:17

was himself one of the great characters

0:35:170:35:20

of 19th-century American art.

0:35:200:35:22

He was an entrepreneur as well as a painter and, in fact,

0:35:220:35:25

he went on tour with these pictures,

0:35:250:35:28

indeed with some Native American Indians as well.

0:35:280:35:32

He went to Europe.

0:35:320:35:33

He introduced them to the kings of France and Belgium,

0:35:330:35:36

even to Queen Victoria herself.

0:35:360:35:39

But it would be wrong to think of him

0:35:390:35:41

as a mere opportunist, a showman.

0:35:410:35:44

He wasn't like that. He cared about these people every bit as deeply

0:35:440:35:47

as Audubon cared about the birds of America,

0:35:470:35:52

because he fears they're a race on the point of extinction.

0:35:520:35:57

That fact distresses him very deeply, because to Catlin,

0:35:570:36:01

these are the noblest surviving people in the whole world.

0:36:010:36:05

It might seem strange to us, but he sees them as the descendants

0:36:050:36:11

of the Ancient Greeks, people of nobility, simplicity and purity.

0:36:110:36:16

But purity and simplicity were no match for the forces

0:36:190:36:22

of hard-headed expansionism and naked greed.

0:36:220:36:26

To the decision-makers in government,

0:36:280:36:31

the Indians were simply an impediment

0:36:310:36:34

to the spread of American society.

0:36:340:36:37

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson's administration

0:36:380:36:42

passed the Indian Removal Act.

0:36:420:36:45

It amounted to the ethnic cleansing of the eastern United States.

0:36:450:36:50

Some American artists feared the vanishing of Indian culture

0:36:550:37:00

was just the start.

0:37:000:37:01

That soon, the American landscape itself would be obliterated.

0:37:010:37:06

This is Kaaterskill Falls in upstate New York

0:37:120:37:17

and it was a favourite subject of Thomas Cole,

0:37:170:37:20

unquestionably the greatest American landscape painter

0:37:200:37:24

of the 19th century.

0:37:240:37:26

Cole was born in 1801 in Bolton in the north of England,

0:37:280:37:33

a place of dark, satanic mills,

0:37:330:37:35

and he'd trained as an engraver at a textile designers.

0:37:350:37:39

His family emigrated to Ohio when Cole was 17,

0:37:430:37:46

and from the moment he first began to explore

0:37:460:37:50

the eastern United States,

0:37:500:37:51

at the age of 22, he decided to devote his life to recording

0:37:510:37:56

the epic wilderness he found around him,

0:37:560:37:59

here in the Catskill Mountains.

0:37:590:38:02

Thomas Cole loved this spot and he came here often.

0:38:180:38:21

Making the pilgrimage to this place

0:38:210:38:23

feels very much like travelling to the source of his imagination.

0:38:230:38:28

This is wild, untamed, grand, sublime American nature, in the raw.

0:38:280:38:35

Now the waterfall was a very important symbol to Cole.

0:38:350:38:38

What it stood for was the purity of nature

0:38:380:38:41

as opposed to the polluted waters of the rivers

0:38:410:38:45

running through America's new rash of cities.

0:38:450:38:48

I also think his eye was drawn to that grand rock formation,

0:38:490:38:54

rather like a cathedral, which seems to lead the eye upwards,

0:38:540:38:58

towards the sky, perhaps towards God.

0:38:580:39:01

This vividly evocative painting of Kaaterskill Falls from 1826

0:39:220:39:26

is perhaps Cole's finest.

0:39:260:39:28

But it's also a picture full of disquiet.

0:39:300:39:33

There are black skies overhead.

0:39:340:39:37

And in the river below, the remains of a blasted tree.

0:39:400:39:44

Cole was aware that the sublime beauty of American nature

0:39:450:39:49

was under threat.

0:39:490:39:51

And he has placed, on the edge of the falls, a lone Indian.

0:39:530:39:58

He stands for everything that is fast disappearing.

0:39:580:40:02

He is, to borrow a phrase from Cole's friend,

0:40:020:40:05

the novelist James Fenimore Cooper,

0:40:050:40:07

the last of the Mohicans.

0:40:070:40:10

This is Thomas Cole's house at the edge of the Catskill mountains,

0:40:160:40:20

just 100 miles north of New York City.

