Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Picturesque

In Ellen Harvey’s Room of Sublime Wallpaper, Harvey plays with the idea of the picturesque. She takes the term; which defines an aesthetic ideal that emerged from the Romantic era, and translates it in a contemporary manner. During romanticism, nature was no longer feared and having the time to experience and enjoy it was a luxury. Nature was then idealized and owning a landscape painting provided the owner an opportunity to escape their gray, industrial world and be transported to a romanticized wilderness. A picturesque scene would relax viewers and make them feel as though they truly owned a piece of nature. Harvey even stated that she wanted the exhibit to have the effect of picturesque-hunters attempting to frame scenery with their ‘Claude Glasses’ on a leisure afternoon. The idea of taking a shard out of a vast landscape and claiming that single piece as the most beautiful or the most picturesque is what fascinates Harvey, and The Room of Sublime Wallpaper is her attempt at ‘capturing’ her own vistas.

In the exhibit, the viewer sees the back wall of a room covered with newspaper and landscape paintings. Upon entering, it becomes apparent that the paintings are actually mirrors reflecting landscapes painted on panels that make up the walls of the room; which aren’t visible from the exterior. The picturesque is immediately tainted with reflections of humans obstructing the beautiful view. This is the primary message of the exhibit. Humans are unable to appreciate nature from afar and once they step ‘in it’ they ruin its beauty with their presence. As people enter the room and realize the quaint mountains are not paintings, but mirrors, they immediately disregard nature and become absorbed with their own reflection. The Room of Sublime Wallpaper is effective and makes one notice the difference between viewing nature from afar and having the need to experience and be in it.

I find it important to note that in Eastern landscape painting, humans are secondary to nature and illustrated minuscule. In Western painting, humans are the primary focus and nature is often blurred in the background and considered an accessory. Harvey’s exhibit reflects the Eastern principles of nature and The Room of Sublime Wallpaper informs viewers that it’s foolish to try to frame nature. Nature is too sublime to capture and if one attempts to frame it, he/she will fail, realizing it’s impossible to attain the picturesque.


  1. I think one thing that might be interesting to investigate is the fact that Ellen Harvey does in fact hand paint these fairly large vistas that the viewer is first given only a moment of and then has taken away altogether. It's as though she's saying that while we cannot so simply capture and produce the sublime, while we cannot render some easy formula for the picturesque, there's still some level of human input, or attempt, or drive behind it. Otherwise why paint it? Why make the whole thing by hand for a few simple steps of illusion and deception that you're going to put the viewer through? She could've just as easily plastered a large photo or print onto the walls an achieved much of the same illusion and re-enforced the idea of this ruination. Instead she's labored over representation and the human effort to describe what one expects to be sublime, while presenting it in a way that denies that realization. She's created a contradiction and the work rests comfortably within a kind of conflict of terms. I think this is as interesting as the way the viewer initially sees the work: fractured, distanced, and inevitably obstructed by themselves and others. But, after you've entered, after you've immersed yourself in breaking the illusion, it seems all you have to do is turn around to find it again.

  2. I agree that Ms Harvey captures the viewer philosophically as we are led into her picturesque display of the sublime with what is seen from the distance as a gallery of paintings. We are lured into the lofty majestic imagery and the infinity of space only to be confronted with close ups of our own image in the end. We get framed by the same mirrors that once held the grandeur of mountainous landscapes. That grandeur is further minimized by the newspaper glued to the walls and the faux wainscotting. A painting can never replace the original, as it is only a subjective interpretation of it. In this installation, what seems like an attempt to inspire others with it's beauty, in turn, ends up objectifying us the viewer. What we perceive as picturesque scenery taking place in nature is really just a facsimile of the real that bears only a resemblance to it as we try to perfect our idea of beauty through nature. In the end we are confronted with ourselves, an inverse examination of the sublime beauty and our projection of what that is on nature. It's only our imagination that's real. Any sense about the lofty ideals of beauty are brought down to the banality of self, a component of the sublime.