Simon Schama explores the depiction of nature. Simon discovers that landscape painting is seldom a straightforward description of observed nature.
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When your world is collapsing,
when everything is closing in...
..what you want is to be somewhere else.
Somewhere you can breathe in peace.
A scrap of beauty, far from the noise and ugliness.
But, if there is no escape, then you go there in your dreams...
..and you paint that landscape into existence.
This is what happened in China in the 1970s to the artist Mu Xin.
During Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution,
he was an obvious target.
Middle-class, intellectual, a lover of decadent, Western art.
Mu Xin was subjected to solitary confinement,
forced labour and then house arrest.
But the paper supplied for weekly confessions
became the material of his liberation.
Mu Xin broke out of his confinement by making visible,
albeit in deadly secrecy,
the landscapes which unfolded in his mind.
The art memory of China, its peaks and its valleys.
The culture which had given the rest of the world,
1,000 years before, true landscape art.
While everything else was being smashed up, he was determined
that art - now judged a reactionary crime - would survive.
Like nature itself,
landscape art has always been an antidote
to the anarchy wrought by the hand of man.
Yet it's rarely a depiction of the way the world is,
but a vision of the way we would like it to be.
Sometimes it delivers a sense of harmony
between nature and humanity.
Sometimes, it's a picture of a nation's home.
Sometimes, it's a dream of heaven writ in fabric.
Or glimpsed through a lens.
But, most of all, it's a way to understand our civilisation
and to behold that most terrifying and thrilling of all truths -
our place in the cosmos.
"The nation is broken, but mountains and rivers remain."
Those words could have come from Mu Xin in the 1970s,
but, actually, they were written 1,000 years earlier.
In the early 10th century, China was torn apart by endless civil war.
As feuding states vied for power,
they burned cities and towns, and slaughtered their people.
Yet it was out of this anarchy and chaos that the Chinese tradition
of landscape painting first blossomed
as the great subject of art.
For the Song dynasty, who finally triumphed in the year 960,
landscape art represented both a glimpse of a better world
and a means to unite this shattered country.
I'm looking at a document that attests to a profound alteration
in human sensibility, because it was in Song China that,
for the first time, landscape painting with ink and brush
became the true and absolute sign of what civilisation was,
both for those who practised it and for those who owned
these precious scrolls.
This painting is more than 1,000 years old.
And it's thought to be by one of the first truly great
landscape artists, Li Cheng.
Dominating the scroll are mountains,
symbols of the Song dynasty.
The biggest, most imposing peak is the Emperor,
the lesser peaks are his ministers.
Li Cheng's message is that this is the protecting force
beneath which China can recover its harmony
and rebuild its civilisation.
He's an absolutely brilliant painter
of human activity, from man on a donkey
to people having their meal,
to perhaps dumplings being cooked in the back kitchen there.
And this bottom half of the scroll is crowded,
not just with people, there's all sorts of things going on.
This is our world, this is the place we inhabit.
This is more than mere propaganda.
Li Cheng asks profound questions,
which go to the heart of our relationship
with the world around us.
As our eye ascends through the painting,
so our whole approach to it
also ascends to a higher order of question.
Right in the visual centre of this beautiful painting
is the temple itself, and the temple is almost more important
than the whole mountain.
It is the place of equipoise, the place of peace.
Above the temple, there is no human action at all,
and Li Cheng has changed the wash of the ink.
It's lighter, finer, more ethereal.
So this is a borderland between the human and the spiritual world,
and gradually we move up and face the greatest questions of all.
What is nature?
What lies beyond surface appearance?
What truly moves the universe?
And how, above all, does the dialogue between flowing water
and the adamant face of that eroded rock
bring us harmony and bring us what everybody in China wanted -
happiness and peace?
Li Cheng offers us a glimpse of who we are
by linking the comings and goings of our little lives
to the majesty of the cosmos.
And that sense of fit between things mortal and things eternal
fills the mind with the ancient Confucian sense of rightness.
Everything in its ordained place.
This is how life is supposed to be.
So powerful was the message that, within a century,
landscape art had sunk deep roots into the culture of Song China.
New painting academies flourished where it was practised.
Weighty tomes were written about its philosophy and technique.
