Visual art is a physical manifestation of the stories we have told since spoken language and symbolic thought first developed, and depictions of walking, possibly because of the relationship between bipedal motion, time and the trajectory of narrative, have been an integral part of those visions since humankind first left their mark on rock walls and in dark caves. Moving humans, rendered in ochre or charcoal, took their place beside the animals and objects we desired or manipulated. In Egyptian, Greek and Roman art walking was depicted in a stiff, idiosyncratic, two-dimensional style. Through the middle ages perambulation was a consistent element of pictorial art, marching armies, wandering monks, ladies strolling in formal gardens. Bipedal movement has held an attraction for artists for tens of thousands of years. But for the vast majority of that time walking has been peripheral to the artistic narrative, a vehicle to forward a story rather then the focus. That convention ceased just a little over two hundred and fifty years ago, when walking evolved as a focus of artistic creation, first as a part of the process and then as a subject in in itself.
Eugene von Guérard, North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko, 1863
I’m standing in a cavernous hall at the National Gallery of Australia. Before me is a meticulously worked oil painting. I step forward to better view it and individual brushstrokes transform into lichens on sandstone, crusty, late spring snow, the desiccated limbs of distant eucalyptus trees and shifting clouds in a washed out Antipodean sky. I lean closer but can feel the eyes of a black-suited security guard on my back, don’t go any nearer.
Moving back the fine technique fuses into a barren mountainscape all browns and greys and earthy ochres. In the foreground is an undulating line of megalithic stones, arranged like a series of druidic temples scattered across the wide summit. The peak falls away in waves of arid pasture, in the distance another steeper mountain rises, strangely solitary. It is a broad, massive landscape, from the artist’s vantage there is 180 degrees of vision, and across the background sky the entire breadth of weather is imagined, from pulsing summer heat to the ominous rage of a belting rainstorm moving rapidly into the scene from the west.
This is Eugene von Guerard’s 1863 work North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko. I’m interested in the painting for two reasons, one is personal, a few years before I’d made the trek to the summit of Kosciusko, the highest point in Australia, in the same season as von Guerard. As far as mountains go it’s not a difficult walk, a well maintained trail and an even grade to the top of the continent. The only variable is the wind that frequently razes the treeless Australian high country, it’s as if the gales that scour Antarctica thousands of kilometers to the south have nothing to impede their northerly progress and so they thunder across the summits of the Victorian Alps and the Snowy Mountains creating a landscape of stunted vegetation and naked stone.
The day I made the summit was in November, it was warm, but in shady gullys and side valleys patches of dirty snow held out against the onset of summer. A breeze blew but it was only a distant and fatigued cousin of the ripping blizzards I’d experienced while backcountry skiing in the same area. With the weather on my side and the trail so easy to navigate I dropped into the easy rhythm of long distance walking. Kilometer after kilometer clicked by and it was difficult not to be entranced by the splendor that lay all around. My focus drifted in and out, from internal feelings around the mechanics of walking; the firing of muscles, the balanced swing of appendages, the graceful creasing of a hundred different joints, and then deeper, the awareness of skin and bones, the bumping pulse of blood, the bright glow of oxygen transferring in the tiny alveoli in my lungs and the shunt and gurgle of the morning’s breakfast inching through my labyrinthine intestines; all of this in service of moving up a mountain. And then my focus would move out and I could feel a connection to the vast beauty encompassing me; the spacious expanse of summit after summit, the choreography of clouds one hundred kilometres to the west, weathered stones stacked one on top of the other like celestial runes and the ancient faded denim of the infinite Aussie sky.
