What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn in Art History

Following the word “landscape” gives us richer history of the categories of political and economic organization at stake when we talk about city, nation, or other spaces. The Dutch Landskip or German Landschaft was a system of political and economic government that emerged in the sixteenth century for the purposes of managing the collective irrigation and diking projects upon which the early-modern Netherlands depended.[1] Landschaft, like Gesellschaft, defined a certain type of modern organization: in this case, a relationship between a local political institution and the land. The term was immediately extended from land and government to their representation in graphic depictions, the landskip paintings and masques that emerged in the early modern Netherlands as a tool for creating civic cohesion by other means.  Landscape engineering was imported to Britain in the seventeenth- eighteenth century by the Dutch engineers hired to embank the fens of East Anglia, the Dutch gardeners hired to redesign the estates of English gentry into the image of rationalized order, and the Dutch surveyors recruited to represent the estate in the graphic format of the landscape painting that hung on every manor hall.[2] In the era of Joshua Reynolds, landscape painting was an administrative task, the relative of the state surveying projects proliferating under the crown and gentry; it was a form of politics, not art. By the end of the century, landscape had become a public political issue characterized by outspoken contest: poets, playwrights and painters manufactured their own landscapes to draw attention to the unforeseen social consequences of landscape engineering in the form of enclosure and mass displacement.[3]

This role of landscape painting was expanded in the nineteenth century through the work of nationalist painters, especially Americans like Thomas Cole who used the canvas as an advertisement for westward expansion in the era of the Erie Canal.[4] In an era of colonization, paintings of landscape, settlement, and exploration became a focus of consumption in the New York, Paris, and London, the subject of dioramas and visual spectaculars that attracted crowds of viewers. Driven by scientific objectivity and the budding consumption of visual phenomena, landscape matured into a philosophy of aesthetic appreciation. By 1882, William McKendree Bryant, influential essayist on education, could draw on romantic-period philosophers from Visscher to Emerson to argue that landscape painting was a fulcrum of rational pedagogy, the direct “manifestation of the one, absolute, divine, creative Reason."[5]

It was at this moment that the historical study of landscape painting became wed to the history of visual perception and human civilization. The invention of linear perspective in the renaissance offered, for Bryant, a peculiar key to the history of human experience. It was "beyond the range of mathematical rules," Bryant suggested, and therefore proved "the spiritual endowments of the artist" and his age.  In the fourteenth-century landscapes of hill and plane in the background of altarpieces by Henry van Eyck and Fra Angelico, Bryant found "feeling and intelligence" proving a new "tendency of the human spirit." Their work was the first signal of "a steadily increasing clearness and penetration in man's view of, and a consequent deepening of his sympathy with, nature."[6]

Twentieth-century scholars of art became reflective about the social interpretation of landscape in the 1960s through the influence of theorists like Cassirer, Dilthey, and Eliade. In 1965, art historian Otto Benesch defined the origins of linear perspective by describing how Altdorfer became the first to paint the "overwhelming richness of uncouth nature," leaving an imprint on the German renaissance far more profound than that of the Italian. He and his successors identified the advent of realism with the exponential urge to name associated with both capitalism and the scientific mindset.[7]

The study of architectural plans and urban layouts dates from the birth of architecture and art history in the late nineteenth century. With Jacob Burkhardt, historians began to treat the built environment explicitly as the indicator of cultural tendencies. Burkhardt’s student Heinrich Wofflin formalized the comparison of architectural styles in his works on Renaissance and Baroque, defining the discipline as the study of particular thresholds in the making of the modern built environment. Through the work of Pevsner, Giedion, and Banham, twentieth-century historians trained themselves to describe the evolution of particular building types according to social and technological innovations.[8]

The study of historical maps evolved with the cultural turn, foregrounding the symbolism of power in enlightenment cartography, the application of cartography in modern social engineering projects, and the contestation of expert mapping in the twentieth century. From the 1980s forward, literary scholars and art historians began to inspect the cartouches and texts of Tudor and enlightenment atlases for cues about the myth of the continents and the origins of centralized bureaucracy.[9] These early studies loosely followed a program of showing evidence that maps, like other texts, could be read against the grain to reveal the prejudices of power. Historian J. B. Harley's study of enlightenment espionage explained that furtive mapping was carried out by most of the militaries of eighteenth-century Europe, establishing a pattern where “political silences” show up as “white spaces.”[10]