To be Chinese meant to be civilised
and to be civilised meant to paint,
above all, landscapes.
In the more intimate, private pleasures of the hand scroll,
the painted landscape evolved into something new.
Hand scrolls were river-shaped journeys,
stories revealed as you unrolled the scroll
and travelled almost cinematically through space and time.
This hand scroll was painted by the artist Qiao Zhongchang.
It was based on one of the most famous Chinese poems,
written by a government official,
a man of culture and refinement, called Su Shi.
Su Shi had been exiled after a political purge
and spent his days writing about excursions he took with his friends
up the Yangtze River.
Here he is carrying fish and wine
as his wife sees him off on the journey.
We turned the boat loose to drift with the current.
All around was deserted and still.
A lone crane flew overhead.
The painting evokes both the pleasures of friendship
and the melancholy of the exile.
A dream, but one with a bittersweet taste.
But landscape painting wasn't always about escape.
Sometimes, artists captured the violence of history.
200 years after Su Shi wrote his poems,
China's Song dynasty had fallen to Mongol invaders.
The painter Wang Meng refused to serve the Mongol emperors,
preferring to retreat to a very particular place,
his family's estate in the Qingbian mountains.
Those mountains became the subject of his greatest painting.
Well, when you're in the presence of a bona fide masterpiece,
which this is, words somehow struggle to be formed.
But I'm going to do my best.
Not least because this is an extraordinary painting
because it belies all the pleasing stereotypes
we have about Chinese landscapes.
When you think of Li Cheng,
you think of that first generation of northern Song painters
and it is all about feeling protected by the Imperial mountain.
None of this is happening with Wang Meng.
This is, above all, a painting about turbulence.
It's full of a kind of restless, writhing, sensuous, intense energy.
There's a reason for this turbulence.
By the time he painted this,
Wang Meng's family mountain retreat was right in the middle
of a battlefield fought over by armies 200,000 strong.
The reality was marauding and massacre.
These are not mountains which protect us.
Instead, they trap and threaten us.
Here is a man beautifully painted, picked out with a conical cap,
which is a cap of this particular region,
and is echoed by the shape of the peak.
So, you think the man belongs to the mountains,
but the man has nowhere to go.
There are paths which make no sense at all.
He moves his way through scrubby pines.
Wang Meng has lit this dramatically to make it more difficult,
to make it more exciting, to make it more perilous and energised.
Eventually, we see one isolated, tiny figure, alone.
And this huge orchestration,
musical energy, these animated, pulsing rocks,
look as though they're about to topple down on him.
What's happened to landscape painting in the hand of Wang Meng
is that it's gone from being not just a place of calm,
but to an intensely personal expression of his own mood
and his own feeling of insecurity.
So, everything that is coursing through the imaginative energy
of the artist gets registered
in these sudden, jabbing, repeated strokes.
This, then, is a state of mind rather than a state of mountain.
If this painting depicts Wang Meng's deepest anxieties,
then his sense of foreboding was well founded.
Shortly after completing it,
he fell victim to his political enemies and died in prison.
Sometimes, the vision of boundless space will set you free.
But, sometimes, the mountain walls close in and shut out the light.
Further west, in the Islamic world,
landscapes came to have a very different meaning.
They were not cherished for their remote vistas, but, instead,
for the way nature was made part of life in town.
And the form that oasis of peace took was a garden.
A welcome, shady retreat from the heat and dust of the day.
To the faithful, this was more than a collection of plants and pools.
It was an earthly reflection of the heavenly realm.
The Islamic garden evolved from a much older Persian tradition,
the enclosed garden, called the paridaiza,
which gave us the word paradise.
Islamic rulers from the Nasrids in Spain to the Mughals in India
laid out their gardens according to the Koran's description
of the afterlife.
Four quarters, bounded by four rivers,
which, in paradise, it was said,
would flow with water, wine, milk and honey.
Flora and fauna, the fertile attributes of God's blessing,
also found their way into decorations on the pavilions
and palaces which gracefully stand amidst the gardens.
But the art of the paradise garden found its richest expression
in a form that sprang, like Islam itself, from the desert.
