The Hudson River School's Nature Show : Hudson River

It was frankly fall. Trees in Central Park were red and yellow and nobody--especially an out-of-towner--went anywhere without an overcoat, although you didn't always have to wear it. East Coast weather is tricky for a Southern Californian. It does weird things, like being colder at 5 o'clock than at 10. California may be crazy, but there is a certain predictability to the weather. The evenings just get cooler and cooler, they don't fool you.

It's colder in the park than on the streets. They say it's because the wind blowing off the Hudson hits the buildings on Fifth Avenue and swoops back across the park, doubling the chill. It's like the great court of Paris' Louvre in winter, colder than a headwaiter.

If you walk to the Metropolitan Museum from the West Side you crunch along on a blanket of dead leaves--all the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray; I went for a walk on a winter's day. Occasional kids in kapok vests bustle by quickly with short steps, but the park is pretty deserted. When you get inside the Met's Great Hall you wonder where everybody came from. There's a big line at the coat check. Easterners have to fiddle with a lot of gear all winter, but there is something comforting about having the museum take care of your coat--it's free, and it seems gracious, like the big banks of fresh cut flowers under the vaulted ceilings.

The Met is like a vast railway depot where tracks lead off to every corner of history. Metroliner now departing on track three for Ancient Egypt. All aboard. It's smart to know your destination or you wander around and get a bad case of art-lag. Today it's the American wing with its marble neo-classical bank facade and glassed-in court where you can smoke and look at architectural bits from Louis Sullivan, stained glass by John Lafarge and nude sculpture by Bill MacMonnies, who was saucy and French, or Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose "Diana" is like one of those streamlined gorgeous iceberg New York preppies in the dignified buff.

The main show is "American Paradise," which deals with the birth of the Hudson River School, the first native landscape movement. Before the Civil War it grew to eminence, then finally fizzled out, only to be resuscitated in the '60s. By now its leading lights are once again well known thanks to noble scholarship, Post-Mod taste for the traditional and the smarmy standard of auction prices. Frederic Church's great "Icebergs" set a record price of over $2 million in 1980 and other pioneers like Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole are firmly back in fashion, along with the group now called the Luminists, who were yanked from historical oblivion by a great exhibition at the National Gallery. The present show, conceived by Met American experts John Howat and Lewis Sharp, is a broad survey in some 80 pictures, on view to Jan. 3.

It's curious to watch exhibition viewers paying such avid attention to pictures that seem to depict landscape they could look at by just going outdoors. The Hudson itself is only a half-hour hike away, and there are beach views you could find by taking a drive toward New England. A lot of familiar East Coast real estate here. Why look at pictures?

Why indeed. Partly it's the magic of paint that everybody

senses, the fun of seeming to see reality when you know in your heart it's all just a bunch of sticky colored mud transformed by artistic sorcery. Partly it's the reality of change of course--we've wantonly destroyed great swaths of what's depicted here. Mostly, however, we want to look at the way people felt about the American landscape. These artists painted with an attitude of optimism and reverent wonder about American possibilities that has long since guttered into the flickering candle-nub of a vague dream, half recalled. Here is the real stuff that Reagan-era optimism tried to revive. We just substituted shopping on the mall for searching for the dream.

Here is a rightly famous painting by Durand called "Kindred Spirits." It shows the heroic landscape painter Cole in conversation with the transcendental poet William Cullen Bryant. They are tiny figures standing on an outcropping overlooking a Catskill mountain gorge. The Catskills are nobody's idea of a grandiose range but here they look sublime, and somehow pose a question as to whether the two thoughtful figures are equal to their setting. Early landscape art indicates that our forefathers felt intimidated by the magnificent oversize country they had invaded, and continued to do so until they could tame Old Faithful into kitsch and turn Niagara Falls into the butt of dirty honeymooner jokes.

Back then, though, it was all still freshly thrilling. Our fledgling thinkers poured ideas of religion, philosophy and nationalism into the landscape. It was complex, but the easiest way to understand it is by linking our art to Romantic landscape practiced in England and on the Continent. Man could be metaphysically at one with nature and all her moods, from the calm of a summer beach, to the woolly nostalgia of an ancient ruin, to the fury of a natural conflagration. European Romanticism crackled with the fuse of Imperialism; American Romanticism could afford the more benign urge to geographic and spiritual Expansionism.

Our chaps lacked the madness of a John Martin, the genius of a J.M.W. Turner or the density of a Caspar David Friedrich, but they were at once calmer and flashier. Cole was no slouch when it came to painting Claudian allegories where the sublime and the picturesque came together in great sighs of moral superiority. Jerome Thompson stumbled into some of Friedrich's neurotic sense of foreboding in "The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain" where tardy picnickers are about to become engulfed in the mysterious mountain night.

The all-American showman of the group was Frederic Church, whose views of Niagara caused citizens to cheerfully stand on line and pay a fee for the privilege of looking. And why not? These paintings were the Panavision Cinemascope extravaganzas of their day. You can practically hear the Dolby surround-sound in the red-running skies of "Twilight in the Wilderness," but the sound is of whispering water and vast silence. Along with Alfred Bierstadt, Church was the visual impresario who culminated the Baroque-Romantic native school and predicted the Hollywood epic. Hudson River's high-minded melodrama slowly gave way to a post-war spirit that was more intimate, withdrawn and thoughtful. Worthington Whittredge came to paint a beach at Newport, R.I., as a place of low tide and tired cloud cover that somebody might have sought out as a refuge from battle fatigue if the Vietnam War had been fought then. Martin Johnson Heade painted "The Coming Storm" in 1859 with a kind of radical patterned simplification that recalls a French proto-symbolist like Puvis de Chavannes, except Heade is more convincing. No wonder modern taste is attracted to the Luminists. They look individualistic, like the Surrealists, and detached, like California light-and-space artists.

You leave the Met and you really can't find the landscapes that were in the museum. Always a building in the way. Maybe we're wrecking nature beyond repair.

Next day you take a noon flight back to L.A. From 36,000 feet the landscape is schematized and planetary, but even Church would have been impressed. We're such clever little bugs that we've put acid in the rain and poked holes in the ozone, but from a jet nature looks like she'll still be around to nurture the cockroaches when they take over.

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