Stephen Shore, U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon. 1973

Windows to the World: From Landscape Painting to Instagram


Landscape paintings were once a significant feature of the domestic interior. What is it about the interior—the antithesis of landscape—that creates a corresponding impulse to escape, to be out in the world?  Over the last century, landscape painting has fallen out of fashion, but images of landscapes still proliferate in the interiors of our homes as well as our phones and desktop screensavers.  How does the contradiction between the interior and landscape’s view onto the world play itself out in our domestic settings, workplaces and virtual spaces?

Alberti's Treatise on Painting (1435) suggests that constructing a painting is akin to defining a window onto the world.  According to Alberti, painting becomes a way of translating a spatial experience of the outside world into an illusion of space using perspective.[1] Alberti's use of the window as a metaphor for this process also implies that painting is not so much an immersive experience, but one that is already integrated into a domesticating system of architecture.  Through these windows, the viewpoint is singular, space is contained, and the frame imposes rectilinear limits on our vision.  The windowbecomes the structure that directs the view, producing the spectator.
In Alberti's time, painting was the significant image-producing technology.  Today we are bombarded with so many image-producing platforms, but the metaphor of the window as our positional relationship to the images we consume of the outside world persists. Television promised to be a window to the world bringing moving images from afar into families’ living rooms.[2]  This initial iteration of screen-as-window was a harbinger for future developments in computers. Tellingly, in 1985, Microsoft renamed its graphical operating system from “Interface Manager” to Windows. With it, the concept of interaction between user and computing environment was replaced with an image of transparency, suggesting the construction of a new virtual architecture into which a new kind of viewer is ensconced.

When we engage with image-producing technologies, we are accustomed to understanding them as windows that provide a view onto that which is not physically before us.  To what degree do these windows actually provide the view out onto the world that we are promised and to what degree do these windows become part of an insulating structure, like a wall, that relegates us to a perpetual interior?
 Rene Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933

As far as landscape is concerned, the view out through painting’s windows shifts according to the West's changing relationship to nature.  In the Renaissance, renderings of landscape often imply a fear and mistrust of landscape; nature was seen as the godless domain, a place of danger, demons and the unknown. In the 19th century, as the wilderness contracted and the problems of urbanism grew, landscape became a central fascination for Romantic painters.  In nature, they saw a spirited place that mirrored their psychological anxieties about mortality and struggle, propelling their quest for the sublime. Something of this romantic relationship to landscape endures through Gauguin, Van Gogh and the Expressionists, but in Cezanne’s paintings, the landscape image is radically unmoored from pathos and allegorical function.

Despite the site-specific titling of his works, Cezanne’s landscapes are not fundamentally concerned with depicting a sense of place, rather they define a space for painterly invention and exploration of space and form. It is clear that Cezanne is strongly situated in his provincial hometown of Aix, but his familiarity with this landscape allows him to leave it for the formal world of painting: color, mark, space. Thus, Cezanne signals the beginning of modernist painting, and the march toward abstraction.  Even for early American Modernists like Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keefe, who saw their painterly engaging with nature as a spiritual endeavor, the power of the landscape is practically ceded to a language that will leave the landscape behind: abstract painting.

By the mid 20th century, landscape painting was largely a regional, peripheral practice while the rarefied language of abstraction grew to become the dominant language for paintings in the modern, and later the corporate, interior. With this development, the window flattened and painting’s illusionistic horizons were traded for a matter-of-fact position in the here-and-now. Now painting is the wall, not the window.  It becomes a place for invention, suggestion, and affect—its language teasing at a myriad of possible associations—while refusing to be specifically located.

 Paul Cezanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906

In the contemporary context, landscape painting is largely relegated to the domain of kitsch interiors in the placeless architectures of hotels, restaurants, and waiting rooms.  In these spaces, their occurrence on walls nearly suggests a placeholder, as if to signal that a painting belongs there on the wall, but the paintings lack perspectival, painterly or theoretical depth—and so they simply perform the task of holding a wall to keep the interior from feeling blank. These landscapes become iterations of an all-too familiar picturesque setting that has no relationship to any real sense of place.  Their suggestion of scenery—think of the painting of beach chairs in a hotel—is trying to pry us from the very clear idea that we are in an anonymous space that desperately lacks any sense of place. These landscapes cannot convince us of being a window to some other place, but perhaps might just distract us long enough to forget how fully we have become subjects of these placeless architectures.  Conversely, high-end hotels and restaurants—which cultivate a sense of being exclusive places—employ abstract painting, as a way of reiterating the designed interior as the destination in itself.