It was the garden you could carry with you -
For the nomadic tribes of the Middle East, everything in life -
talking, eating, praying - was done close to the ground.
Carpets made life not just bearable, but civilised,
especially when woven with an image of paradise.
By the late Middle Ages,
the garden carpet had migrated from its humble origins in Arabia and
Central Asia to become a symbol of luxury and sophistication
in the royal court of the Persian Shah.
The 16th and 17th centuries were a golden age
for Persian garden carpets.
And this is an extremely rare, fragile survival.
Known as the Wagner Carpet, after a recent German owner,
it is crammed with every kind of living thing,
teeming through the foliage.
There are butterflies and birds.
A leopard pounces on a goat.
Fish swim in the four legendary watercourses
which meet in a central pool.
The garden carpet was more than an oasis of super-abundance.
Any Muslim who sat upon it, whether emperor or humble tribesman,
found themselves in that most uplifting of all places,
the heart of heaven.
In Christian Medieval Europe,
paradise gardens came with a health warning.
After all, the whole mental world of Christendom turned on a single,
fateful moment back in Eden.
That moment when the serpent tempted Eve and set in motion
the great epic of sin and salvation,
culminating in the crucifixion of Christ.
But, in 14th-century Siena,
anxieties about dangers lurking in the vegetation
gave way to an exercise in the self-congratulation of urban rulers
who, in this fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti,
ride out to enjoy the fruits of wise government.
The satisfying sight of the contadini, Italian peasants,
sewing and harvesting in peace and fruitfulness.
Two seasons in one painting.
In the Renaissance, this rural test of urban leadership
found its vindication in the rediscovery
of pagan classical writings about the landscape.
Rusticating townsmen turned to their favourite Latin author, Virgil,
whose nature poem, The Georgics, written for urbanites, of course,
extolled the pleasures of country life and labour.
"If they but knew!
"They're steeped in luck, country people
"Far removed from the grinds of war
"Where earth that just showers them
"With all they could ever ask for
"What they have is the quiet life -
"Carefree, no deceit, wealth untold -
"Their ease among the cornucopia."
Virgil is looking hard in only the way that only a real countryman can.
He's sort of poking the pigs and checking the flocks and herds.
There is a wonderful line in The Georgics
when it's coming on to rain,
and he talks about a heifer looking suspiciously at the sky,
working his nose to sniff the wind.
You really feel the flavours and the sounds
and the perfumes of rustic life here.
Virgil is staring at the soar of a lark and listening
to the croak of frogs down in the mud.
For Italian nobles of the 16th century who'd read their Virgil,
that vision of a balanced life in the countryside proved irresistible.
They took their identity as gentlemen farmers seriously,
and the ground floor of their villas was where carts and scythes
and even some animals were kept.
But the rest of the villa was for a different kind of rustication -
the play of intellect.
But that didn't always preclude a sense of humour.
This is the Villa Barbaro, built around the 1560s in the Veneto,
the countryside surrounding Venice.
The man responsible for this gem was Daniele Barbaro,
a wealthy cleric in the unstrenuous Venetian style,
but also the epitome of a Renaissance man,
learned in pretty much everything.
To create this little realm of a well-ordered Arcadia,
Daniele turned to his friend, the architect Andrea Palladio,
who designed the villa so that its horizontal lines
would rhyme with the lay of the land.
The two of them, Daniele and Palladio,
co-opted the genius of a third for their collaboration -
the painter Paolo Veronese.
His brief was to cover the villa walls with frescoes.
What makes this villa special is its sense of playfulness.
Now, Daniele Barbaro is a heavyweight intellectual,
and, so, in his way, of course, is Andrea Palladio.
They read all the textbooks on optics and perspectives,
and actually written some of them,
and Daniele's translated the great classical work on architecture.
And what you expect from all this obsession with musical intervals
and harmony and mathematics,
almost a kind of algorithmic approach to the perfect house,
is to have that translated in painting by Veronese into allegory.
The planets and the gods, cavorting on the ceiling.
And, yes, that's what we have.
We have a mysterious white woman in the middle.
We have the gods of abundance and family life.
And, then, suddenly, you catch sight of a parrot.
And then you notice the woman, almost certainly Marcantonio,
the brother's wife,
in a gorgeous, haute couture number.