0:40:200:40:23

From here, Cole watched the landscape being ravaged

0:40:240:40:28

as "civilisation" began to encroach on what had once been wilderness.

0:40:280:40:32

This view from the porch is an invention.

0:40:360:40:39

By the time Cole painted it,

0:40:410:40:43

the smoke from those distant homesteads

0:40:430:40:46

had been blotted out by the steam from a railroad

0:40:460:40:49

that ran close to Cole's house.

0:40:490:40:52

Appalled by what he called the "iron tramp of progress",

0:40:540:40:57

Thomas Cole conceived of a series of paintings

0:40:570:41:00

that would be unlike anything he'd done before.

0:41:000:41:03

One that would deliver a powerful message to modern America.

0:41:030:41:08

Cole called his series The Course Of Empire.

0:41:130:41:17

Five hugely ambitious paintings,

0:41:170:41:19

preserved by the New York Historical Society,

0:41:190:41:22

that appear to chart the rise and fall of Roman civilisation.

0:41:220:41:27

But I think if you go through it frame by frame,

0:41:290:41:32

looking at it in detail, I think what you realise is

0:41:320:41:36

that Cole's real subject

0:41:360:41:37

is not the decline and fall of Ancient Rome.

0:41:370:41:40

What's really on his mind

0:41:400:41:42

is the history and the destiny of America,

0:41:420:41:46

and there are little clues to that in all of these pictures.

0:41:460:41:50

The first scene shows a primitive world.

0:41:520:41:55

There are hunters armed only with spears.

0:41:580:42:01

And in the distance, a group of figures are dancing around a fire.

0:42:030:42:07

But don't those tents look exactly like Native American wigwams?

0:42:080:42:12

The next picture shows the same view,

0:42:160:42:19

but now time has moved forward to an early civilisation.

0:42:190:42:22

A woman is spinning, the beginnings of manufacture.

0:42:220:42:27

A greybeard is scratching a symbol in the dirt.

0:42:270:42:30

The origins of science.

0:42:300:42:33

And in the distance, a Stonehenge-like structure,

0:42:330:42:38

the birth of architecture.

0:42:380:42:40

But does Cole see the advent of civilisation

0:42:420:42:45

and human progress as an entirely good thing?

0:42:450:42:49

Well, there's a strong sign that he doesn't, because this detail here,

0:42:490:42:55

the stump of an axe-felled tree,

0:42:550:42:59

was one of his great personal symbols.

0:42:590:43:01

He included it in a lot of his pictures.

0:43:010:43:04

And what it stands for is the rape of nature by man.

0:43:040:43:07

It's his way of saying that progress comes at a great cost.

0:43:070:43:12

I think the whole series is shot through the strong sense

0:43:180:43:21

of Cole's own bitterness, anger, and irony

0:43:210:43:25

because here, he's depicted the supposed zenith of civilisation,

0:43:250:43:30

and yet he sees it, he conceives it,

0:43:300:43:33

as a scene of decadence, corruption,

0:43:330:43:38

empty triumphalism.

0:43:380:43:41

At the head of a great procession sits an emperor.

0:43:470:43:50

But he's a parody of the then-president, Andrew Jackson,

0:43:500:43:54

who was satirised in the press as an American Caesar.

0:43:540:43:59

The ruler of a "mobocracy",

0:43:590:44:02

where everyone was chasing wealth and power.

0:44:020:44:05

And look at the architecture,

0:44:050:44:08

teeming with people, like a kind of infestation of humanity.

0:44:080:44:13

Yes, it's Ancient Rome, but I think it's meant to be

0:44:130:44:17

a conflation of the banks of New York

0:44:170:44:19

and the government buildings of Washington,

0:44:190:44:22

even a bizarre prophecy of...modern Las Vegas.

0:44:220:44:27

This is a world that symbolises the greed

0:44:270:44:33

that Cole saw eating away at the heart of America.

0:44:330:44:37

Cole called the penultimate picture Destruction.

0:44:420:44:46

Rome, it appears, is being overrun by barbarian hordes.

0:44:460:44:50

There are scenes of chaos and terror,

0:44:510:44:54

a cast of thousands,

0:44:540:44:56

as a city of marble and stone is tragically laid waste.

