Thinking the Landscape

Landscape. A Brief Introduction

Landscape research is currently developing along several distinct paths: aesthetic, perceptual, ideological, memory, and performative. Although in each case landscape is interpreted from a different perspective, and its different aspects are brought to the fore, the multidirectional nature of these studies does not signal sharp divisions; on the contrary, it would be fair to say there is mutual support and flow of ideas.

Landscape is without a doubt one of those things that invite a meeting of minds representing different perspectives and research disciplines. It lies within the fields of interest of geography, art and photographic history, aesthetics, ecology, landscape architecture, literary criticism, culture studies, studies on memory and historic heritage, and in recent years also law and cultural economics.1 Since the turn of the 1980s – i.e., since the cultural turn in the humanities – the wave of interest in landscape has been gathering pace, and casting light on successive aspects of this issue. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what triggered this dynamic growth in research in so many fields. One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly the fact that the landscape is the embodiment of, and thus helps us to grasp, in material, perceptually observable form, the main ideas and issues of our time – the discussion on relations between nature and culture, time and space, and the human and non-human.

Landscape research is currently developing along several distinct paths: aesthetic, perceptual, ideological, memory, and performative. Although in each case landscape is interpreted from a different perspective, and its different aspects are brought to the fore, the multidirectional nature of these studies does not signal sharp divisions; on the contrary, it would be fair to say there is mutual support and flow of ideas.

The first of the research paths mentioned above focuses on the aesthetic dimensions of landscape. This is inarguably the current with the longest tradition, and the primary role in perception of landscape as an aesthetic phenomenon is played, Beata Frydryczak notes, by two categories: the picturesque aesthetic, and grandeur2. The former has its roots in the Renaissance liberation of the landscape as a genre of painting in its own right, but was developed above all by 18th-century English aesthetics (with William Gilpin at the forefront) and the practices of laying out gardens and travelling with the express purpose of seeking out picturesque views. Its nature is determined by the perception of landscape as a beautiful painting, and hence the domination of sight-centricity, disinterested contemplation as a strategy for distancing the view, the positioning of the viewer as an audience and observer rather than as a participant, and the stripping of any utilitarian function from nature. The contemporary variant of aestheticisation is the way landscape functions as photographic landscape view – as tourist attraction or as logo for the purposes of territorial marketing (prime examples of this are the promotional campaigns being waged by the Polish regions).

In terms of grandeur, things are different: where the picturesque aesthetic designates an anthropocentric stance, in the Romantic aesthetic of grandeur, man is deprived of his privileged position.3 He becomes part of nature, not merely its observer. At the same time, the preferred landscape type also changes – it is no longer a harmonic, bucolic landscape, but wild, untamed, awe-inspiring massifs and plunging mountains, limitless oceans, and wastelands. Contemporary reinterpretations of the aesthetic of grandeur tend towards sensual involvement accentuating “being-in-the-landscape” rather than “attitudes toward the landscape”.4

Perception of the landscape as a sensual phenomenon is partly derived from aesthetic reflection, and specifically that stream of nature aesthetics that focuses on atmosphere, mood or aura, for it is these aspects that activate the humansensorium. The dominant role in research into perception of landscape has tended to be played by the sense of sight, hence the emphasis on the role and significance of landscape painting (especially that of Claude Lorrain) and on the importance of such visual technologies as photography, film and cartography, which have decisively influenced the ways of seeing – and, to be more precise, determined – its cultural structures. One accoutrement considered important for viewing the landscape in the picturesque aesthetic in the 18th century, for instance, was the Claude glass, a type of tinted lens that enabled scenes of nature to be viewed in the painterly tones characteristic of Lorrain. There is a clear critical breakaway movement from this research current that focuses on laying bare the mechanisms of sight perception as a form of visual appropriation of the world. A rival area of interest to sight-centrism at present is the ongoing research into soundscape and smellscape, which is changing, or at least relativising the former hierarchy of the senses. Notably, there is an increasing move towards perception of landscape in polysensory terms.

Another significant contemporary current is research into landscape as an ideological construct that is influenced by various shades of politics. In this view, landscape loses its innocence and becomes more of a battlefield for meaning and for branding particular national, ethnic and social groups than a neutral geographic space. This research perspective, which concentrates on critical analysis of landscape perception and laying bare ideologies connected with it, whether nationalist, colonial, gender- or class-based, or economic, has been functioning for several decades in various disciplines.5 William J. T. Mitchell, in his book Landscape and Power, notes, for instance, that landscape is not a neutral concept but “an instrument of cultural power, perhaps even an agent of power”.6 Analogous ideas have emerged in culturally-focused literary studies, to mention but Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, which analyses the European travel discourse and its hallmark strategies of visual domination in perception of landscape.7 Tim Edensor has drawn attention to the role of national ideological landscapes charged with affective and symbolic meanings in the creation of the national identity.8 Landscapes, usually agrarian or natural in character, are in this case guarantors of immutability and historical continuity, and naturalise the right to a given territory.