And, next to her, a nurse, with the fantastic, leathery skin,
a woman of the ordinary people.
And you think, "Hang on a minute, they don't belong with the gods."
Something extraordinary is going on here.
We have a mix of the immortals and the mortals,
of reality and illusion, and that goes right through
everything we see in the villa.
Real windows and fake windows,
and the villa turns into
a spectacularly teasing kind of fun house.
Now, whatever you think about Renaissance painting,
you don't usually go for it for jokes, really.
But jokes can be graceful and elegant,
and that was Veronese's cast of mind.
And you also see that he's cutting into all this dense theory
with what he could do best, with what Venice did best.
Gorgeous colours, sensational, sensuous brushwork,
having fun with the brush,
even if you're doing it in fresco rather than oils.
And you turn round and you've got an extraordinary sense of the place
still being inhabited because we've also got people down at our level,
people coming at you, behind you - hello!
Here's our friend coming through a door which isn't quite a door,
and you realise the whole place is alive with mischief.
But though the columns and the vistas they frame
are eye-teasing fakes,
the mind-set is real enough.
Happy, horsey comings and goings.
An avenue of graceful trees,
the unhurried pleasures of a country house weekend.
Villa Barbaro, with its frescoes,
is a perfect slice of Renaissance escapism,
a blend of the serious and the witty,
created at a moment when, in the countryside beyond,
there were harvest failures and peasant riots.
And the once-great Venetian Republic was in retreat
from the Ottoman Turks.
But, here at Villa Barbaro, it was always spring or summer.
The grapes would always be ripening, the lutes would always be playing.
Daniele and Andrea Palladio would go for long, philosophical walks,
and the great entertainer Paolo Veronese could take a break
and shoot a pheasant or two, his dog trotting at his heels.
His landscapes on the walls were dreamscapes,
and you could stare and stare and stare at them
and feel warm inside forever.
As landscape painting came off the walls,
it turned its back on the bucolic dreamworld.
And it happened in a place which couldn't be more different
from the glowing, sunlit stone of the villas of the Veneto.
It was in the 1500s, in the dark, primeval forests of Bavaria
in southern Germany that European landscape art
really came into its own.
Albrecht Altdorfer was a painter who'd spent his career depicting
religious scenes, albeit ones strangled in greenery.
But the undergrowth began to take over,
until Altdorfer made nature itself, by itself, the whole story.
It may seem a bit over the top to describe this scrappy, tiny,
sketchy little thing as constituting a revolution in art, but, you know,
that's pretty much what it is.
Because with this little painting, the landscape suddenly happens.
By which I mean, landscape, the word,
stops being a description of background, of setting,
and becomes the work of art itself.
What is that revolution?
Well, what Altdorfer has done is something extraordinary.
He's removed from the picture any semblance of a story,
any kind of characters.
Yes, there is one little fellow here,
which gives this watercolour painting its title, Woodcutter.
And if you look very, very closely,
he's on lunch break. He's got a jug of something.
It's the German world, it's got to be beer, I would think.
And he's laid his axe down.
If you look really carefully,
he's got a devastating pair of scarlet stockings on there,
but he's not really the kind of character you expect
when you see landscape as background.
There, the characters are full and frontal.
There is, of course, a heroic character in this painting.
A monster, a giant, and it is the tree itself,
dwarfing the little figure sitting at its base.
And doesn't that tree remind you of someone else?
Of the twisted torso of the crucified Christ
on his wooden cross, arms outstretched?
What we've got here, in effect, is a disguised religious picture,
and I think there's a reason for the disguise.
Altdorfer is actually in a sticky position.
He was living in a Catholic town at the beginnings of the eruption
that was the Protestant Reformation.
He'd been involved in organising town ceremonies and pilgrimages,
and part of the force of Protestantism
was about the so-called idolatry of images.
With this painting,
he neatly sidesteps the whole issue
of brutal and bitter partisan religious conflict.
We have religion implied by the body of the Christ in the tree,
rather than frontally represented.
This is a very stylish picture,
but it is also very raw and rough and coarse.
It's almost at times as if he painted it
with a pointed, sharpened twig.