0:44:560:45:01

When I think of it in terms of what I believe

0:45:020:45:05

this series is all about,

0:45:050:45:07

an allegory of American civilisation,

0:45:070:45:11

I see it as a flourishing fantasy, a kind of dream

0:45:110:45:16

of America itself being swept clean of civilisation and all its ills.

0:45:160:45:23

That the land will be made pure again.

0:45:230:45:26

And if you come to the last picture of all...

0:45:260:45:29

..Desolation, he called it,

0:45:300:45:32

again, I think it's a painting

0:45:320:45:35

that almost defeats your expectations

0:45:350:45:38

because it's supposed to represent the aftermath of civilisation.

0:45:380:45:42

You might think of it as a deeply melancholic image,

0:45:420:45:45

but for Cole, I think, this is the true climax of the series.

0:45:450:45:50

This is the moment he yearns for,

0:45:500:45:53

the moment when civilisation will have disappeared

0:45:530:45:57

and nature - nature - will once again have reclaimed this land.

0:45:570:46:03

That's Cole's fantasy.

0:46:030:46:05

Within a generation, America would in fact tear itself apart,

0:46:120:46:16

although not in the way Cole had imagined.

0:46:160:46:19

Slavery in the South,

0:46:290:46:32

a long-festering wound at the heart of the American nation,

0:46:320:46:35

would be the cause.

0:46:350:46:37

Since independence,

0:46:410:46:43

the increasingly industrialised states in the North

0:46:430:46:45

had gradually abolished slavery.

0:46:450:46:48

But the Southern states,

0:46:480:46:50

with their labour-intensive cotton and tobacco plantations, would not.

0:46:500:46:55

By 1860, the United States was, said President Abraham Lincoln,

0:47:050:47:09

"a house divided".

0:47:090:47:12

The following year, the division became total.

0:47:130:47:16

11 Southern states formed the Confederacy

0:47:160:47:20

and in April 1861,

0:47:200:47:22

the first shots were fired in the American Civil War.

0:47:220:47:25

It was the new medium of photography

0:47:380:47:40

that produced the most compelling images of the Civil War.

0:47:400:47:45

Most famous of the photographers was Mathew Brady

0:47:530:47:56

who, together with his own team of cameramen,

0:47:560:47:59

covered almost all the major events of the war.

0:47:590:48:02

The Civil War claimed over 600,000 lives -

0:48:070:48:12

greater than the American death toll of both World Wars combined.

0:48:120:48:16

In 1865, the South surrendered.

0:48:170:48:19

Officially, the country was at last united.

0:48:200:48:23

But the lingering hurt and bitterness of war

0:48:350:48:37

could still be glimpsed through American art.

0:48:370:48:41

Though not an art you're likely to find in a gallery.

0:48:420:48:46

This warehouse outside Philadelphia

0:48:460:48:50

houses an impressive collection of antique American flags.

0:48:500:48:54

So this is where we do all of our restoration.

0:48:550:48:58

And we see ones here in various stages of mounting.

0:48:580:49:04

Jeff Bridgman, who collects these flags,

0:49:040:49:06

believes that if you know how to read them,

0:49:060:49:08

you can follow the threads

0:49:080:49:10

of America's long and complex struggle for identity.

0:49:100:49:13

What's the basic symbolism of the American flag?

0:49:160:49:19

Well, originally there were 13 stars

0:49:190:49:23

in the form of a new constellation, and 13 stripes.

0:49:230:49:27

And both of those counts reflect the number of original colonies.

0:49:270:49:32

So the stars say that, instead of being separate colonies,

0:49:320:49:36

-we are now a single constellation.

-Yes,

0:49:360:49:39

and when it said a new constellation, they never specified

0:49:390:49:44

what that constellation was supposed to be.

0:49:440:49:47

This is a great example here,

0:49:470:49:49

where the stars are arranged in the form of one big star.

0:49:490:49:53

So during the early years of American flag design,

0:49:530:49:56

-you can kind of freeform it with the stars. Anything goes.

-Yes.

0:49:560:49:59

-It's a very American individualism.

-It is, yeah.

0:49:590:50:02

Have you got any other examples where you can look at a flag

0:50:020:50:05

and it tells you about a moment in history?

0:50:050:50:07

Yeah, particularly surrounding the Civil War. I have a good example here,

0:50:070:50:11

where the maker has done something that Abraham Lincoln said

0:50:110:50:15

specifically not to do,

0:50:150:50:17

which was to remove the Southern states from the flag during the war.

