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Visual Fields

“How would you teach a naturalist to look at art?” Such was the prompt from Sumanth Prabhaker, editor-in-chief of Orion, that led to the launch of Visual Fields in Spring 2023. Each column defines a compositional element in an artwork related to nature, then uses that formal element as a lens to explore related environmental topics.

A perfect dovetailing of my research interests, Visual Fields also draws upon my past experience as an art history instructor, teaching students how to probe the meaningfulness of artworks through formal analysis. How might an artist’s use of symmetry complement her subject matter and reinforce her intended message? How might the dark tonal values of a painting in a low key help create a certain atmosphere? And in artworks pertaining to nature, how might these elements reflect ecological concerns, deepen our understanding thereof, and even encourage action?

Whether contemporary or historical, art always plays a role in mirroring society but also in shaping it. Learning how its formal aspects contribute to meaning and affect is thus a crucial component of visual literacy. Guided by this premise, Visual Fields aims to become a glossary of art terms in an environmental context: a guidebook for naturalists in the gallery.

A sample column from Summer 2023 can be read in full below. Current and past quarterly issues of Orion, as well as print and digital subscriptions, are available for purchase on the magazine’s website.

Visual Fields

Low Key

Orion Magazine, Summer 2023, pp. 74–75

Eduard Leonhardi, Waldeinsamkeit (Forest Solitude), 1859.

Oil on canvas, 66.8 × 55.9 cm. Collection of Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

Image: Creative Commons


Vor langer Zeit, long ago, a wanderer from over the mountains and across the sea found herself lost, deep in the dimmest wood. Not in the Black Forest along the Rhine, nor Grunewald Forest in Berlin, but the German Forest, der Deutsche Wald: the idolized wilderness of Romantic dreams. She had strayed into a metaphor. Landscapes were supposed to have horizons, but this prospect had none – only a hint of sky beyond the trees, with scant light penetrating the understory. True, it was wild, even menacing, but quietude presided over the adumbral tangle. The wanderer recognized the treasure she had sought, ill-lit and subjective as it was. This singular feeling had no name in her own language, but she would later describe it, wistfully, as the somber clarity one achieves through seclusion amongst the trees.

Her treasure was Waldeinsamkeit. Translated literally as forest loneliness or solitude, this was a common title for Romantic artists and is still a familiar conceit. In many countries, Romanticism popularized the exaltation of nature and revived folklore as a means of preserving national character; against these idealized backdrops, individual experience and emotional expression could take center stage. In Germany, it was specifically the forest – the liminal setting of many a Brothers Grimm fairy tale or Wagnerian opera –that became the coveted symbol of the nation’s psyche. And it was sublime, in the Romantic sense: awe-inspiring and beautiful, yes, but heady and ominous too. Dark, in all meanings of the word.

Buttressing this archetypical image, Eduard Leonhardi’s Waldeinsamkeit (1859) imagines the forest as rugged and unified through rich browns and greens that differ in hue but are similar in value, that is, their tonal lightness or darkness. Its insistence on the darker end of the value spectrum makes it a painting in a low key. Such a tonal palette creates a contemplative mood, especially in the shallow space of this scene that borders on confronting. Leonhardi’s forest is grounded, and although tenebrous, it is grounding; it represents a place of longing, and when at last we arrive, it is all-encompassing.

The forest has maintained its mythic potency in Germany over the years, transcending ideology and politics. But its tale is not one of imperviousness. “There is a cyclic logic of enchantment and disenchantment that is indispensable to the fairy tale,” folklorist (and German national) Dr. Romina Werth explained to me, and perhaps the same is true of human rhythms within Germany’s woodlands. These trees have been revered, clear-cut, recultivated, polluted, restored. Alongside recent threats of aridity and blight, a renewed interest in Waldeinsamkeit means more people seeking solace in the forests than ever before.

In Leonhardi’s painting, however, the wanderer into this wood is not you, the viewer. Consider within its low key the highest shade, white: the compound umbels of the tall, slender plant – separated by a bright puddle from the foremost tree, the lower portion of its trunk also highlighted – distinguish our central protagonist. This pilgrim is almost certainly giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), native to the Western Caucasus and introduced to Germany as an ornamental species around 1850. There, and elsewhere in Europe and North America, it quickly escaped from garden borders to become a well-established invasive. Here, the hogweed leans confrontationally toward the midmost tree, the delegate of the native forest. Allow your eyes to be drawn, naturally, to the high value of its pure white flowers, but don’t be tempted to touch: giant hogweed sap is phototoxic, causing blisters, even blindness.

Was this an innocent wanderer seeking forest solitude in a low key, a secluded place to achieve, unimpeded, her full twelve-foot height? Or was she a wicked sorceress, dressed deceitfully in resplendent inflorescence, poised to conquer new territory by casting a seed-borne spell? Today, the villains laying waste to Germany’s trees are not giant hogweeds, but European spruce bark beetles; in synergy with high temperatures and other factors, beetle infestations are absolutely devastating forests throughout the country. Leonhardi could not have predicted this recent chapter, and could not know how his story would end before his paint would dry. But then, neither can we, for enchantment might always cycle around again.

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