My reading in this book (first reported in this post) has now brought me to familiar ground - the redwood and sequoia forests of Northern California. And as I suspected, with familiarity comes an easier read. And as the author points out some major differences in how Americans and Europeans viewed their sacred trees and forests, as well as how artists were using deep symbolism to express these ideas, I had to wonder if I'd been incorporating hidden meaning into my own tree-infested work.
Here are two main ideas Schama puts forth - extremely simplified and generalized by me. In Europe, a nation's forests often represented military strength. Not only did they provide timber for fleets of ships that made up the navies, but they provided fuel for the ironworks. In Keifer's "Vargus" it is noted that the boughs of the trees form an arch not unlike a military honor guard's swords.
On the other hand, Americans of the mid-1800's were seeing their woods of the West as sacred cathedrals, and so the arching trees became nature's equivalent of the Gothic Cathedral arch. Asher Brown Durand's "In the Woods" (below) "...which feature[s] birches bowed together in Gothic inclination" is a good example of this.
The discovery of the "Big Trees" and other larger-than-life natural elements in Yosemite fostered a growing national sense of the uniqueness of the American Republic and its link as "God's new Chosen People." Schama continues:
A generation earlier the forest had been represented in the popular imagination as the enemy. The eastern woods, after all, had been the habitat of the godless Indian...Beauty lay in clearance; danger and horror lurked in the pagan woods. The clearances were so extensive and so indiscriminate, though, that even as early as 1818 James Madison was protesting the 'injurious and excessive destruction' of timber. To a generation reared on Fenimore Cooper's forest romances, the miraculous appearance of western woodlands seemed to be a sign of God's forbearance, a second chance for America to understand the divinity inscribed in its landscape.
Almost 10 years after Durand's "In the Woods," Hudson Valley painter Worthington Whittredge painted "The Old Hunting Grounds." Again, we have birches used in an architectural way, but this time rising "like fluted columns to the arched, darker foreground trees...an illustration of the tradition which located the origin of Gothic pointed arches and vaults in the spontaneous interlacing of tree limbs." This is much different than Schama's comment about the birches pictured on the cover of Kiefer's book "barring" the way to the deeper woods or Kiefer's outstretched limbs evoking military swords raised in salute. These birches rather remind me of my Wisconsin ones. Kiefer's "barring" ones look like stands I see here in Idaho.
A closer look at Whittredge's and other artists' work of this era reveals they are loaded with additional spiritual associations. These are not just pretty landscapes. A broken stump and trembling birch leaves are emblems of death and new life, for instance.
At least one modern American artist, it seems, can see something more on the lines of Kiefer's "Vargus" in woodland scenes, with a look past the "pretty" exterior revealing deeper levels of understanding. I found this review of Christopher Lowry Johnson on Edward Winkleman's blog - definitely worth your time to pop over and read. What specifically caught my eye was this excerpt from TimeOut New York's full review:
But however romantic Johnson’s painterly style may appear, his scenes are anything but Edenic. The depopulated landscapes convey willful human abandon rather than untouched wilderness and are subtly entangled with contemporary issues of war and environmental disaster.In the show’s most affecting work, Pines No. 5, Johnson portrays an awkward formation of evergreens, each decked out in Christmas tree lights, boughs heavy with dollops of snow. Softly advancing on the scruffy white ground under a gray-blue haze of twilight, these sad yet beautiful trees suggest an army of soldiers, bravely (or perhaps unwittingly) awaiting their demise. — Jane Harris
Back in the infancy of my blog, I spent several posts analyzing how I see and incorporate nature in my work. I tend to focus on individual lines, shapes, texture, details. If I do take in the whole in any way, I think I have viewed the woods as inviting, the trees dancing, the insulation from the modern world healing. I suppose that last one is a bit of a spiritual connection, but I don't recall sensing any architectural connection.
So what of my many birch quilts? I'm not aware of anything but portraying their appealing shape and stark contrast against various backgrounds that mostly portray seasons or moods: Birches in summer, Birches in the fall, Birches at night. Well, perhaps "Wild on Birch Street" hints at a tree with a bit of attitude as it bursts through a window - a bit of fun there - but I don't think allegory is a part of my interpretations. View some of these quilts in this post on "What to do with Inspiration."
This is making me feel a bit shallow, giving credence to the current argument that too many art quilters are not saying anything important with their work, not making any political statements, not imbuing their work with deeper meaning. Well, I readily concede that much of my work is probably more decorative art than fine art, and I have no problem with that.
Now that I think about it, though, I'm remembering some ideas yet to be executed that will hint at a deeper message for those who take a closer look. I guess they are still ideas because they will be more difficult to pull off, more difficult to work through emotionally than my simple play with lines and color. I've been working up my courage and my technical skill level to start these, and I'm getting closer all the time.