The Wolfsonian–Florida International University tells the story of how artists ventured beyond the traditional content and form of landscape art to make sense of a rapidly changing world in The Big World: Alternative Landscapes in the Modern Era. On view beginning September 21, 2023, the exhibition moves from bucolic scenes to an increasingly industrial world, represented not only on canvas, but also on furniture, ceramics, glass, and textiles from The Wolfsonian’s expansive collection. The Big World is co-curated by Wolfsonian chief curator Silvia Barisione and curator Lea Nickless.
Starting with an ornate pastoral scene carved and painted onto the side of a grand piano, the exhibition aims to upend visitors’ expectations of the landscape genre. “Preparing for The Big World, we investigated the landscape holdings in The Wolfsonian’s collection and were surprised by the number and variety of works that we hold,” Barisione said. “While many artists continued to find inspiration in nature, the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the 20th century provided others with provocative new subjects.”
The exhibition documents how the artists’ responses to these new realities ranged from celebration and veneration to anxiety and ambivalence, charting the story of modern landscape in three sections:
The Natural World – Mountains, deserts, forests, and coastlines inspired art that expressed veneration and fantasy, while other works celebrated the land as provider of sustenance. Paintings and decorative arts, including a grand piano from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, brought nature into the domestic world.
The Built Environment –Features of the built environment such as smokestacks, dams, bridges, and skyscrapers elicited admiration from artists who were stirred by these monuments of modernity. But 20th-century landscape art also sounded the alarm about encroachments on nature from industrialization and urbanization.
The Battle for the Land – In contrast to the vitality of modern cities, nature often appeared damaged and depleted in modern artworks with defoliated trees symbolizing harmful human impact. Ominous imagery of devasted cities and debris-littered vistas, such as in Raymond Daussy’s painting La bataille pour la ville (The Battle for the City), offered artists a way to convey the traumatic experience and aftermath of the two world wars.
The Big World does not shy away from issues relevant today, such as harmful impacts on nature, whether from industrial development or warfare. At the same time, visitors will be inspired to find beauty in the world around them, not only in unspoiled vistas but also perhaps in the intersection of natural and human-made environments.