0:50:170:50:21

So you're saying Lincoln has explicitly instructed

0:50:210:50:24

people in the North not to remove the Southern states,

0:50:240:50:27

but some Northern patriot or other has done exactly that?

0:50:270:50:31

Yes. Yeah.

0:50:310:50:32

And this is what we call a Southern-exclusionary star count.

0:50:320:50:36

The Green Mountain Boys

0:50:360:50:38

was a nickname for the Vermont military unit,

0:50:380:50:42

and they removed the Southern states.

0:50:420:50:44

There's only 20 stars here. There ought to be 34, 35

0:50:440:50:48

or if it was at the tail-end of the war, 36 stars.

0:50:480:50:52

So this object, it seems that somebody is registering

0:50:520:50:57

perhaps loss, certainly a degree of outrage...

0:50:570:51:00

-Yes.

-..against the South.

0:51:000:51:02

Maybe the woman that was most vocal about making this

0:51:020:51:06

had lost a son to the South already

0:51:060:51:09

and she has said, "No, those guys are out.

0:51:090:51:12

"I'm not going to include those stars in the flag when I make it."

0:51:120:51:16

-So this is done actually bang in the middle of the conflict?

-Yes.

0:51:160:51:19

This is actually the war itself in a flag.

0:51:190:51:23

What about the other side of that political divide?

0:51:230:51:26

Sure. This is a rather interesting flag,

0:51:260:51:31

where the stars are configured

0:51:310:51:34

in the Southern Cross, which is buried in the design of this flag

0:51:340:51:40

and that was sort of a subtle way of displaying Southern sympathies.

0:51:400:51:44

And they are doing that through that shape, which is...

0:51:440:51:50

A display of the Southern Cross within the design.

0:51:500:51:52

And when you say the Southern Cross, that's what you're talking about,

0:51:520:51:56

so it's a way of getting that flag into this flag.

0:51:560:52:00

-Hiding the Confederate battle flag within the Stars And Stripes.

-Amazing.

0:52:000:52:04

-When was this flag made?

-This was made after the Civil War.

0:52:040:52:08

So someone somewhere in the South wants to brandish against

0:52:080:52:13

the victorious Northerners their sense of Southern independence.

0:52:130:52:17

You may have beaten us but we still feel Southerners,

0:52:170:52:19

-still don't feel part of you.

-Precisely.

0:52:190:52:21

I think it's fascinating.

0:52:210:52:23

The violence of the conflict still seems to be imbedded in it,

0:52:230:52:26

as if the shells are still going off in the sky somehow.

0:52:260:52:29

It's got a kind of violence about it. A defiance.

0:52:290:52:31

Yeah. Yeah.

0:52:310:52:32

It's almost like the rebel yell.

0:52:320:52:34

Yet the scars of war DID heal.

0:52:430:52:45

The states were now not only united, but growing ever more rapidly.

0:52:450:52:49

Successive waves of industrialists and prospectors

0:52:520:52:56

eagerly exploited the country's wealth of natural resources.

0:52:560:53:00

In 1869, construction of the first transcontinental railway was completed,

0:53:050:53:11

opening the way for the commercial unification of America.

0:53:110:53:14

Within 20 years,

0:53:180:53:19

the Western frontier had reached its furthest possible point -

0:53:190:53:23

the Pacific Ocean - and was declared officially closed.

0:53:230:53:29

This was the moment when the West was finally won.

0:53:290:53:33

The first chapter in the history of modern America was coming to an end.

0:53:330:53:38

Until now, artists such as Audubon, Catlin and Cole,

0:53:430:53:47

those who had protested against the implacable expansion

0:53:470:53:50

of industrial, urban America,

0:53:500:53:53

were unheeded voices in the wilderness.

0:53:530:53:55

Yet American art did have the power to stop

0:53:580:54:01

the juggernaut in its tracks.

0:54:010:54:03

Or at least to give those driving it pause for thought.

0:54:030:54:07

In the summer of 1871,

0:54:100:54:12

a government-funded geological expedition

0:54:120:54:15

set off into the Yellowstone region of the northwest United States.

0:54:150:54:18

The group included a photographer, William Henry Jackson,

0:54:220:54:26

and a young landscape painter, Thomas Moran.

