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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Peabody Essex Museum rewrites the past, assigns blame. Beautifully. Nature's Nation, on view through May 5

Thomas Moran, 1837-1926,  Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park , 1893. Oil on canvas.

Thomas Moran, 1837-1926, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park, 1893. Oil on canvas.

We all want a livable planet. We also don’t want to be blamed entirely for the fact that it might not be in the future. 

“Nature’s Nation,” on view through May 5 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, brings together more than 100 works, arranged to tell the history of responsibility about our ecological crisis. Mostly paintings, the works are spread out through half-a-dozen gallery spaces. The exhibition, which originates at the Princeton University Art Museum, juxtaposes sweeping and inspirational landscapes—classics by Bierstadt, Cole, Moran—with compelling native American treatments of similar topics, and also with other contemporary views. Most of those depict an America that is much less sweeping and inspirational.

The exhibition’s premise is straightforward: that the famous outsized paintings of that era, capturing the great wilderness that America once was, fostered the misguided notion of Manifest Destiny. This led the white immigrants to believe it was their right to demolish that landscape, and its native inhabitants in the process.

The exhibition labeling makes it clear. Here’s a snippet from one label, adjacent to Thomas Moran’s “Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park,” an 1893 oil on canvas. “Moran’s painting renders only the sublimity of the park. . . . Such visions of non-urban environments limit popular conceptions of nature to the narrow range of places depicted in romantic landscape painting.”

Moran’s paintings did galvanize public and political support for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. According to this, in doing so he failed to paint less romantic, urban environments, thus poisoning public opinion.

You’d expect better thinking from a large, ambitious exhibition like this one. “Nature’s Nation” brings together multiple notions of the idea of “looking at America,” but focuses all the ecological blame on one target.

Much history has to be lamented, but charging artists with complicity in past mistakes seems unfair. The notion that an artist may have wanted to preach Manifest Destiny, and did so with subtle implications in the artwork—that notion is riddled with fallacies.

Balance is hard to achieve in any expansive project, but this exhibition’s balance seems particularly skewed. Artwork from the 19th century that captures the white man’s slaughter of the bison, or of the Native Americans, did not cause that slaughter. And for any intelligent viewer, it does not justify or condone it either.

This exhibition is vast, and takes energy to work through. Despite the hectoring quality, it is certainly worth a prolonged visit—if only to acquire your own perspective on these galvanizing issues. And to see some spectacular work. 

“I feel like I’ve been flogged,” said one visitor to “Nature’s Nation.” It’s a normal feeling when so much blame gets pointed at you. This exhibition is ambitious and thorough, spreading its history of environment miscues through all the arts—painting, sculpture, photography and even decorative arts. Multiple visits would perhaps ease the sense of burden. The artwork in “Nature’s Nation” demands it; the premise behind the exhibition, not so much.

“Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” runs through May 5 at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem. Entrance is free with museum admission. Visit www.pem.org or call 978-745-9500.

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