Recent scholarship by geographers like David Pinder and Adrian Rifkin has explored ties between these histories of visual experiences and the contemporary urban sphere, where “disneyfied” suburban design has limited interaction. ew artists like Jean-Pierre le Goff and Manhattan street artist Swoon have experiemented with temporary coffee shops, flash mobs, and walking tours, which "encourag[e] participants to adopt different routes, or sought to defamiliarize routine paths and practices.”[11]

The long history of spatial relationships with our environment, mediated through the visual sense, only became the historical subject of research in the late nineteenth century. Work on linear perspective and the map has served as an inspiration to cultural geographers, social historians, and other scholars working in a variety of disciplines, pushing us to recognize how varied are our relationships with the environment around us.

[1] John R. Stilgoe, “Landschaft and Linearity: Two Archetypes of Landscape,” Environmental Review: ER 4, no. 1 (1980): 2-17; Barbara Bender, “Place and Landscape,” in Handbook of Material Culture, ed. Christopher Tilley (London: Sage Publications, 2006), 303–324.

[2] Kenneth Olwig, Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America's New World (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

[3] Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

[4] R. J. O’Brien, American Sublime: Landscape and Scenery of the Lower Hudson Valley (Columbia University Press, 1981). J Baird Callicott, “The Land Aesthetic,” Environmental History 7, no. 4 (1983): 345–358. Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States, Human Geography (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1993); Jonathan Bordo, “Picture and Witness at the Site of the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (January 2000): 224. A. Byerly, “Rivers, Journeys, and the Construction of Place in Nineteenth-Century English Literature,” The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory and the Environment (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2002): 77–96; E. Blake, “Zograscopes, Virtual Reality, and the Mapping of Polite Society in Eighteenth-century England,” New media (2003): 1740–1915.

[5] William McKendree Bryant, Philosophy of Landscape Painting ((St. Louis, Mo): The St. Louis News Co., 1882), 39.

[6] Ibid, 26, 27-8, 31.

[7] Otto Benesch, The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe: Its Relation to the Contemporary Spiritual and Intellectual Movements (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1945); Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). More recent scholarship places these developments in the political context of Protestant and Catholic struggles over territory in Germany and the Dutch resistance to empire. Christopher S Wood, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (London: Reaktion Press, 1993).  Simon Schama, “Culture as Foreground,” in Peter C Sutton et al., Masters of 17th-Century Dutch Landscape Painting (Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 64-83.

[8] David Watkin, The Rise of Architectural History (London: Architectural Press, 1980);  S. Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture; the Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1941); For the historiography, see Donald Olsen, “The City as a Work of Art,” in Derek Fraser and Anthony Sutcliffe, eds, The Pursuit of Urban History (1983), 264-85; John Gloag, The Architectural Interpretation of History (New York, 1975), esp. Ch 1. Sigfried Giedion, “History and the Architect,” Journal of Architectural Education (1947-1974) 12, no. 2 (Summer 1957): 14-16.  David Matless, “Topographic Culture: Nikolaus Pevsner and the Buildings of England,” History Workshop Journal 54, no. 1 (September 1, 2002): 73-99.  John Gloag, The Architectural Interpretation of History (London: A. & C. Black, 1975).  Spiro Kostof, “Architecture, You and Him: The Mark of Sigfried Giedion,” Daedalus 105, no. 1 (Winter 1976): 189-204.

[9] A History of Curiosity: The Theory of Travel, 1550-1800 (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), 344. Helgerson, Stagl

[10] J. B. Harley, “Silences and Secrecy: The Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe,” Imago Mundi 40, no. 1 (1988): 59 ff.; J. B. Harley, "Deconstructing the Map," Cartographica 26:2 (1989): 1-20.  For the limits of Harley’s ability to see the map as a site of the production of knowledge, Barbara Belya, “Images of Power: Derrida/Foucault/Harley,” Cartographica 29, no. 2 (October 1, 1992): 1-9.

[11] David Pinder, “Arts of Urban Exploration,” Cultural Geographies 12, no. 4 (October 2005): 395