Microcosm and macrocosm. In and out. Moving through landscape with a reverent appreciation of the immensity of place and the miracle of how we traverse it. Walking in that way, with your thoughts and senses roaming to the universe within and cosmos without is walking with full awareness, as the Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donahue said, ‘if you go towards it (landscape) with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, then you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you… landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time (On Being with Krista Tippet, 6 August 2017)’
Bushfire between Mount Elephant and Timboon, Eugene von Guerard
In that state you become a medium, an incarnation of the Hermetic maxim ‘As above so below,’ or the Hindu saying ‘Thou art that.’ In Indian temples I have seen many examples of the interwoven triangles of that mandala symbol of continuity and connectedness, but the most beautiful example was a cut crystal piece I once viewed at the National Museum in New Delhi. I stared at it for minutes entranced by the balance of the interlocking geometry of the incisions and the chaos of the crystal’s geologic imperfections, and as I dwelt on it I saw how the flaws worked to enhance the balance and symmetry of the angular forms; perfection only exists in contrast to its opposite. We exist in a dynamic balance between extremes. In that ancient sculpture there was a connection between all things, the Ghandaran Buddhist statues gazing at me from one museum gallery were related to the Hindu Kangra miniature paintings in another; a gust of icy wind at the South Pole creates a storm in the Australian high country.
This relationship between the minute and the extreme is integral to von Guerard’s artwork because the painting is executed in the Romantic tradition. It is a landscape that engages you completely, you can focus on elements or areas within the work or take in its totality. But the painting is not an explanation of the place, it doesn’t offer a key to understanding the Australian mountains, it exists as an interpretation of the human relationship with the sublime.
Von Guerard was born in Vienna in 1811, his father had been a court painter for Emperor Francis I of Austria. He was trained initially by his father and later in landscape painting at the distinguished Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. His primary teacher was Johann Wilheim Schirmer, whose pedagogy encouraged an artistic response to recent advances in scientific enquiry (Pullin, 2011, p.17).
Art and science were interlinked in the 19th century German states. One of the foremost exponents of this was the great explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who called for a generation of Reisekünstlers, artists who would travel the world dedicated to accurate depictions of these ‘new’ lands (Pullin, 2011, p.20).
Possibly von Humboldt was an inspiration for von Guerard but it was his difficulty in making a living as an artist in Europe that pushed him to join the thousands of prospectors making their way to the Victorian goldfields in 1852. However, after fourteen months of backbreaking labour, with nothing to show for it while ‘being exposed to wet and cold winds after working oneself into a perspiration down in the mine’ (Pullin, 2011, p.6) he decided to return to the profession of his original training. The Australian landscape with its huge expanses and unique flora, fauna and geology posed a glorious challenge for the young painter.
In his studies von Guerard would have been exposed to the work of the premier Romantic landscape painter of the day Caspar David Friedrich and to Carl Gustav Carus’s influential art theory text, Nine Letters on Landscape Painting. Carus’s work ‘ultimately reach(ed) a view of landscape painting in which science and art combine to produce an image that aims at nothing less than the all-embracing ensoulment of nature (Carus, 2002, p.7).’
Romanticism was a backlash against the Enlightenment, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, ‘The enlightenment supposed that there was a closed perfect pattern of life… There was some particular form of life and art, and of feeling and thought that was correct, which was right, which was true and objective and could be taught to people only if we knew enough.’ (Berlin, p.105)
Whereas ‘The Romantic doctrine was that there is an infinite striving forward on the part of reality, of the universe around us, that there is something which is infinite, something which is inexhaustible, of which the finite attempts to be the symbol but of course cannot… That is why allegories and symbols are used (Berlin, p.101).’
The area that romantic artists drew their symbols and allegories from again and again was nature. Nature was immense and infinitesimal, the microcosm and macrocosm concentrated in one broad, inescapable entity, it was landscape that provided the infinite element for the Romantics to immerse themselves in.
Von Guerard’s painting is actually from the peak of Mount Townsend the second highest mountain on the continent but the view is as stunning as the artist depicts. It’s a very different scene than what you encounter in higher, more vertiginous ranges in the Americas, Europe or Asia, this is a landscape scarred and frayed by deep time. Looking across those high peaks with their well-rounded summits and broad valleys, with the open grassed ridges and the mysterious, interconnected matrix of standing stones you get a flickering sense of the earth’s true age. You feel as if the top of every peak has been ground away by minute almost imperceptible actions and it’s the majestic scale of time that has led to the wrinkled and rucked panorama that lays before you.
It was this German Romantic combination of precision and humbling scale that von Guerard channeled in his painting. Near the bottom right of the frame stands a man in a dark cape atop a group of boulders. He stretches his arms out wide as if in ecstasy, caught in the grip of euphoric nature, overwhelmed by the immensity of the world falling away from him. The man is an oblique connection to the most famous painting in German Romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Traveller Above a Sea of Clouds (1818).
