A Feminine Approach to Landscape

by Julia Bradshaw

Karen Haas, Neighbors' Backyard II, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 36", 1997.


It is possible to postulate that there are gender differences in the approach men and women take towards creating landscape art. Particularly when taking a historical perspective one can easily argue that women were not afforded the opportunity to set their art in the same sweeping vistas that were available to, say, John Constable (1776 1837). However, it could be argued that the same lack of opportunity which prohibited women from embracing the wide expansive landscapes of Constable, also allowed women to develop their own intimate approach to landscape. This article postulates that there has been a uniquely feminine approach to landscape and that this uniquely feminine approach remains with us, to some extent, today.

Take the nineteenth century literature of two British authors as an example: Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Jane Austens nineteenth century literature paints a descriptive but restrictive landscape of the intimacies of a household. In writing her novels she confined herself to describing the lifestyles of one narrow aspect of English society, rarely depicting the landscape beyond the drawing room. On the other hand, Hardys literature evokes a painterly expansive vista of the heaths and environs of rustic England. Not only was Hardy able to describe an environment that crosses the lines of society but he was also able to roam descriptively across the open spaces of rural England.

Compare the broad landscapes evoked by Hardy with Austens finely penned novels and we recognize that her detailed commentary of society life is a direct result of her personal observations as a spinster sister confined to a series of family homes. Due to strictures imposed on women of the gentility in this era, Austen was not free to travel or to write with conviction about life outside of her sphere. Indeed, she was so constricted in her choice of occupation that her nephew recalled: [s]he was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper.1 Contrast her act of writing and her lifestyle with that of Thomas Hardy, who also wrote predominantly in the nineteenth century. We note that Hardy was able to enjoy the life of a literary celebrity and even traveled to the continent on occasion.

It is this historical difference in opportunity that I believe initially created alternative gender responses to landscape art. Art historian Lucy R. Lippard goes further. In her essay Undertones: Nine Cultural Landscapes2 she suggests that men have dominated the field of landscape photography, just as men have dominated the land itself. For example, some of the controlling images of photographic landscape belong to Ansel Adams and his images of Yosemite and the West. These images are spare of human impact and the landscape is treated in a reverent but distant manner. In Lippards view the dramatic spectacles of the BLM (Boys Landscape Movement) ... constitute an aftertaste of frontier heroics in which the bigger the land looked, the bigger the men who conquered it were reflected.

I concur that at one time or another, men developed a frontiersmans mentality towards landscape art. However, I would also argue that, at the same time as Adams created his BLM images, women were developing their own intimate approach to landscape. This intimate approach required a familiar and accustomed knowledge of the immediate landscape. Partly, this approach was borne out of confinement.

One of the initial reasons women used their immediate surroundings as a basis for their art was a lack of opportunity to travel elsewhere. In the 1930s, the photographer Imogen Cunningham, a contemporary and acquaintance of Ansel Adams, was also confined (for a time) tousing her immediate surroundings as subject matter for her artwork. Talking to the oral historian Edna Tartual Daniel about her series of photographs on flora, Cunningham noted: The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldnt get out of my backyard when my children were small. That was when I started photographing what I had in my garden. Consequently, the ability of women to create art from the immediate neighborhood should be seen as a celebration of creativity over confinement.

Although contemporary women artists are rarely without the opportunity to travel, the ability to create landscape art based on intimate domestic surroundings has not been discarded. For example, in contrast to the BLMs images of the land devoid of human presence, San Jose artist, Karen Haas, in her My Neighbors Backyard series, depicts the everyday artifacts of backyard life. Through their artifacts, people are present in Haass landscapes and, unlike Adamss landscapes which spirit you away from the reality of mans interaction with the environment, you are forced to consider your own relationship to your neighbors backyard. Haass approach to her art-making also forces intimacy. By taking photographs over an extended period of time, Haas goes through a period of self-discovery and reflection, confronting her own personal response to her environment before translating these newly discovered images into artworks on canvas.

By going through this period of self-discovery, Haas is conforming to Lippards view that many women artists are more interested in the local/personal/political aspects of landscape than in the godlike big picture, and tend to be more attuned to the reciprocity inherent in the process of looking into places. Indeed, Haass observations of her neighborhood suggest a mutual reciprocity. Haas uses her visual commentary in her artwork to understand and make peace with an environment that may initially feel foreign, but later becomes part of her comfort and reality.
Furthermore, these visual personal observations of the neighborhood apparent in Haass My Neighbors Backyard series follow a rich tradition of storytelling which has been present in womens art long before women became part of the recognized art scene. Women storytellers, women quiltmakers, female gossips, all turned to their local environment as a source for their observations and as a basis for their art.

The place of local folklore and storytelling in womens literature and art continues. In her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1991), Zora Neale Hurston wrote about the most ordinary things and made them vibrant. By doing so, she was building upon her scholarly tradition of collecting folklore as a trained anthropologist. Fortunately for us, the folklore she collected inspired her to create narrative fiction. Hurston found that by writing down these oral traditions as an artist, she broke the mystique of connection between literary authority and patriarchal power.

Likewise, Haas, in her series My Neighbors Backyard, is also creating art as a form of visual anthropology. By collecting visual stories about her neighbors and the neighborhood of San Jose and by representing these stories in paint or photographs, Haas is awakening her sensibilities to her environment. She is choosing the ordinary and making the ordinary vibrant. As Haas writes: From a window of our house, I observed the changing backyard of our neighbors. I came to appreciate their use of space, the visual appeal of their objects and their spontaneous juxtapositions of them. I am fascinated by the many varieties of people who live together in this neighborhood, and who have no idea of each others separate lives. Thus, by photographing the ordinary everyday activities of life in San Jose, such as the activities in her neighbors backyard, or by watching the women walking by pushing their strollers, Haas has become a collector of stories in the rich tradition of the anthropologist.

Of course, nowadays, the female artist is not just confined to her immediate environment in pursuing landscape in art. However, it remains less likely that a female artist will view the landscape as a frontier to be conquered or as part of a wide sweeping vista, devoid of people. Instead, when traveling further afield, a female artist will likely be questioning her own personal or political response to the environment and producing work that demands a sense of reciprocity and intimacy with the landscape. "

1 James E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870).
2 L. R. Lippard, Undertones: Nine Cultural Landscapes published in Reframings, New American Feminist Photographies edited by Diane Neumaier (Temple Univ. Press, 1995), page 38.

Julia Bradshaw is a predominantly self-taught photographer currently living in Los Gatos.
She has spent the majority of her artist career living in Munich, Germany.

Artists in Relation to the Landscape

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