The Contemporary Art Gallery opened a unique group exhibition that brought together six British Colombia artists who use the journey as a way to engage with landscape traditions. In Sentimental Journey, all the artists went on expeditions, traversing the landscape to collect inspiration and gather materials to document their experiences. The works in Sentimental Journey were both real and fictive representations of often undetermined treks. Many of the works had an optimism that was tied to the landscape, the desire to be outside and the character of the artist/wanderer.
The art works in this context brought forward the tight relation between the journey and its presentation, embracing the romance of the journey while also recontextualizing and privileging the terms of storytelling in order to question sentimentality. Sentimental Journey captured sentiments of eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism. Most of the artists in the exhibition kept true to this tradition, using the journey as their primary source of inspiration, translating their journeys materially to create a new experience in its own right. As many of the works in the exhibition showed us, our visual fields are saturated with representations of landscapes, but here the artist’s to reinvigorate our perception of nature through their distinctive working methods.
Romanticism developed across Europe as a movement in visual art, literature and music; it was defined as a return to nature and a search for true understanding of the self. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was identified as a pioneer of Romanticism, crossed the Alps alone on foot, expressing his experience in his autobiography, Confessions, published in 1782. The purpose of his long and isolated journeys, Rousseau states, was “to show to my fellow-men a portrait in every way true to nature, and this man I shall portray will be myself.”1 This desire to find an authentic self is defined by the attempt to break with societal constraints that limit choices and actions and, accordingly, limit the ability to understand and convey the experience of the true self.2
This notion of the Romantic thinker—focused on finding and defining the true inner self—reaches across place, time and disciplines. We can easily point to this figure again and again in the visual arts. The romantic artist lingers and is now an identifiable character and at times a caricature of the artist in general. Common to much contemporary art discourse since the mid-twentieth century is a suspicion of this romantic figure and what it represents. Romanticism has always had its critics. Terms such as sentimental, idealistic, spiritual, individualistic and emotional have commonly been used to undermine the political gestures of Romanticism. Romance is a distraction, interfering with realism and its revolutionary intent. In relation to contemporary art the term is often used derogatorily, disassociated from the political and defined by self-interest; as a movement for the individual. This is characterized by Rousseau’s statement, “Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like any that I have seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist.”3
The Wanderer (1818) by the German painter Casper David Friederich represents a paradigm of this physical and spiritual journey. A lone figure, his back to the picture plane, stands on a mountainous peak above the clouds, observing the vast valley below. Is this isolated figure in a landscape, shown within nature’s awesomeness, enough to convey the experience? Do Friederich’s intentions move beyond evoking the individualistic nature of these transcendental moments and our isolation as humans? Or does he simply intend the work to replicate the experience of awe for the viewer, hoping the representation itself elicits this feeling? A primary question for many artists in this exhibition might have been: Is the pictorial portrayal of the journey enough to capture the interests of a viewer? This led to other questions, such as: Should what is displayed replicate the journey? Does it even need to? Does it represent the experience, or is it a thing unto itself? Are process and presentation so intertwined that they become one, or do they function so differently that there will always be a huge gap between them?
Within the ideals of historical Romanticism, the artwork, like nature, should be experiential. Symbolically, according to the Romantics, nature carries a charge that elicits a transcendental response. This response corresponds, fundamentally, to a sense of awe. I have no doubt that the natural world still carries the power to inspire awe, but it is also hard to ignore how mediated our experiences are. Thus in a true Romantic sense, the goal of a work of art is to elicit emotional response. Sentimental Journey was a group exhibition of local artists whose working methods capture sentiments of eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism.Most of the artists in the exhibition kept true to this tradition using the journey as their primary source of inspiration, translating their journeys materially, to create a new experience in its own right. As many of the works in the exhibition showed us, our visual fields are saturated with representations of landscapes, and the artist/explorer character is now relegated to the role of day tripper, seeming more performative than earnest.
The Enlightenment’s ideas of reason and rationality are foils to the true Romantic. The precisely ordered ideals and experiences of the Age of Reason become caricatures, something to react against and resist with intuitive response. Who would rationally use a ball as reason enough to embark on a two-month journey from Canada’s west coast to northeast India? Who would enter the woods blindfolded or attempt to build an anti-gravity machine? While not all the artists in Sentimental Journey make nature their works’ primary subject, each begins a journey motivated by creative impulse. The work tended to be about their experiences and how those are exhibited, raising questions about the way the artist’s experience translates materially to the viewer through the objects or information presented. For some of these artists, their work must not only recount their travels but also be reenacted, yielding an impact that conveys their journey’s essence, while for others it is more of a slow burn—playing out over many objects and images, unfolding as narrative.
It is clear there is a new Romanticism in the air. It is being wholeheartedly embraced and not filtered tightly through reason or ordered precisely. Of course there are questions. The Romantic figure of the lonely artist who focuses on self-discovery is still a character seen, with some suspicion, as self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing. And nature’s ability to produce a transformative sense of awe that gives the individual a deeper understanding of the self has lost some of its edge. Yet, each work in the exhibition carries an optimism that was tied to Romantic notions of creativity.
- Jenifer Papararo
Are you a teacher looking to further educate your class about one of our exhibitions? Or, maybe you are planning a field trip and would like some further guidance.
Teachers’ Guides support educators who wish to visit the CAG with their students or who wish to carry out lessons related to CAG exhibitions in their classrooms. They include artist biographies, thematic exhibition overviews, suggested points of discussion, as well as recommended readings and references.
Lesson Plans are designed to bring the resources of contemporary art and artists to diverse classrooms. It is our goal to introduce students of all ages to the richness that engaging with contemporary art brings. Such breadth and diversity show that it can be used as a meaningful springboard in teaching a variety of subjects. Please feel free to adapt lessons to suit the specific needs of your class and curriculum.MORE