Friday, August 08, 2014

`A Distinct Culture But Was Never Civilized'

“What can be seen belongs to everybody. `Landscape,’ unlike `portrait’ and `still life,’ means both a painting and what it depicts. When the still life’s apple has been eaten and the portrait’s subject is history, a landscape remains. It becomes memory and myth.” 

The fussy precision and elegiac tinge are the giveaways. No art historian, he. Guy Davenport made his living, his life, by looking at things. Elsewhere he said, “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” The passage quoted is the beginning of his brief contribution to A Place Not Forgotten: Landscapes of the South from the Morris Museum of Art (University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1999), published to coincide with a 1999-2000 exhibition at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. A native of South Carolina and longtime resident of Kentucky, Davenport returns to some of his familiar complaints – rapacious “progress,” shopping malls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the horrors of the internal combustion engine – while mourning the passing of a landscape and a way of life. He makes certain, however, to debunk any notion of a Golden Age in the South. This is late (he died in January 2005) and increasingly bitter Davenport, and the sense of time passing is palpable: 

“If the South had any landscape painters, it could compare past and present. Where desolate miles of lakes now stand as deserts of glaring water there used to be quiet rivers over which trees arched. Along these rivers were meadows, farms, sweet country roads lined with wild plums and blackberries, pine and oak woods with scuppernong vines.”   

If Davenport indulges in nostalgia for a lost Southern landscape, he tempers it with historical realism: 

“The South was damned from the beginning. The ostentatious mansions on its plantations were ringed with slave cabins, for constant surveillance. Then Sherman’s armies burnt this feudal society that exported slave-grown cotton, rice, and indigo to Europe, making it into an unrelieved devastation of poverty, intolerance, violence, and tragic pride.”  

The only time I met Davenport, in June 1990, I asked if he saw himself in any sense as a Southern writer, as he often referred in his essays to Faulkner, O’Connor and, in particular, Eudora Welty. He bristled graciously and said that, given his intellectual inheritance, he was more Greek than a product of the American South. He closes his essay with a crescendo that brings to mind Quentin Compson’s emotional denials at the close of Absalom, Absalom!: 

“Denmark is restoring its meadows of red clover and wildflowers, guided by nineteenth-century landscape paintings. The South has no such record of its past. It is a region that had a distinct culture but was never civilized. It could harbor a Poe, a Faulkner, a Eudora Welty, a Flannery O’Connor, but not a Monet or Ruysdael or Constable. It has physical landscape—mountains as beautiful as any in the world, primeval swamps, grasslands with horses, rivers and beaches, but no landscape painters. And where do we put the next Wal-Mart?”

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