Though landscape painting may have suffered its defeats in the past century, images of places—most notably on our phone-cameras—have proliferated faster than ever.  In her ground-breaking text, On Photography (1973), Susan Sontag brilliantly problematizes photography’s popularization in the 1970’s.    With regard to travel and tourism, she sees tourists from powerful countries (United States, Germany, Japan) dispensed around the world collecting photographs as a way to stay productive—she estimates that they cannot stop working—while re-affirming their acquisitive, consumerist relationship to the world.[3]  The image of the tourist-choked site, a far more international phenomenon now than it was in Sontag’s time, endures now awash with the glow of tiny screens and absent-minded crowds re-making the same pictures that have been made on that site over and over again.  The local, that thing that the tourists have arguably come to witness, is transformed into a spectacle whose reach extends deeper and deeper into the life patterns of the city as the image of the city comes to dominate over the experience of it. 

We witness a doubling down on popular conceptions of the picturesque through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where places are depicted and tagged as escapes, significant returns, and dream-images. Amid the digital clutter of recent technological advances in contemporary popular photography—higher resolution, patina effects, panoramic possibilities—there emerged a ubiquitous but strangely brutish invention: the selfie-stick. Ridiculously low-tech and awkward for the sleek digital age, these extended appendages survive because they accommodate our desire to see ourselves immersed in a sense of place. The selfie-stick extends the witnessing, existential character of the selfie image to include something beyond the isolated subject confronting itself.  The perspective-broadening appendage enables an embeddedness in landscape, a distancing from the camera’s eye to include a sense of positioning, and with it, a notion of place. When watching tourists photograph themselves, it’s easy to simply see a horde mentality at work, or the kind of acquisitive relationship to place that Susan Sontag describes, but there is also perhaps a more generous reading of the phenomenon as it relates to our drive to situate ourselves. Place and the notion of being situated matter more than ever today, in an era characterized by global displacements and the disorienting regime of virtual space. 

Pictures loom large in memory; so much so that we sometimes even confuse what we remember with the pictures that we have seen.  Among our ever-expanding personal photographic archives, there are the landscapes: places we have lived and visited, places we have had significant experiences and realizations.  Though depictions of the outside world, these images contribute to the interior of our selves: our memories, subjectivity, even our sense of identity.   Perhaps it is because of the significant role that landscape and place play in forging a sense of who we are, that we can’t stop picturing ourselves wherever we go. 

Our experiences of place are often predetermined by the pictures that will be made of the experience.  Just watch a tourist take a picture and review its results without looking at the actual, physical landscape being backgrounded.  Indeed, as we move through experience, we also bring the window along with us as a conceptual structure.   We follow the cues of those around us—whether physically present or on our social media feeds—and produce image-worthy experiences.  Despite the force of this predetermination, on rare occasions, our landscape photographs do manage to provide a vital personal view. Perhaps by accident, because of some concurrent experience in place, or due to the mechanics of memory, pictures of places can take on actual significance for our experience of being-in-the-world. At what junctures does the contemporary picturesque disintegrate into a personal experience of place? When does a site become a significant setting for thought, for memory, for experience?


George Shaw, Scenes from the Passion, First day of the Year, 2003

I am drawn to the work of the English painter George Shaw, who has been painting the landscapes around the housing estates where he grew up for the better part of two decades.  When he is written about, it is often in reference to his depiction of working-class England as well as his use of Humbrol paints—designed not for fine art, but for hobbyists painting model figurines and trains.  I find this line of commentary somewhat patronizing.  It is what contributes to the mischaracterization of his work as sentimental, situating the work in a long tradition in Western painting of making poverty picturesque. Conversely, the power of his work lies in how the photographic-based paintings reveal wondrous possibilities for looking around, despite the bleakness.  He finds modernist order in the structure of closed shops, landscapes that suggest Corot but strewn with debris and pornographic magazines, and a haunting sensibility concerning places that are popularly deemed indecent and gritty.  The work is not overtly clever in its art historical associations, rather, it’s the result of the artist’s own enchantment with both place and painting as an adolescent.  He continues to paint all these places where his life happened, and the photographic-derived paintings take on the air of memory.  As viewers we get to walk around in the landscape of his memory.  This could suggest that the paintings allow a kind of class voyeurism, but what I see at work is something quietly revolutionary, Shaw as a employing a Situationist strategy as in Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, in which the act of being attentive to the quotidian aspects of experience are a way of undermining systemic power.[4]

