The future is scary – ecological disaster, the technological singularity, destruction, annihilation… But the future’s always been scary. Back in British-born American painter Thomas Cole’s day (1801-1848) it wasn’t AI or atom bombs that struck fear, it was the unstoppable force of industrialisation. His body of big, bold, adventurous landscape painting is a warning against greed, modernism and unchecked industrial progress. He must’ve been fun at parties, eh?
Cole’s subject, over and over, is America itself. He captures the Catskill mountains, Niagara Falls, Massachusetts, Connecticut. Each image is full of imagined scenes; little groups of Native Americans, undulating clouds, rippling rivers shaped to fit his compositions.
Then there’s ‘The Course of Empire’ of the title: five paintings of the same vista through the ages, telling the story of society’s collapse. At first it’s wild and populated by savages, then civilisation takes hold, then civilisation gets opulent and overblown. You can guess what happens next: war and destruction, followed by nature taking the city back for itself. It’s a warning against man’s arrogance, a prayer for nature – aesthetic Luddism.
Cole was a seriously talented painter. His images are unbelievably crisp. Everything is eye-tinglingly sharp, every area of every canvas is ultra-HD, mega-precise, super vivid, perfectly in focus. Every single micro-millimetre ripples with almost vertigo-inducing, wide-eyed realness. They’re almost proto-3D, a brand new vision of a new country. Cole is trying to make his beloved America jump out of the canvas, grab you by the top hat and drag you across the Atlantic.
He was skilled, but in lots of ways his paintings are pretty horrible. Chintzy, conservative, cheesy, full of falseness and hobbled by a rejection of progress.
He took a lot from Turner – who is shown alongside Cole here, unfortunately for both – but discarded his experimentation and revolutionary brilliance in favour of a stilted, sickly realism. His work lacks Turner’s swirling drama and sense of space. Cole’s paintings are a lot of fun, but god damn it they’re ugly. Maybe Cole really could see America’s future.