The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History
Kitty Harmon, editor. Introduction by Jonathan Raban.
(Sasquatch Books) $21.95

Painters create landscapes as much as they see them. A landscape painting reports the artist's desire to see in a particular way as much as it reports anything "objective" about a place. By making a painting of a landscape, a painter is trying to possess that landscape. A landscape painting implies the existence of a human being within a landscape; the very existence of a painter in the wilderness makes wilderness less wild. This tension between the romantic ideal of an unpeopled paradise and the humans who paint this ideal and, as a consequence, corrupt it, runs throughout The Pacific Northwest Landscape, a fine collection of l40 Northwest landscape paintings.

Selected by Kitty Harmon, the founding director of Northwest Bookfest, and introduced by British expat turned Seattleite Jonathan Raban, this rich collection includes work from as long ago as l778 and as recent as 2000. Harmon has made a particular point of including artists who have been neglected by previous histories. In addition to showing work by the well-knowns from the Graves-Tobey-Callahan gang, her book showcases the work of female painters like Emily Kimball, Harriet Foster Beecher, and Martina Gangle, as well as Asian Americans like Kamekichi Tokita.

Many of the paintings in The Pacific Northwest Landscape are simply beautiful to look at--Lionel Salmon's splashy, bright Tatoosh Range (1919); Childe Hassam's van Gogh-ish golden field in Afternoon Sky, Harney Desert (1908); the psychedelic clarity of the blues in William Samuel Parrott's Crater Lake (1890s) and The Three Sisters from Clear Lake (l880). But the work that interests me most is the work that shows the individual artist's manipulation or re-visioning of what he or she saw.

For example, in 1874, the Hudson River School painter Sanford Robinson Gifford did a painting called Mount Tacoma from Puget Sound (Mount Rainier) that shows the pristine, snow-covered mountain towering over the glassy, calm waters of the sound. The far shore is lined with soft, round, rusty-colored deciduous trees. A pair of native longboats in the fore- and mid-ground are close enough to one another to suggest companionship, but far enough apart to display rugged independence--precisely the relationship white settlers wanted to have with the native folks whose land they were consuming. Gifford certainly could have witnessed such a scene at the time he set up his easel. But he would also have witnessed something else he was careful to edit out of his romanticized view: the beginnings of the city of Tacoma on the shore that Gifford pretends is still completely tree-lined.

By the 1930s, paintings by artists like Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan were less about what we could learn from the landscape, and more concerned with the destruction we industrious Northwesterners had wrought. Callahan's Logging Scene (c. 1930s) reminds me of a kid's finger-painting. The treeless land has become a brown, green, puke-yellow sludge of mud. It slimes along beneath a chalky white-gray sky. Gifford's deciduous trees have been choked to death by humans, who, like the scorched landscape, have suffered at the hands of their own rapacity.

The human figures in Rudolph Zallinger's Northwest Salmon Fishermen (1941) have a kind of ultra-slick, cartoony quality to them. Sort of Paul Cadmus meets Robert Crumb. The scene is a crowd of people on a beach by a pier. In the background is a gloriously golden light-through- the-clouds sunset. In the foreground a foreshortened figure lies prone. You can't see his face, but you can see his filthy jeans, the holey sole of his shoe, and his wiry hand scrabbling around for a nearby bottle. Two other guys are crawling on the ground, and at about the same height as a crooked little black wiener dog. A fat woman wearing a silly hat hovers over one of these humiliated, awkward guys as if she's either going to spank him or hook him with the fishing rod she's holding. The people on the land are drunk, ugly, lost. The garish sunset seems to be laughing at them, the mess they've made of themselves, and the land they crawl around on.

The work in this book begs us to do more than look at beauty. It offers what Jonathan Raban calls in his introduction "a whirlpool of meanings," which represents the social history of the Great Northwest.