Landscape and Man-shaped

November 3rd, 2010

There is much to be said when comparing and contrasting these two pictures of two different periods in American history: a photograph of an early 20th century Chicago stockyard and a 19th Century Landscape painting, respectively.

Both share the aesthetic similarity of having a very deep, sprawling background. From this the difference in content of background can offer a greater  insight on the different societies. In the 20th Century Photograph, the background that feeds off of the systematic, gridded cattle pens contains two separate factory facilities, and numerous chimneys billowing smoke into the air. The setting of these factories in the background works to symbolize the supplemental archetypal image of production for the time period to that which is being displayed in the foreground.

That same foreground further defines this period of Industrialization, both by analysis of the commentary it offers on society’s attitudes and systems of the time. The foreground contains a sea of cattle-pens, overstuffed to the extent that there appears to be very little to no walking room available for the cows. This expresses the lack of belief in any notion of ethical/humane treatment of animals, as the comfortability and living conditions of these cows, who are soon to be slaughtered anyway, is completely disregarded as all attention is given to what can be done to maximize the output of product. With this in mind, the systemization of production, generally speaking, is shown in pre-planning in the foreground then implied in the background.

Interestingly enough, the middle-ground/center of the photograph is the men keeping watch of the cattle-pens.  This works both literally and metaphorically to comment on the role of man during this time. On a literal level, the attentiveness that the men have to the cattle gives off the sense of hard, dilligent labor associated with capitalism; that every moment matters and that socializing is unimportant, as very few of them are even looking at each other. Metaphorically, it just offers the notion that everything depicted in both the foreground and background all are caused by and centered around man’s will and whim.  The set up of the stockyard system and the factory in the background are both by-products of man’s technological advancements and ideas for progression in a capitalist setting.

Taking all of this industrialized, capitalist imagery and commentary into account, reading into the thoroughly oppositional, minimalistic qualities of the 19th Century Landscape painting allows for it’s more pastoral story and offering to be better understood/fleshed out. Firstly, this is obviously a rural setting, and in contrasting this with the stockyard photograph, it is a much slower “looking” picture. There is a very still aspect to this scene. This can be attributed to the lack of buildings, and consequent limited human influence. The presence of fences in the foreground imply possible agriculture/farming, but even then it is that of a very small scale.

With this in mind, the attitude about man’s relationship with nature is that of an integrational rather than transformational. In that I mean that man is to work within the frame of nature, and not alter it a la Industrialization. The overall color of the piece offers a very natural feel due to it’s keying on elements like water (middleground), earth (the grass/trees in the foreground), and wind/air (the cloudiness of the mountains in the background).

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