George Shaw, The Back that Used to be the Front, 2008

The paintings maintain a clear connection to the conventions of photographic seeing, but they possess a different, almost stiller, atmosphere.  Amid this hushed atmosphere, there are suggestions of the religious, as in the titling of a major series of his work: Scenes from the Passion.  The paintings posses an aura in the Benjaminian sense, and yet this is complicated by their sourcing from photographic images.

In his essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1933), Walter Benjamin addressed the distinction between modern, reproducible art forms like photography and singular works of art like paintings.  He attributes a fundamental difference in that the singular work (the original) possesses an aura that is lost through reproduction (the copy).[5] Benjamin's idea of aura—a kind of authenticity that is bound to subjectivity, spirituality, and ritual and native to pre-industrial art forms—is interesting in thinking about in the photographic aspects of Shaw’s work.  In the most reductive terms, Shaw’s paintings are hand-made copies of photographs, and yet, the images are so steeped in an atmosphere of the personal that they resonate in terms akin to aura. 

Benjamin is somewhat ambivalent about discarding the subjective aura of the work of art in favor of the universal and revolutionary possibilities of the reproducible.  He wrote this seminal Marxist text as a call to embrace the ideological machinations of new imaging technologies, and yet he seems quite taken by the idea of the aura, despite its abject characterization as a ritualistic remnant of commodity culture. This is a fundamental tension in Benjamin, between the necessity of revolutionary objectivity and his apparent enthrallment with issues of subjectivity. An avid reader of both Proust and Marx, his writing in the Arcades Project teeters between a fascination with the workings of memory as a subjective matter, and the possibilities for a collective revolutionary action.[6]

Benjamin sought a redemptive space where dreams might become collective, where class-consciousness could awaken the masses in the manner that Proust’s memory is spurred by the smell of a Madeleine.  Perhaps Shaw’s work embodies something of this tension—picking up on Benjamin’s image of the flaneur—the detached, itinerant observer of modern life—but the artist’s eye is not bourgeois and disinterested the way the flaneur is, but rather is that of a revolutionary insider picking up on the detritus of commodity capitalism as it manifests in the places the artist knows.  Shaw’s paintings are neither simply personal nor sentimental as they are often mistaken to be; they picture a vernacular of a place, inscribed with the violence of class, sexuality, and boredom, that comes into focus in a deeply personal way.
In a time when our personal digital archives are likely to number in the tens of thousands of images, the possibility that singular images might still resonate attests to a peculiar relationship between memory and the photographic. Benjamin was interested in mass-reproduction of singular images, but today we face a parallel situation in which the inexhaustible production of singular images—predominantly though our phones and social networking platforms—lose their distinction due to their proliferation, not their reproduction.  The reproducible image has lost its significance—and likely its revolutionary potential—while the endless stream of similar, but distinct images—are causing a phenomenon of image fatigue that stands on the threshold of blindness. 

Is there something to be gained by countering the proliferation of images by bringing the singular image into focus?  How might such a process slow down our processing and allow something akin to aura take hold? Perhaps this brings us back, full circle, to the ritualistic role of images in restoring a sense of location, of being-in-the world.  Perhaps this is precisely the ironic turn: that the phenomena connected to individual subjectivity that Benjamin struggled to dispense with are now a revolutionary prerequisite for situating ourselves so that we might begin to fix our gaze through the torrent of the spectacle.  Today our subjectivity is severely compromised by the same social networking technologies that promise a platform for pronouncing them.  The window that defines our vision has broadened and multiplied, but perhaps it is also becoming redundant and repetitive, as it entices and distracts the wandering eye that finds no place to rest, to fix a gaze, to come into being.

[1] Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with
Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University
Press. 1970

[2] Charles I. Coombs. Window on the World. The Story of Television Production. New York:The World Publishing Company. 1965

[3] Sontag, Susan. On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1973. 

[4] Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life. London: Practical Paradise, 1972

[5] Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,1936 in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 3 ed. Eiland, Howard and Jennings, Michael, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2006

[6] Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, ed. Eiland, Howard and McLaughlin, Kevin. London: Belknap Press, 1999