I’ve been reading "The Art of Travel," by Alain de Botton, which is, incidentally, a great book. Concepts in the book have corresponded in poignant ways to our journey. He discusses the idea of the sublime in western perception of landscapes, starting in the mid-eighteenth century. It reminded me of some wonderful college courses I’d taken on landscape painting and history of the same era, taught by Prof. Henry Sayre.
Scientific discoveries on evolution and the formation of landscapes during that era corresponded with the "sublime landscape." People felt a new mastery over the land, and over some of the mysteries of life.
As a result, some began to question their religious beliefs. And for some, religious awe was transferred to nature, and the wonder of the landscape, and of nature’s creation — the forest as cathedral. Hence the interest in the sublime landscape — a landscape they felt, despite their knowledge, was overwhelming, and more ancient and inscrutable than humans could fathom.
Places like Uluru feel this way. They briefly make you indifferent to human concerns — make you realize you’re just a blink in the metaphorical eye of the universe.
The era’s new-found awe for the scarier bits of nature resulted in paintings that broke out of the traditional, calm pastoral landscape style. The majestic North and South American landscapes of Frederic Church, or the tumultuous seascapes of Joseph Turner fall into this new category of landscape. I’m negligent in knowing whether Australia has a similar tradition, but the landscape is certainly deserving.
"The Art of Travel" also discusses Wordsworth’s belief in the restorative powers of nature. Seeing this much countryside, without much evidence of human existence, definitely gives a feeling of calm. It allows one to follow trains of thoughts that just wouldn’t happen on the New York subway.
Also mentioned in "Art of Travel" is Ruskin’s belief in the power of drawing to help you see — that it’s not about creating an amazing drawing, but rather, to be able to observe the subtle lichens growing on the red rock that the non-drawer wouldn’t notice. I’m now aching to draw. I think less literal forms of creation — compositional or abstract — can be just as good for the mind — perhaps they’re more about observation of internal ideas and connections than the external.
The book also touched on Van Gogh’s Arles landscapes, and his way of seeing the colors and forms of the land. The ideas of editing and expressing colors and auras and shapes in ones own way — seeing ones own truth of a landscape — could well have been applied to the distinct features of the outback — beautiful juxtapositions of red dirt and pale green, sagey, dusty blue, army green plants, and painterly twisted trunks,
The panorama we encountered several days before was also adjacent to this general set of ideas. The medium of the panorama was discussed in those college art history classes. In addition to traditional paintings, and devices like the stereoscope, panoramas were expressions of people’s new-found interest in the sublime. They gave a visual idea of the new and exciting frontier, a sometimes fictional majestic landscape. They were also a form of pre-television entertainment.