Just as often, however, landscape is treated as a site of memory, or mnemotopos. The decisive factor in the adoption of this perspective is the acceptance of the concept of cultural landscape and its historicisation, i.e., perception of the space as an area transformed by civilisation. In this way landscape becomes a topographic palimpsest of cultural memory, built up from successive strata of the remnants of human activities. As Karl Schlӧgel notes, these material traces of sedimentation of course have many authors and are written in many languages.9 Significantly, in local contexts referencing multicultural spaces with changing state affiliation, these rather obvious statements are all too often spiked with conflict. For the cultural landscape is also a receptacle for rejected, unwanted memories, and hence can become a bone of contention.10

In the performative perspective, landscape is treated less as an object of human actions than as an agent that can exert its own influence on human history and shape it. One of those who advocates this concept is Mitchell, in the abovementioned book Landscape and Power. He avers that the primary aim of this book is to bring about a change in the way we conceive of landscape, from noun to verb.11 Thus, landscape will cease to be merely an object of aesthetic contemplation or a text to be read, but will evolve also into a process of formation of community and individual identities. Thus, Mitchell asks not what landscape is or what it means, but “what it does, how it works as a cultural practice”.12 This scope of influence tends to extend to the spheres of the emotions and meanings, of course. As an aside, we might add that this perception of landscape as an active force in shaping the character of the culture of a given territory and influencing the beholder is not a new one. Stanisław Vincenz, in his sketchKrajobraz jako tło dziejów, noted: “Landscape” is not merely painterly or visual effects, of course, but also the earth on which we tread, on which we work, its undulation or flatness, its waters – seas, rivers or wetlands – its air, which we breathe: that which lends shape to man’s movements, which forms his steps, his work, his arms and legs, his posture, undoubtedly even his breathing.13

And Siegfried Lenz, a German writer from Ełk, in his sketch Von der Wirkung der Landschaft auf den Menschenwrote that “we experience the action of landscape as an internal sensation”14, and thus landscape evokes moods, feelings, a certain cognition, but also artistic creativity: whether in literature, painting or music.

If landscape is a cultural and geographical phenomenon, we should end by asking how it is perceived in the Polish or Central European context. Despite clear interest in the cultural landscape, particularly in the memory encoded within it, or in soundscapes, there are certain deficits, especially in respect of an issue as apparently obvious as the creation of a national landscape. The fact that we perceive the Polish national landscape and visual representations of it as something that has always been present and unquestioned indicates, I believe, a need for more a careful reading of the history of the release of this concept into general circulation. While the 19th century may indeed be viewed as the age of the landscape, and also a time of constitution by literature, painting and travel writing of a national landscape, the leading role in its dissemination probably fell to the first decades of the 20th century. Such a strong presence of the national landscape in the Polish imagined geography would not have been possible without modern mechanisms and means of reproduction, without the mass scope of press and amateur photography, or without the state-building work of the Second Polish Republic, which included monitoring and promoting the visual identification of the Polish lands, in particular those whose affiliation to the new state was not obvious – the sea and Pomerania, Silesia, and Polesie. Reproductions of visual representations of these regions in photography, poster and film would, it was hoped, help to consolidate the new state and above all to create a projection of an imagined homeland.[xv] Landscape photography in this period was called into the service of the Sanation propaganda machine. A prime example of these actions is the series of tourist guides “Cuda Polski” (Miracles of Poland), whose visual editor was Jan Bułhak. This series of immensely popular tourist guides, published between 1928 and 1939 and including regions such as Silesia, Pomerania, the Hutsul region and Polesie, was illustrated with numerous landscape photographs featuring characteristic icons of Polishness such as wayside crosses, fields of cereal crops, haystacks, and manor and sacral architecture.

The leading role in establishing a matrix for a national landscape, however, was played by the conception of “homeland photography” formulated by Bułhak in the 1930s. He identified its sources as Romantic literature and landscape painting (of course, the work of his friend Ferdynand Ruszczyc was a significant consideration in this fact), which in the second half of the 1930s were given a modernist slant and broadened to include the theme of industry. This idea referenced not only the aesthetic issues of capturing the beauty of “the native landscape” or the archival functions of the photographs, but above all its ideological and educational aspects, thus testifying to engagement in “the state propaganda discourse”, as Maciej Szymanowicz notes.[xvi] The landscape and photographing it were thus elevated to a lesson in state patriotism. “Homeland photography” was not merely a project for professional photographers, however: a key aspect of the popularisation of the concept seems to be the fact that its tenets were rapidly introduced into school curricula. In 1934 a book was published called Fotografia w szkole [Photography in the school], with articles by authors including Bułhak propagating the ideas of documenting the Polish landscape. As an aside, we might add also that landscape photography was only one element of a broader mechanism of state pedagogy, which also included a domestic tourist movement incorporating school trips, and literature.17

A second issue, and one worthy of particular attention, is the community of Central European experiences. One question that points to the need for comparative research is the link between the concepts of “homeland photography” in Poland and Heimatphotographie, in particular its exploitation in propaganda in the 1930s in other European countries. Another problem common across Central Europe are what the Austrian writer Martin Pollack dubbed polluted landscapes.18 Pollack argues that the Austrian, Slovenian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish and Czech landscapes have lost their innocence because they are dotted with concealed sites of mass genocide. This loss of innocence of the Central European landscape need not refer solely to such drastic situations as genocide. It is nonetheless a fact that the landscape of Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century rarely played an aesthetic, therapeutic or consolatory role, being more often a space haunted by ghosts of the past or, as in the prose of Herta Müller, the German Nobel laureate from Romania, a place polluted by ideologies:

The landscape cannot be separated from the state. There is no path from state repressions to beauty in nature; the damaged nerves did not grow that far. The landscape has shown that it is indifferent to what happens to people. It has been a truce, a silence not interested in the hubbub of the day, a green-fringed self-sufficient ignorance. An unexpected attack from beauty is hard to take when one’s nerves are strained. The landscape becomes a flickering staged version of existence, a panorama of anxieties, a double of plundered obviousness.19

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, one of the possible reasons for such extensive interest in landscape at present is its multidimensionality – it weaves nature with culture, aesthetics and ideology, the material and the mental, history and space. These vast issues are, of course, not solved in landscape, but they do demonstrate clearly that landscape is above all a generator of questions about our place in the world.

Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia