Mississippi River, the Father of Waters, may be North America's single-most
important geographic feature. Its length (over 2350 miles) , its power
(612,000 cubic feet/second empty into the Gulf), and economic importance
(billions in commerce are generated annually) describe a force that
demands our attention. It holds an important place in American popular
culture as well, having been the subject of a great American novel (The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ) and one of the great musicals
of the American theater (Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat"
, whose signature song is "Ol' Man River"). Critic Simon
Schama says in Landscape and Memory (1995) that water courses carry
the "freight of history," and certainly the Mississippi River,
the source of countless myths, legends and traditions, carries the "freight"
of our country's history.
It is curious, then, that the Mississippi River was not a subject tackled
by the major landscape artists of the nineteenth century, America's
greatest period of environmental painting. Using locals from Niagara
Falls to the Rocky Mountains, Asher Durand (1796-1886), Thomas Cole
(1801-1848), Frederick Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
illustrated the frontier to a young and growing nation. They illuminated
the grandeur of America's physical environment and reinforced the political
notions of America's Manifest Destiny. The details of their works demonstrate
both romantic idealism and environmental accuracy often in grand scales
that correspond with their heroic themes.
When examples of Mississippi River subjects occur in nineteenth century
American art, they are local rather than national in size, generic rather
than specific in content, and not at all allegorical. Hyppolite V.V.
Sebron's "Giant Steamboats at New Orleans" (1850) and William
Aiken Walker's "Loading Cotton, New Orleans" (n.d.) depict
commercial life of the Mississppi River and give two views of the River's
working character at New Orleans. For the most part, however, Mississppi
River scenes in the nineteenth century American art are romanticized
representations such as those published by Currier and Ives (notably
Flora Bond Palmer's "A Midnight Race on the Mississippi" )
and August Norieri's "Steamboat Natchez Bound Down the River at
Night" (1890). The Currier and Ives views were made accessible
to national audiences through advances in printing technology and new
means of distribution, and their availability and appealing subject
matter made them attractive to an increasing middle class. These views
of life on the Mississippi are less about specific sites than they are
about nostalgic images of generic life on the River.
In Louisiana, environmental inspiration for nineteenth century artists
came primarily from local swamps and bayous, lakes and waterways rather
than from the Mississippi River. The works of artists such as Richard
Clague (1821-1873), William Henry Buck (1827-1888) and Joseph R. Meeker
(1827-1889), long neglected, are now recognized via recent scholarship,
exhibitions, and record sales as forming the basis of a significant
regional movement in American art. Like smaller works of the Hudson
River School and other regional expressions of landscape painting, these
Louisiana landscapes were painted from direct observation. They are
accurate representations of local environmental conditions, and often
specific flora can be discerned. They are usually intimate in scale
and unpretentious in scope. Though the Mississippi River corresponds
in many ways with Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone
Park as a force of nature, it did not command attention from Bierstadt
and his colleagues or from their Louisiana counterparts.
Nineteenth century America moved from an agricultural to an industrial
economy, and as the century ended, artists began to observe urban conditions
and (to a lesser degree) industrial landscapes. Yet, unlike urban realists
such as George Bellows (1882-1925), few early and mid-twentieth century
landscape artists painted the guts of their subjects or portrayed environmental
scenes as symbols of industrial currency. Landscape views continued
to be idealized, romanticized, and to a great degree, sanitized of their
As the twentieth century evolved, there was renewed interest in regionalism,
realism, and large-scale works, reinforced by public works initiatives
of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Generic (rather than
specific) environmental features were used allegorically with the panoramic
spaciousness seen first in nineteenth century landscapes. Murals, commissions
for post offices, schools, and public libraries throughout America,
depicted shared ideals and common beliefs through local agrarian, commercial
or industrial subjects (often with controversial socialist overtones).