There is a kind of slashed, cut element to some of the details
over which the paint drips and hangs
when it describes these leaves.
This is a portable thing.
It's not stuck in a church, like an altar piece.
It's not stuck on a wall, like a fresco.
You can own this, you can carry it around.
A new kind of art is born here, and Altdorfer knows that very well.
Altdorfer's landscapes managed to dodge religious schism
by disguising it in nature.
But they did something else as well.
They tapped into a Teutonic sense of identity.
The notion of a natural German homeland in the forest.
When Altdorfer used woodcuts to reproduce his paintings,
the audience for landscape art dramatically increased.
And what his audiences were buying into
were landscapes loaded with symbolism.
The sacred tree, the Gothic wood.
Mostly, though, they were devoid of human beings.
But, in Flanders, in the Low Countries,
a different artist would crowd his landscapes with people.
the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel
painted a set of landscapes which
reinvented that traditional medieval
cycle, the labours of the months.
These, of course, are on an epic scale.
But, here, there's not a single feudal lord to be found.
The man who commissioned them came from bustling, commercial Antwerp,
a merchant called Nicolaes Jonghelinck
who wanted them to decorate the grand dining space
of his suburban villa.
Perhaps this was Jonghelinck's way
of identifying with the ordinary folk,
because what we have, for the first time,
is a credible vision of country society,
real villages with people working and playing together.
Bruegel himself was no brush-wielding yokel.
He was learned and well-travelled.
He'd taken a trip over the Alps to Italy, sketching as he went.
Some of those Alpine peaks appear, incongruously,
alongside depictions of his low-lying, Flemish home.
But that only increases the telescopic sense of deep space
Bruegel gives us, using those tree lines
and the curve of the peaks to send our vision plunging,
like the flight of that bird,
from huge vistas to the smallest detail.
Along with that optical drama, we get another kind of perspective,
a philosophical confrontation with our relationship to nature itself -
unsentimental, rugged, which demands a closer look.
I know you've all seen this on countless Christmas cards,
but was there ever an image less brimming with Yuletide cheer?
Those hunters haven't got much to show for their trouble.
A skinny fox suspended from their poles.
The exhausted dogs, trying to lift their legs out of the heavy snow,
feel the pain as much as their masters.
Bruegel painted these compendious, visually inexhaustible masterpieces
after the coldest, most frigid Flemish winter
that anybody could remember in their lifetime.
But he also painted them on the cusp of a long,
terrible civil war that would divide the Netherlands between
Protestant and Catholic, north and south,
the Spanish Empire and the free Dutch Republic.
And Bruegel would actually find himself right in the middle
of all those troubles.
But, while we're looking at these glorious landscapes,
none of that history seems to matter.
For Bruegel, the natural world
is a consolation for the traumas afflicting civilisation.
Whatever happens in our human world,
the God-given seasons will still roll around,
the cattle will still return to their winter pasture.
Let's just think for a minute
about the way he wants us to look at these paintings.
It's a dialogue, in a way,
between the universal and the particular.
On the one hand, wherever the eye travels,
we are invited into a wealth of detail of work and play.
The trudge through the snow,
the glide of the skaters across the ice.
And wherever we travel with our eye through the landscape,
we're carried to dramatically different places.
From a Flemish village huddled against the hillside,
out to a storm-tossed river estuary,
out to the broad, open sea.
An experience of looking at these paintings becomes, surely,
like the experience of all of our lives.
On the one hand, we're immersed in the here and now.
We have no choice. We go from minute to minute,
hour to hour, task to task. It's our daily routine.
But, then, something else happens.
We stop and we contemplate and we look at the whole picture,
like that one bird, perching on that naked, leafless branch.
And everything, somehow, is pulled together.
The whole of our life is laid out in front of us, and, with it,
the entirety of human society.
And we're very, very lucky.
It all adds up, the whole human condition,
and our particular, special, little place inside it.
Bruegel was an encyclopaedist of the human comedy,
and, as we cross the frozen pond, we find, for me,
one of the most unforgettable characters in all of European art.
A tiny, stooped figure, an old woman,
bent with the burden of branches,
meant for fuel or thatching, plodding home to her winter hearth,
the prospect of which makes that burden just about bearable.
