British-born artist Thomas Cole is the man who made American landscape painting cool again.
His mid-19th century pastoral scenes, often haunted by the future-ghosts of locomotives, have a mythical quality; tiny figures dwarfed by vast landscapes, noble savages battling against Turneresque elements.
He embraced Christian and ancient Greek mythos, painting with a kind of hyper-realism, his scenes strikingly verdant, his skies rendered in robin’s egg blue or charcoal grey. Some locales are recognisable from his home in New York State, others are glossy fantasy-scapes with disparate elements lifted from his extensive travels.
He’s increasingly seen as a proto-environmentalist, decrying the destruction of the natural world 150 years before mainstream society realised it was a bad idea. And, in a week when the floating rubbish dump known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was revealed to be three times the size of France, it seems appropriate to hear someone say “I told you so”.
But this National Gallery exhibition centres on his most political works, those that were derided by his contemporaries. A five-strong series entitled The Course of Empire charts the rise and fall of a great civilisation. The first, The Savage State (1834), shows man at one with nature, frolicking through a wild Eden. Next comes The Arcadian or Pastoral State, where children scrawl stick figures on the ground – the rise of culture! – and man forges a bucolic relationship with his surroundings. This leads to The Consummation of Empire (pictured), in which man reigns supreme. An impossibly grand marble city spans an estuary crammed with boats bearing loads of exotic wares. Everything is draped in coral pink and accented in gold. People drink wine and ride elephants. It looks fun.
Alas, by the fourth painting, Destruction, things have gone pear-shaped. War has broken out. Man destroys man. Temples burn and bridges collapse. A vast statue of a gladiator, white against the flames, is a glaring reminder of man’s hubris. Finally, in Desolation (1836) nothing remains but crumbling ruins. Herons nest atop broken pillars and vines coil over the remains of the temples. It’s all incredibly overblown (the absolute commitment to melodrama reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelites, who would form just over a decade later) but also dizzying in their scope and detail.
The timing was prescient – Cole was painting when the European hegemony was being eroded by the rise of America. Today the supremacy of America is itself under threat, something that’s explored by Ed Ruscha’s strange adjunction to this exhibition. Revisiting five 1992 paintings of factories over a decade later, the buildings have been shuttered or graffitied or bought up by foreign powers; it’s the passing of a very different empire.
In truth, the inclusion of Ruscha as a double-header with Cole seems designed to inject a little star-quality into an otherwise rather esoteric show (Cole is far better known in the US than he is here). But both offer a message for these uncertain times. It’s not so much a warning as an observation: that all things come to an end, that no matter how high we crawl, how many shoulders we stand upon, eventually the best any of us can hope for is a pretty grave.