January 11, 2006

Saint Ansel

Another Cliched Shot of Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point

The cabin I'm staying in at Wawona has a neat little black and white print on the wall by Ellen Frank Chan done after the style of a Chinese brush painting, composed almost entirely of tiny delicate scratchy black-and-white ink strokes and outlines; it's essentially of the same view as the one I took above (without the clouds). It's surrounded by more conventional (and much larger) Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill prints of this and other canonical Yosemite sights, all heavy frames, light effects, rustic shepherds, glades, glens, European colours, etc. There's just no comparison for me -- Chan's simplicity and abstraction wins out every time in evoking Yosemite as opposed to "Yosemite" (or "Manifest Destiny" or something equally unpalatable). The other prints come across by comparison as things that in their use of scale, colour, light, shapes (all those spires!), and texture look more like bad fractal landscapes, bad sci-fi or (panel-) van art (is there any good panel-van art? :-)).

It's a commonplace to believe that that the sheer scale and strangeness of Yosemite defeated the abilities of Bierstadt and his contemporaries, that the visual and cultural vocabulary picked up Back East or in Britain or Europe failed when faced by the American West and places like Yosemite in particular (in the same way that European artists took a long time to "get" the Australian landscape). It may be a commonplace, but it's essentially true — but I suspect it has more to do with the overall realist vs. abstract mindset than the micro-vocabulary of painting itself. It really took photography — specifically large format black and white photography — to convey some of the scale and strangeness of this place effectively. That is, it took small-scale abstraction to pin down the reality of being in a deep narrow valley carved out of granite, of being surrounded by sheer granite cliffs extending up several thousand feet from the valley floor in each direction, of the strange twisted and layered natural stonework surrounding you everywhere (several much later impressionistic and abstract lightscapes based on Yosemite work for me almost as well, but I can't find any examples at the moment). The abstraction tends to keep you focused on what's important about Yosemite — that it's sui generis, that it's about scale and harshness, it's about endless cliffs rather than peaks, that it's about strange shapes and textures more than colours, that it has more in common with some Chinese or South East Asian landscapes than Europe.

For me, Bierstadt's attempted realism keeps softening and (in some cases quite literally) pastelizing the light and the various flora, turning Yosemite into a sort of European Arcadia, European glades and glens and meadows with towering peaks and soft-focus visages (natural and human); but the reality is that the light in Yosemite is mostly hard mountain light, the plants tough, twisted, hardy wind-blown mountain shrubs or tall very-Californian Sequoias, the colours just infinite variations on gleaming granite greys, the green and reddish-brown of the Sequoias, and the omnipresent blue of the Californian sky (the truth is, Yosemite isn't really about colour, but never mind). The skies in Bierstadt's paintings simply aren’t Californian skies, the light simply not the Californian light I know so intimately, the clouds not Californian clouds, the shapes and cliffs not Yosemite’s, the trees nothing like the California redwoods, the plants nothing like the Manzanita and high-country grasses so common in the area. But that's not the real problem for me — it's that Bierstadt's striving for grandeur makes his paintings grand in themselves, objects whose grandeur distracts from the effect Yosemite has in real life (and "grandeur" itself is a concept that seems too human, too European, too potentous for this sort of landscape). Bierstadt's paintings (deliberately?) call attention to themselves and the painting's relationship to the subject and the viewer rather than evoke some sort of real Yosemite (yes, yes, I know, the "real" needs quotes…). The effect of standing in front of a typical Bierstadt seems to be like having your sleeve constantly tugged by someone saying over and over again "Isn't it grand!" while you wonder whether the "it" is the painting or Yosemite itself. Not quite my cup of tea.

(All of which is a naive and way-too-long-winded and incoherent way of saying it's almost impossible to take a bad photo in Yosemite, but with St Ansel constantly looking over your shoulder, it's sometimes almost impossible to take any photo there at all… (which would have him rolling in his grave, I know)).

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