0:54:260:54:29

The point of the expedition was to survey the land

0:54:330:54:35

for potential commercial development.

0:54:350:54:38

But Jackson's photographs and Moran's watercolours

0:54:400:54:44

had an entirely unexpected outcome.

0:54:440:54:46

Congressmen in Washington were so impressed by the spectacular images

0:54:470:54:50

that they passed a bill designating the Yellowstone region

0:54:500:54:55

America's first National Park.

0:54:550:54:57

This particular corner of America, at least,

0:54:590:55:03

would be preserved unspoilt for future generations.

0:55:030:55:06

Thomas Moran's painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

0:55:100:55:14

is one of the most exultantly monumental depictions

0:55:140:55:18

of vast, sublime, wild American nature,

0:55:180:55:23

and yet I think it also marks the moment

0:55:230:55:26

when the wilderness has ceased to seem truly wild,

0:55:260:55:31

the moment when Americans feel

0:55:310:55:34

they have finally become the landlords of their own vast country.

0:55:340:55:39

Look at the way the artist has framed and contained the scene,

0:55:410:55:46

look at the way he's turned it into a picturesque view.

0:55:460:55:51

He's even given us a kind of platform on which safely to stand

0:55:520:55:59

as we contemplate this vast panorama.

0:55:590:56:02

I can almost imagine a modern tourist bus park on this spot,

0:56:020:56:08

disgorging people out to enjoy the landscape.

0:56:080:56:12

And when I look at this, I think what a huge distance we've travelled

0:56:130:56:17

in the American attitude to nature.

0:56:170:56:19

Think all the way back to John White, Shakespeare's contemporary,

0:56:190:56:24

arriving in America and finding it a hostile, dangerous,

0:56:240:56:29

unsettling place, peopled by Calibans, an island full of noises.

0:56:290:56:37

That sense of a vast, mysterious, dangerous place

0:56:370:56:42

has completely evaporated in this picture.

0:56:420:56:45

All the elements of what once seemed so dangerous are there.

0:56:450:56:49

The torrential waterfall, the raging torrent...

0:56:490:56:52

..but they're just elements in a beautiful view.

0:56:550:56:59

There's the Indian. He's no longer a foe but he's a friendly guide.

0:56:590:57:04

And in its representation of a wilderness made tame,

0:57:040:57:09

I think Moran's picture is also

0:57:090:57:11

a distillation of the fundamental paradox

0:57:110:57:14

that lies behind the creation of the Yellowstone as a National Park,

0:57:140:57:18

because, after all, once a fragment of wilderness

0:57:180:57:21

has been designated a park,

0:57:210:57:23

it can't truly be said to be wilderness any longer.

0:57:230:57:27

And I wonder if Moran didn't include a small note of unease

0:57:270:57:33

in the form of this detail,

0:57:330:57:35

this slightly troubling detail in the foreground -

0:57:350:57:38

it's the carcass of a deer, placed just above his signature.

0:57:380:57:42

It reminds me of Thomas Cole's axe-felled tree stump,

0:57:440:57:48

it's evidence of the handiwork of man, it's the emblem of a death.

0:57:480:57:54

It's an intriguing memento mori

0:57:540:57:57

and perhaps an emblem of Moran's own awareness

0:57:570:58:00

that the birth of the park

0:58:000:58:02

also marked the death of truly wild nature.

0:58:020:58:07

Subtitles by Red Bee Media

0:58:280:58:30

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:300:58:33

In the first episode of a series exploring the history of American art, Andrew Graham-Dixon embarks on an epic journey from east to west, following in the footsteps of the pioneers who built the foundations of modern America.

During his journey, he travels to Massachusetts to see the earliest portraits in America depicting the Puritan settlers and visits Pennsylvania to uncover the dark truth behind Benjamin West's most famous painting, the spectacular Treaty of Penn with the Indians. In Philadelphia, he turns the pages of one of the world's most expensive books - John James Audubon's exquisite Birds of America, and explores the wilderness that inspired America's greatest landscape painter, Thomas Cole.

He also uncovers the paradox at the heart of America: that progress and innovation have come at a tragic price, the destruction of the unique cultural heritage of Native Americans by European settlers.

Andrew's journey takes us to the end of the 19th century and the announcement that the era of westward expansion was officially over.


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