Aesthetic Forces

Nature in the Modern California Landscape, 1915–2015 

“Landscapes change because they are the expression of the dynamic interaction between natural and cultural forces in the environment.” –Marc Antrop


On view at SMCMoA  February–July 2021 

Detail left, Milton Komisar (b. 1935) Tectonic Plates, 2003, Acrylic and concrete on canvas, Gift of the artist [4.2006.2] Detail right, William Keith (1838–1911) High Sierra Canyon (c. 1900–1905) Oil on canvas, Gift of Benjamin H. Lehman [0-91]

In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists adapted the philosophical concepts of the sublime and picturesque to evoke moods and stir sensations in art viewers through a landscape painting’s aesthetic experience. The sublime referred to a looming sensation—a lurking threat and thrill— alluded to as natural cataclysmic phenomena through darkened space or vast empty terrain. Whereas the picturesque, literally meaning “picture-like”, referred to a pleasing sensation—ideal tranquility in nature—often depicted as a manicured garden or a compositionally balanced vista. With the advent of the 20th century, these concepts fell out of practice as Modernism flourished. Despite this, aesthetic approaches to landscape painting remained and like language, the roots of the sublime and picturesque lingered and continued to adapt in the genre of landscape. 

Aesthetic Forces: Nature in the Modern California Landscape, 1915–2015 invites the viewer to reimagine these aesthetic concepts as evolving and ever-changing forces. This exhibition explores how 20th and 21st-century art practice assimilated and reconsidered ideas of the sublime and picturesque in dialogue with Modernism and the shifting relationship amongst culture, land, and the environment. From 1915, the year of San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition, to 2015, the year of California’s landmark drought—this exhibition presents paintings, prints, and photographs from the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art permanent collection. Grounding the elements and principles of art within concepts of modernity, each gallery elicits moods of the sublime and picturesque depicted by an artist who practiced in California. These selected works fold the cultural and environmental influence of world fairs, wars, urbanization, political shifts, lifestyle perceptions, and natural disasters into the formation of how land and nature generate mood and sensation through aesthetic forces.

—Britt Royer,  Art Historian and Curator