It's a lesson in the perseverance of the poor.
For what alternative does she really have?
Through these landscape paintings, what Bruegel is really doing
is offering us a profound glimpse not into the natural world,
but into the human condition.
Bruegel died in 1569, spared the worst
of a war for religious and local liberty in the Netherlands.
He couldn't know it would last for 80 years.
But he evidently feared the worst.
A painting pretending to be a Biblical massacre of the innocents
is done in contemporary dress,
with a documentary awareness of what was in store for those countryfolk
when Spanish troops arrived.
What happened was what always happens in such calamities -
a frantic, mass migration of refugees.
The Netherlands became split along the lines of the military slog -
Protestant north, Catholic south.
But, as so often in our story,
the most astonishing flowerings happen
in the midst of human disaster.
In the Protestant Dutch Republic,
as art was purged from churches branded as idolatry,
it simply shifted location into other places,
especially private homes.
In the years when they were most beleaguered by war,
the Dutch became most prolific
at buying pictures which reminded them of what they were defending.
It was the first mass-market for landscape art,
precisely the kind of low art which Italians condescended to.
The life of the rustics.
It was what the Dutch were most passionately attached to.
The simple face of their homeland.
Now, the reason why the Dutch felt so emotionally invested
in this landscape was because they had been responsible
for physically making so much of it.
There's this old saying that God made the world,
but the Dutch made Holland.
And exactly at the time where they reinvent landscape painting,
this was literally true.
This was an area called the Beemster.
200,000 acres of what had been the inland sea of the Zuiderzee
were turned into this glorious pasture between 1607 and 1612,
while the Dutch were at war.
It was reclaimed with the aid of 43 windmills,
pumping the water out.
This wasn't just topography, wasn't just land,
it was their homeland.
So, when the Dutch felt that, under God's protection,
they were making a part of Holland,
it had this deep, psychological effect on them.
They owned this countryside in a way which was absolutely special,
and which gave their painters the sense that they were painting their
country in both senses - the countryside,
and their newborn nation at the same time,
and the pictures they would produce would belong to the whole people.
A new class of jobbing artists emerged
to service this popular demand for landscape art.
Jan van Goyen was one of those workhorses.
He produced more than 2,000 paintings and drawings
during a 40-year career.
Van Goyen's was a deliberately modest art,
unashamed of its simplicity.
But it's the realism with which he paints the natural world
which makes Van Goyen's paintings remarkable.
You forget what an amazing breakthrough this represents.
Landscapes had been all about fantasy and colour and
drenched in gold.
This is drenched in mud, and even though we know
that Van Goyen really had to work fast
and with rubbish materials that didn't cost him very much money,
he's so always in debt,
there's a credible convergence between what he's painting
and how he's painting it. It's like a sketch.
It's like an immediate note from his own vision,
and everything in it that's kind of rough and raw
and crude and clay-like and meagre about it
actually makes you feel there.
There are tops of houses, the roofs,
and you don't see anything else of the house. Why?
Because they're actually below the water line.
This delivers a world, the kind of silvery quality of the canals,
little boat floating past,
and you think you're waking up and you can smell the peat turned over.
It's a kind of raw day in the middle of winter.
And you're absolutely enveloped by the wind,
the dark, lead-coloured light.
But this still, in its scraped-away authenticity, is a kind of home.
As the Dutch Republic became the richest country on Earth,
so the moneyed wanted more sophisticated visions
of their homeland.
Every so often, a genius came along
who could make masterpieces out of the same, modest subject matter.
Jacob van Ruisdael's great medium was the dappling Dutch light,
so that the skies, which in the work of Van Goyen had been wet and dim,
now became a grand opera of light and shade
with huge, rolling clouds as its cast of characters.
Ruisdael loved to exaggerate features,
to make them more theatrical.
The romance of ancient ruins, the sinister darkness of a boggy wood.
And, in this painting,
the great emblem of Holland has become a hero in its own right.
Ruisdael's great gift was to take something homely and familiar -
and it doesn't get more homely, does it, than a windmill,
and big it up to the max until it is something epic, heroic,
almost spiritually meaningful to everybody who's going to look at it.
