The Western Sublime: Majestic Landscape Paintings of the American West

To open October 11, 2019 and close January 9, 2020


The Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block (TMA) is pleased to announce the exhibition, The Western Sublime: Majestic Landscape Paintings of the American West, slated to open October 11, 2019 and close January 9, 2020. It will feature approximately 50 paintings, photographs, and textiles from museums across the country, the TMA permanent collection, and select private loans. Showcasing works of art of the West from the latter half of the 19th century juxtaposed with works produced over a century later, this exhibition explores the intersection and significance of landscape imagery within the context of the time it was created as well as from the lens of the 21st century.

In the mid-to-late-19th century, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Hill, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and other artists applied academic and illuminating painting techniques in landscape images of the Western Frontier. They sought to depict the sublime: an aesthetic ideal composed of immense natural settings, vibrant color, and an emotional or spiritual charge that instilled awe or inspired fear. These artists traveled the wagon trails, accompanied governmental expeditions, and witnessed the vastness and beauty of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Southwest deserts, and other natural phenomena. In addition, early landscape photography provided evidence of the expansive scenery while presenting the most impactful and dramatic viewpoints. Carleton Watkins and Edweard Muybridge were among the daring photographers who stood upon dangerous terrain to capture extensive land formations. Between these two art forms, they were often the first images of the West seen by the public. The panoramic views of nature came to reflect the bourgeoning identity and cultural awareness of the United States at the time, stirring mythic notions about spacious skies, towering mountains, bubbling geysers, massive trees, and dry deserts found in the West.

The philosophical construct of the sublime has been tied strongly to Western landscapes, and over the past century, has left a lasting impact. There are living artists who follow in the footsteps of those who brought the West to the world, applying their own stylistic methods and ideas in contemporary art works based on natural settings. Many examine environmental, cultural, and social issues related to the land or continue to portray the romantic ideal. Some make a connection to personal heritage and spirituality, while other artists focus on the effects of modern industrialization and tourism. P.A. Nisbet follows the aesthetic of the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain School painters, and Karen Kitchel looks at a microcosm of the landscape: the grasses below our feet. Shonto Begay and James Lavadour concentrate on the transcendent quality of nature in relation to their personal experiences. Selections of their work, with several other renditions of contemporary landscape images, are to be included in the exhibition, and offer opportunities for discovery found in the vast, or subtle, natural features of the West.

The exhibition, through its rigorous scholarship and diverse programs for all ages, continues to reflect the TMA mission of “connecting art to life.” A symposium is planned for Spring 2019, as well as curator-led tours, art demonstrations, artist talks, as well as youth activities for K-12 audiences. TMA is collaborating with various community partners at local colleges, science and nature conservation organizations, as well as museums to produce interactive and engaging programming related to themes within the exhibition.

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