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In 'Tahoe: A Visual History,' realism and idealism intertwine

In 'Tahoe: A Visual History,' realism and idealism intertwine
"Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County," 1865, by Thomas Hill, oil on canvas. (Nevada Museum of Art)

In 1872, painter Albert Bierstadt finished "View From Donner Lake, California," which encompassed the mile-high waters of the Sierra Nevada with the sinewy wagon trails and the muscular, ramrod-straight tracks of the newly built transcontinental railroad.

But a funny thing happened in a different Bierstadt painting finished a year later. In "Donner Lake From the Summit," a celebrated 10-foot-wide oil-on-canvas commissioned by Collis P. Huntington, the wagon trail practically disappears. The railroad tracks are barely there too, at first glance possibly mistaken for a fallen tree. The emphasis is all warm sun, fluffy clouds and glorious terrain, untouched by man.

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Those views of Lake Tahoe and the Donner Pass — a complex story of realism and idealism — lie at the heart of a new exhibition and book organized by the Nevada Museum of Art. "Tahoe: A Visual History," which opens Aug. 22 at the Reno museum, has been billed as the first exhibition of its kind — more than 400 pieces of art spanning 200 years of the region's evolution. From wilderness to resort playground, from the failure of the Donner Party to the triumph of the transcontinental railroad, from the romanticized landscapes commissioned by railroad barons to contemporary art spotlighting injustices suffered by Chinese immigrant laborers, the show and its companion book (Skira Rizzoli) are ambitious efforts five years in the making.

"All curators think their exhibitions are a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Ann Wolfe, the museum's deputy director, who curated the show and edited the book. "But so many of these objects have never been published before. They're coming from private collections, they're new to art historians and the lay public."

The 19th century paintings, labeled "Lake Tahoe's Golden Age" in the book, read like childhood memories — or what we wish our childhood memories could be — playing out on the page. Who wouldn't want to step into Thomas Hill's 1865 "Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County," with its granite cliffs, gentle waterfalls and wise owl overlooking a sun-washed campsite?

But equally compelling is Tahoe as seen through the lens of the artists who followed. Albert Sheldon Pennoyer's 1940s painting of locomotives blasting their way through the snowy landscape to some viewers surely was a celebration of progress, of man's taming of the land. Today, most viewers would have an entirely different reaction to the sooty plumes of gray smoke darkening the sky.

About 10 years ago, Chinese-born artist Zhi Lin traveled through California and Nevada, producing watercolor sketches of scenes where Chinese laborers once worked — and died — building the railroad. "Railway Tunnels on Donner Summit — a Rectification to Albert Bierstadt's View of Donner Lake, California (1871-72)" re-creates the Huntington commission but with the railroad tracks front and center, the tunnel through the mountain looking more like a tomb, the epic black-and-white scene at once beautiful and haunting.

That kind of complexity appears in other parts of "Tahoe: A Visual History": Washoe basketry design that seems at once traditional and modern; Frank Lloyd Wright drawings for an Emerald Bay community of floating-barge cabins, never built; early photography of the logging industry, which in the 19th century delivered 300,000 log feet of lumber daily to buttress silver mines; and contemporary sculpture, including three commissions by Maya Lin. Look for a photo gallery of some of these works at latimes.com/arts.

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