The man in von Guerard’s work is Georg von Neumayer a Bavarian scientist whose expedition, part of a worldwide attempt to measure the world’s magnetic fields, von Guerard had joined as artist. But how did von Neumayer reach the summit, the answer lies just behind him in the two smaller figures striving upwards towards the peak. The struggle to rise above the everyday happens in von Guerard’s painting, as in much of the Romantic tradition, on two feet, through the act of walking in the world.
Mount Abrupt, Eugene von Guerard
Romanticism was a dynamic philosophy, it encouraged its followers to experience the sublime and this immersion frequently involved being in nature and such active engagement entailed walking.
Joseph Amato describes the role of walking in Romanticism in his book, On Foot,
Starting in the last decades of the eighteenth century, Romanticism offered a new definition of walking as it directed walkers towards solitude, on the one hand, and communion with countryside and nature, on the other. (Amato, 2004, p.84)
This was revolutionary because, prior to the late eighteenth century, the European conception of walking had been as either a strictly utilitarian means of travelling from point A to point B or the domain of promenading aristocrats within their own palace grounds (Solnit, 2001, p.86-87). ‘Romanticism changed walking. It took it from being a lower class necessity and an upper-class select activity, and transformed it for those with means and a certain subjectivity into an elevated vehicle for experiencing nature, the world and the self (Amato, 2004, p.84).’
Romantic thought brought walking and contemplation together to become a symbiotic force in the creative process. As the writer Peter Larkin said,
Few Romantic themes are not touched by the characterful combination of walking to think and thinking the walk: relations between motion and stasis, exposure and shelter, desertion and return, social displacement and radical re-encounter, these are hardly marginal to any Romantic agenda (Larkin, p.64)
The progression to walking as a romantic vehicle starts with a small cadre of German intellectuals taking the radical step of walking in the countryside for pleasure. Carl Moritz, a German clergyman who walked across England in 1782 and kept a record of his experience is often cited as an early example (Wallace, 1993, p.30-34). By that time European roads were better maintained and middle class citizens could more easily reach picturesque regions, and there was less crime on the roads, highwaymen and footpads (the highwaymen’s footbound equivalent) had been almost eradicated (Solnit, 2001, p.83).
The best known of the English walking romantics was William Wordsworth, it was Thomas De Quincey who maintained the poet had covered between 175,000 and 180,000 miles on foot around England and across Europe (Solnit, 2001, p.104). De Quincey also claimed it was walking ‘to which, indeed, he (Wordsworth) was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and for much of what is most excellent in his writings (De Quincey, 1970, p.53).
Walking brought Wordsworth in direct contact with his greatest external inspiration, nature.
In many a walk
At evening or by moonlight, or reclined
At midday upon beds of forest moss,
Have we to Nature and her impulses
Of our whole being made free gift, and when
Our trance had left us, oft have we, by aid
Of the impressions which it left behind
Looked inward on ourselves, and learned, perhaps,
Something of what we are. (Wordsworth, 1992, p.324)
This short piece gives a beautiful summary of Wordsworth’s creative method, he walked, in nature, he contemplated and he looked inward: motion, inspiration, meditation, output.
But Wordsworth understood there was something more to walking than mere transport to sublime locations, the walking itself was active in his writing; this is evidenced in his sister’s comments from 1804,
In wet weather he takes out an umbrella; chuses the most sheltered spot, and there walks backwards and forwards… He generally composes his verses out of doors and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips by or hardly whether it is rain or fair (Davies, 1980, p.70)
When the weather was inclement and Wordsworth couldn’t reach the Lake District’s places of natural inspiration he would simply pace back and forth in his walled garden. The poet appreciated that walking could bring him in contact with awe-inspiring locations, but just as importantly human motion had the ability to tap into the transcendent within and take his writing in entirely new directions.
The peripatetic Romantics valued walking, possibly for the first time in human history, as an aesthetic endeavour. They understood that human movement had the ability to transport them to the places, psychological and geographic far beyond the familiar and it was there that they could fulfill the Romantic vision and immerse themselves in the heart of the world. Walking would never be the same.