In Gornik’s paintings, the nineteenth-century romantic landscape is that non-living past. In the manner of a not yet conscious memory, her landscapes intimate that past and so they stir a sense of the past in us. For all its presence, however, here the past is past and so we sense its passing even as it appears to be there before us. Loss without a lost object. As an aesthetic experience of intimate immensity draws us into the artist’s paintings, to breathe, to rest, their subtle games of depiction announce our separation—from them, from the landscape, from tradition and the past. Gornik’s landscape is a modern art.
For Roland Barthes, “to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore.”12 Rich in connotation, Barthes’s phrase registers a condition of ineluctable separation between the subject and actual, mental, spiritual, or imagined objects—what I behold in my hand is not me; the nation or the author is not me; nor is God or my lover—a condition of disrepair that “myth today” endeavors to paper over, or at least assuage.13 Baudelaire’s poetry captures the nuances of this modern condition. Where “Correspondences” tells of the poetic reverie inspired by experiences of interconnection, in “The Taste for the Void” Baudelaire indicates that it is the melancholy poet who contemplates the earth as an object of reflection separate from him:
I contemplate, from on high, the globe in its roundness,
And no longer look there for the shelter of a hut.14
Even “in the country of last things,” landscape may show signs of its former guise. “What strikes me as odd,” Paul Auster’s protagonist exclaims from that territory of the end, “is not that everything is falling apart, but that so much continues to be there. It takes a long time for a world to vanish, much longer than you think.”15 If the romantic landscape has not vanished, Gornik ushers us into romantic landscape painting’s territory to pull us up short. Like Baudelaire’s poet, in her landscape we contemplate, from on high, painterly tradition at the same time as tradition offers us no place of rest. Her way of alluding to tradition only subtly to undermine it renders us self-conscious—of our desire for continuity, full presence, and experience; of our race to place artworks in those tidy, generic categories that Baudelaire wrote against in the mid-nineteenth century; of our penchant to equate innovation with the outsize gesture. Artistic innovation may be subtle. Seeing a work of art may require a long time. Much may continue to be present, even in the country of last things.
Karen Lang is associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, she is the author of Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History (Cornell University Press, 2006).
- Roland Barthes, “Réquichot et son corps,” in L’obvie et l’obtus: Essais critiques III (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 211, quoted in Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” 47.↵
- Designating mental or spiritual objects, I intend to imply the expansive, manifold territory charted in the German word Geist. Roland Barthes, “Myth Today” (1956), in A Barthes Reader, trans. Annette Lavers, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), 93-149. See also Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Noonday Press, 1988).↵
- Charles Baudelaire, “Le Goût du néant,” in his Les Fleurs du Mal (Anvers, Bruxelles: Moorthamers Frères, 1927), 136. This poem appeared in the 2nd edition, 1861.↵
- Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (New York: Viking, 1987), 28.↵