Out of this narrative and allegorical tradition came Louisiana's own
John McCrady (1911-1968). His magnum opus, "Mississippi River"
(1945-46), recently removed from public view in New Orleans to a private
collection in Houston, may be this century's grandest view of the Mississippi
River. Its size (6'6" x 14'), compositional strength, and dramatic
use of light compare favorably with nineteenth century counterparts,
while its narrative quality expresses stories not immediately evident.
This is, briefly stated, the evolution of landscape painting in America,
and it is within this context that Simon Gunning paints. Like many of
his artist predecessors, Gunning came into his present environment and
culture from a foreign country (Australia). With him came an outsider's
sharp eye for urban context, an appreciation for the qualities of local
light and color, and the capacity to show these elements in ways that
natives may never have seen. This is why Simon Gunning's views of the
lower Mississippi, shown in this exhibition of new works, have such
power: he captures its industrial essence and gritty ambiance.
Sebron's and Walker's nineteenth century views of the New Orleans riverfront
are populated with riverboats, cotton bales and dockhands, and McCrady's
romantic version shows cavorting youth, plantation houses, and steamboats.
For Gunning, the River is a place of labor and commerce. His views are
populated not with people but instead with artifacts of the maritime
industry. His river is about the reality of messy and dangerous work
(perhaps now in the decline of its commercial relevance) and about how
this incomparable geographic element has defined commerce and delineated
urban form. Gunning shows us the River's architecture and vehicles,
the up-river detritus, and the environmental impact that often results
from industrial uses. Even the smells of wet rope, diesel fuel, and
the creosote of worn pilings are here. Gunning's work suggests that
maritime commerce in New Orleans at the conclusion of the twentieth
century depends less on people than on machinery for existence.
While Gunning's works are not necessarily landscapes of the traditional
sense of nineteenth or twentieth century precedents, they are landscapes
that merit our attention and deserve careful observation. These views
are realistic in that they show us what actually is there. They are
abstract, however, in that they often contain mini-compositions of the
artist's imagination, references totally unrelated to the subject at
hand and relevant only to the artist. Finding these hidden images, whether
or not they are of the artist's invention, will engage the viewer long
after the intricate compositions, vibrant color combinations, and the
sumptuous applications of paint are recognized.
These views are challenging, too, in that they make us ask questions:
why have we not noticed this before? can the River really be so many
different shades of grey, green, blue, and brown, all at the same time?
can this landscape of industry and commerce really be interesting?
Ultimately, Gunning's work shows us the richness of this riverfront
landscape and make us wonder why more artists are not using it as a
source of inspiration. Possibly contemporary artists realize that the
Mississippi River is too big and difficult a subject to tackle with
just paint and canvas. Perhaps the River, carrying the "freight"
of our nation's collective history, requires a narrative or theatrical
format to express, adequately, its complexities. For the public, perhaps
industrial landscapes are not perceived as being "beautiful"
enough for popular consumption or worthy of artistic examination. For
those of us who live near the River, perhaps it is like the elephant
in the room: we all know it is there but no one wants to grapple with
it, or knows how.
Yet, for a visual artist working in New Orleans, the Mississippi River
is perhaps the preeminent environmental feature. The artist's job is
to make us see things from new perspectives, and Gunning's work invites
us to reconsider the Mississippi River through his lens of observation.
In ways similar to what the music and lyrics of Kern and Hammerstein,
the novels of Mark Twain, and the paintings of John McCrady say for
their times, Gunning's works illuminates for our time the industrial
landscape of the lower Mississippi River.
This work, the product of years of observation, could be the beginning
of a longer investigation: the landscape of the Mississippi River might
easily occupy a lifetime. There is still much to be learned from what
the artist's eye sees and what the painter's canvases show us about
this dominant -- though often ignored -- feature in our environment.
And like nineteenth century artists who illuminated the American environment
for an expanding country, Simon Gunning is one who can teach us today
about our River and its impact on our lives.
as a landscape architect, Lake Douglas is an arts administrator.
He writes about design and cultural issues in popular magazines and