Winston Churchill once said “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” This quote as I learned of it came from a book about the Luminist painter Fitz H. Lane, a transcendental-influenced Unitarian. The author, James A. Craig had something more to say on the way time relates to ourselves and the age we occupy.
“Steamships and railroads may have their day, cities may stretch from one end of the continent to the other, but ultimately these achievements will prove short-lived. While mans presence on the landscape will prove fleeting, spiritual truth, like these boulders, will endure.”
The view is one not unfamiliar to Western Pennsylvania “Scalp Level” painters like George Hetzel. The Scalp level school is considered a subset of the Hudson River School. Fitz Lane was not a Hudson River School artist, per se, but during his career went from painting busy harbor scenes to quiet and timeless harbors almost devoid of human activity.
The quote brought me to thinking about Pittsburgh and its art and our inability to look back far enough to see the future.
I can’t think of too many timeless images of Pittsburgh. The images that come to mind are primarily pubescent images of Pittsburgh landscapes almost always telling a story of a busy inland port. Even these images are overshadowed by images of Pittsburgh as a manufacturing center. Yet before the sky was brightened by factory flames, the city thrived without smoke and factories. Even farther back and we find a serene and timeless natural setting the Scalp Level or Hudson River painters would have found enticing.
Today we are confronted with several realities that are sure to shape our future to one degree or another. One of these is global warming, which has already returned many of us back to an age when nature was a conquerer more often than something conquered.
The short days of heavy industry in Pittsburgh are certain to grow shorter as our history grows longer. The physical Pittsburgh in the 2030s may more closely resemble the Pittsburgh of the 1830s than the smoky Pittsburgh of the 1950s.
A need to reduce greenhouse gasses and the arrival of peak oil may bring our city with a declining population to live closer to the geographical boundaries of previous centuries. The rivers, once a depository for waste, are again becoming the center of our life and image. The beauty of the landscape will continue to return. As oil becomes scarce, local farming, and even basic product manufacturing may again become practical, profitable and necessary.
Industry will not be likely to grow to anything comparable to the 1960s, but local industry like cabinet-making, carpentry, glass making and even textiles could become more of a necessity everywhere. Pittsburgh will again be an exporter, and the rivers will again see far more than coal barges. Not to be mistaken, it won’t be 1830 all over again. The technology we have and continue to develop won’t go away and will be our primary export then as now.
Since the time of the Scalp Level painters and Fitz Lane we have lost our ability to see the timeless beauty of our Pittsburgh. We’re not interested in art depicting such landscapes as the camera sent art in a myriad of directions more than a century ago. Transcendentalist thought was interrupted by Charles Darwin and a new view of nature as a violent struggle. Yet modern art may have to eventually look to the future by looking back to the Hudson River School.
While the Scalp Level painters here in Western Pennsylvania revolted at our emerging industry and sought to capture a disappearing natural landscape, eventually painters like Aaron Gorson came to see beauty even in our industrial landscape. For good or bad, that landscape was not timeless.
Today then it is perhaps a challenge for us to take on a task not unlike that at hand for Gorson. Artists in Pittsburgh and elsewhere can look forward by going back and attempting, despite the violent struggles of evolution and an increasingly hostile climate, and see the timeless wonder of our world once again.