BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 06 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Expedition Art

Hamburg Kunsthalle, Germany

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 06 JUN 03

In recent years artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Henrik Håkansson and Matts Leiderstam have dissected Romantic ideas of nature as cultural constructions. Without explicit references to contemporary art 'Expedition Art - The Discovery of Nature from C. D. Friedrich to Humboldt' was perfectly in synch with current debate. It explored how, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a modern conception of nature was created by artists and scientists. In the exhibition itself, geological maps, models and instruments were exhibited alongside landscape paintings. The documentation of the lively exchange between art and science disproved the assumption that the Romantic idea of nature was based solely on wistful fantasies. Instead it exposed the intimate link between empiricism and idealism at the turn of the 19th century.

This link was established by the theory of geognosia, conceived by mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner and supported by the likes of Alexander von Humboldt, Novalis and J. W. von Goethe. This theory held that every form in nature, including the shapes of rock formations, corresponded to a system of archetypes. The best way to understand this system was to confront nature in its raw state and decipher its structures through empirical study.

Consequently geologists and landscape painters teamed up to explore the wilderness. As well as the Alps, countries such as Norway and Scotland became attractive destinations for nature studies. When the geologist Carl Friedrich Naumann (1797-1873), for example, returned to Dresden from a two-year tour of Norway in 1822, his sketches were admired by Caspar David Friedrich and Carl Gustav Carus, who copied them to use as material for their paintings. Bergen-born, Dresden-based Johan Christian Dahl decided to trek the Norwegian badlands himself. The resulting paintings, which included Blick vom Lyshornet (View from Lyshornet, 1836), combine Romantic drama with geological precision. Rays of light break through dark storm clouds to illuminate accurately painted rock formations in theatrical fashion. As the discovery of its landscape coincided with Norway's struggle for independence from Denmark, the celebration of nature became a crucial factor in the construction of the country's new cultural identity.

The Romantic movement also helped to establish the role model of the intellectual as nomadic traveller. Here Humboldt stood out. He was among the first to get permission from Charles IV of Spain to travel freely in South America, which he did in the company of the botanist Aimé Bonpland between 1799 and 1804. The drawing Humboldt und Bonpland im Urwald (Humboldt and Bonpland in the Jungle, 1856), by Eduard Ender, portrayed the two humanists in the jungle. Humboldt sits in front of a table covered with maps and instruments. His relaxed pose, legs apart and shirt open to the navel, reveals him as a nomad in the middle of nowhere, feeling on top of the world. Postmodern philosophy has often interpreted itinerant lifestyles and encounters with the Sublime as a displacement of the subject. Yet, if you believe the pictures in this exhibition, things looked different at the outset of modernity. A strong sense of empowerment and exhilaration is tangible in the depictions of the happy explorers scrambling across the terra incognita.

The proximity of this spirit to the politics of colonialism is apparent. Still, if you take the example of South America, the moment when artists and scientists were admitted as outside observers coincided with the beginning of the end of colonial regimes. One of Humboldt's protégés, Johann Moritz Rugendas, stayed for 15 years in Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Brazil. His works were among the most fascinating in the show. In Brasilianischer Urwald (Brazilian Jungle, 1831) Rugendas attempts to depict jungle vegetation down to the tiniest botanical feature. As a result the painting explodes with detail and infinite shades of green. In the following years Rugendas' work visibly relaxed. Farnkrautbäume in der Schlucht von San Francisco, zwischen Xalapa und Orizaba (Ferns in the Ravine of San Francisco, between Xalapa and Orizaba, 1832) leaves no doubt the artist had a good time in a ravine near San Francisco, painting fern and palm leaves with fancy swooshes and doodles that make David Hockney's look pale by comparison. It's hard not to envy the Romantics for their conviction that artistic beauty and scientific truth were one - even more so when their work shows clearly that they must have enjoyed themselves enormously in the process.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.