Ruisdael was essentially a dramatist of the landscape,
and this is high theatre.
Now, there really is a windmill at this town called Wijk bij Duurstede,
but he's made it absolutely enormous.
It has a kind of authority to it.
The sky is heavy.
There is dirty weather ahead.
These clouds are boiling up into what might be a storm.
There are deep shadows hanging over the landscape.
These women, with their bonnets covering their faces,
are hurrying home.
And then I think of the date.
This painting was done in 1670,
and that was a moment of tension and nervousness
that the Dutch had about going it alone in Europe.
You think, correctly, that the great powers out there,
jealous of your prosperity in the world, are plotting against you,
England and France, as indeed they were.
And, two years after this painting was done,
the Dutch Republic was almost engulfed by a pincer movement
between those two hostile states.
And there's no doubt that that windmill,
with the light shining on it,
is a guardian against peril.
The sails of the mill,
not accidentally, form the cross of the Redeemer.
There's a saviour, and the saviour is the windmill.
And that cross, just in case you're wondering,
is echoed visually by an opening in the sky,
down which this gorgeous light falls,
the only warm bit in the painting,
and, if you're Dutch, you remember an old saying which says,
"Just as a windmill needs the wind to move its sails,
"so man needs the breath of God to act."
The moral is never forget the word of God.
You have a covenant with God.
You are his modern, chosen people.
Just remember that when you look at the mill.
When nations feel threatened, or when they're actually torn apart,
the sense of God-protected homeland, somehow sheltered from catastrophe,
comes swimming into view.
Civil wars, as we've seen over and again,
are the nurseries of great landscape painting.
What held for the tight-bounded Dutch Republic,
looking heavenwards to its boundless skies,
was magnified on a continental scale in the 1860s,
in the bitterly divided American republic.
Though the American Civil War was in part a war about land
and the right to extend slavery into new western territories,
it was possible, in the mind's eye at least,
to gaze west towards the setting sun
and see an unclouded Eden.
Some truly lurid panorama paintings were produced in the name of these
paradise illusions, all shining with the stage lighting of Providence.
All of these efforts, like most propaganda,
were sentimentally forgettable once the war was over.
But one great painting
came out of the craving for landscape consolation.
And it was a distinctly unromantic elegy,
both tragic and hopeful at the same time.
The Veteran In A New Field was the work of the greatest, in my view,
of all 19th-century American artists.
Winslow Homer was then just 29 and fresh from the battlefield.
As a war illustrator for magazines and newspapers,
he'd seen the carnage first-hand.
Unlike the starry-eyed painters of expansive horizons,
with their Olympian points of view,
Homer's picture comes down to earth and plants us deep in the soil.
That soil is both infinitely fertile, bursting with gold,
but also, of course, deeply blood-soaked.
Homer painted it in 1865,
just a few months after the bloodiest war in all US history
had come to an end.
The traumatic shock of Lincoln's assassination, too,
was still raw in Homer's mind.
In the solitary, epic figure of the veteran, there is, of course,
something of the lonely nobility of the martyred president -
thanklessly toiling, and, I believe, also something of Homer himself.
Like his namesake from classical antiquity,
Homer conjures the great themes of sacrifice and regeneration and,
of course, the endless regiments of the fallen, embodied in the wheat.
But, most of all, it's a picture of American gold.
Perhaps the only gold which truly mattered -
the gold of the endless prairies,
standing beneath an infinitely blue harvest sky.
Tragedy, coloured by an impassioned religious faith in a boundless
American future, planted in boundless American space.
Lincoln himself never lost that faith.
Even before the war was over,
he pushed through a law to protect and bequeath
one particular landscape, one American Eden,
to the people for all posterity.
While America's wounds would stay livid and open
for generations to come,
this would be at least one place of miraculous healing.
Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada.
Yosemite became America's most sensational tourist destination.
Its lonely beauty instantly compromised by its popularity.
And the images which promoted it made sure to represent it
as they did much of America - as empty of native people.
The Miwok Indians were either moved on or painted out.
And when Yosemite eventually found its ultimate visual poet,
he too cleared the view of humans.
a teenager from San Francisco visited Yosemite for the first time.
