I rushed off to the NG and straight to Ed Ruscha, which was housed in the diminutive room 1. The impact of Ruscha’s work was instant. Vast horizontal canvases commanded the walls, in columns two by two. This was to be an answer to Cole’s ‘Course of Empire’, his most notable work. Ruscha reimagined the Los Angeles landscape by omitting modern additions. But in the cases where he remarked on current erections, he paid homage to what used to be, with faded shop signs. What was most notable and comforting to me, was his signature depiction of skylines.
There were sinister blood red and black skies, moody blue and orange sunsets, and a remarkable number of black and white depictions- which maintained Ruscha’s storytelling, with bleak ready to burst clouds. Bold storefront font cut through the prowess of nature, echoing Cole’s tendency to reference the combative relationship between nature and man.
As I had time to spare and was left intrigued by Ruscha’s references, I popped down to Cole, situated on the floor below.
Unlike Ruscha’s exhibit, Cole’s was grand and I was immediately confronted with his legacy. British born Cole emigrated to America with his family in 1818 when he was just 17; which may explain my lack of awareness of what soon proved to be, a phenomenal artist.
In many ways Cole couldn’t be more unlike Ruscha. Cole is old world, whilst Ruscha is decidedly modern. Cole recreates landscapes with a prophetic undertone, Ruscha reimagines how we might react to colour. Both paint landscapes, but remain within their distinctive camps.
What struck me was the lifelike quality of Cole’s work. Considering his work is centuries old they retain their shine, with a 3D quality that make their standing as paintings almost unbelievable. I admired their dimension and attention to detail in disbelief. In an age where digital rules supreme, it was reassuring to see that such beauty and precision was achievable without the assistance of tech.
I wandered through admiring the many landscapes and the multiple artists inspired by and inspiring to Cole’s work – most notably of all – Claude Lorrain, whose colourful depictions were immediately arresting.
It was all very nice, but I was yet to see anything truly remarkable. That was until I stumbled into the penultimate room, in which Cole’s notorious work The Course of Empire, was housed. The series of 5 paintings was truly breathtaking and a stark reminder even 200 years prior to today, in the dangers of avarice and the risks of man’s insatiable desire for more.
What started as a quaint bucolic setting, soon descended into chaos, as told through the fall of what appeared to be a magnificent empire. The simple soldier from the first image, two paintings later is a beheaded statue in what very much resembled Rome, masterfully demonstrating the rise and fall of those formerly aggrandised. In the 4th image in which the city falls aflame, the final depicts a return to normality pre civilisation, and as birds nest in the ruins and moss sprouts from crumbling plinths, nature’s prowess is effortlessly exemplified – perfectly demonstrating that after all is said and done, mother nature will always rule supreme.
The epic works echo the story of Noah and how when man becomes too ambitious and blind to the damage he is inflicting on the planet, he must be checked and brought back to reality. It’s a tale that feels all too real in this age of me me me; and a stark reminder, that we must remember our place on earth as guardian and not conquerer, if we too are not to fall victim to the same fate.
Photos courtesy of The National Gallery.