Ansel Adams was always going down with something -
the flu, measles, a nasty cough -
the sort of thing budding pianists bent over the keyboard
were supposed to get, and Adams was one of those.
But, while he was wheezing and hacking,
he'd read a book about Yosemite and when a get-well trip was suggested,
he'd go nowhere else.
Visiting Yosemite was an epiphany for Adams, like falling in love.
Gradually, the music faded
and surrendering to the drama of the Sierra Nevada light,
photography became everything.
Ansel Adams' miracle moment came in 1927.
He climbed to 4,000 feet in deep snow,
to the precipitous spot known as the Diving Board.
With the light failing and down to one glass plate,
he had the inspired idea of using a dark red filter to turn the sky
almost black, and create an extreme contrast between snow and mountain.
And he produced one of the greatest masterpieces
of American, or any other, art.
Adams called it his visualisation.
Not what his eye but the inner lens of his imagination, could see.
He became not just Yosemite's photographer
but its great artist,
the high priest of its temple, of its stone, its light and its water.
And what he produced in those landscape altarpieces -
because that's what they surely were -
was an America irradiated with luminous majesty.
Taller than the highest skyscraper,
more powerful than the mightiest business corporation.
And he wanted Yosemite to be for everyone.
This is our land.
# This land is your land
# And this land is my land
# From California
# To the New York island
# From the redwood forest... #
It was in the 1950s that Adams' photographs built into
a mission for mankind,
a protest against the damage that could be done to the Earth
by the lust for a fast buck.
It culminated in This Is The American Earth,
a hymn to the beauty of the natural world, and an instant bestseller.
More and more, Adams' photographs became preachy,
but those visual sermons were ecstatic, radiant, mystical,
passionate statements about how humanity could be redeemed
through its encounter with nature.
In his later years, he became a kind of patriarch of environmentalism,
and, every so often, he'd put down his camera
and even leave his beloved Yosemite
to go and try and persuade presidents to his point of view.
But, throughout it all,
he remained steadfast to his core belief
that his job in life was to give visual expression
to that silken cord tying together the fate of man
with the fate of the Earth.
In 1977, the photographer as prophet had his moment.
Nasa prepared to launch its Voyager spacecraft
on a mission to outer space.
On board was the Golden Record.
It contained pictures depicting human civilisation
and the natural world.
Adams' paradise images were among them.
If they weren't the whole truth about our civilisation,
then his photographs weren't a beautiful lie either.
Like all landscape art, they sprang from the eye, the mind,
and the invention of the human heart.
"We all move on the fringes of eternity," Adams wrote,
"and are sometimes granted vistas."
As Voyager prepared to leave our solar system,
it turned around its camera for one final time.
The result was the ultimate landscape photograph,
one that has given us a new perspective
on our place in the cosmos.
Our lonely planet.
The pale blue dot.
The Open University has produced a free poster that explores
the history of different civilisations through artefacts.
To order your free copy, please call...
Or go to the address on screen
and follow the links for the Open University.
Simon Schama explores one of our deepest artistic urges - the depiction of nature. Simon discovers that landscape painting is seldom a straightforward description of observed nature - rather it is a projection of dreams and idylls, as well as of escapes and refuges from human turmoil, the elusive paradise on earth.
Simon begins in the 10th century, in Song dynasty China. The Song's scrolls are never innocent of the values of that world - the landscapes depict immense mountains projecting imperial authority. But as that authority was threatened and overwhelmed, majestic mountains are represented in geological turmoil, writhing and heaving. Imagined paradises in Islamic and Western art are often responses to loss and absence. But paradise could be recovered in the country villas of the Renaissance.
Simon goes to the miraculously beautiful Palladian house of Daniele Barbaro in the Veneto, with murals painted by Paolo Veronese to contemplate the world of the cultivated country gentleman. It was in the cooler climate of northern Europe that landscape came into its own as a distinctive type of art. Simon explores the works of the northern Renaissance in Germany and the Netherlands, where emerging states sought expression of identity through depiction of their natural worlds. Simon ends in America where the landscapes of America are as expansive as the landscapes of Holland were confined, but there too, in the numinous photography of Ansel Adams, a kind of earthly paradise is revealed and a sense of nationhood is expressed in the natural world.