Tony Foster | In Context

 

Painting in the Wilderness

[Excerpt from Painting at the Edge of the World: The Watercolours of Tony Foster.]

Red touches black, poison lack; red touches yellow, kills a fellow.

—U.S. nursery rhyme to help children differentiate between the harmless king and the deadly coral snakes; both yellow black, yellow and red.

When, in 1832, Prince Maximilian zu Wied Neuwied undertook his two-year journey to the interior of the young United States of America, he took with him a Swiss artist, Karl Bodmer, to create a visual record of his expedition. Maximilian had studied with the great scientist Alexander von Humboldt and was a trained naturalist. The prince kept a diary that became the basis of a two-volume book published between 1839 and 1843 when he was safely back in his Rhenish principality. Unlike Foster, he was not an artist; his decision to employ Bodmer was the result of his family’s derisive comments about his drawing from a previous expedition to the rainforest of Brazil. Carl Bodmer remained in the prince’s employ for another ten years, overseeing the publication of what is now referred to as “the Atlas,” a suite of eighty-one hand-coloured aquatints encapsulating the high points of the journey and intended to supplement Maximilian’s book. Most of Bodmer’s original watercolours, as well as many of the prince’s original manuscripts are now in the collections of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where they comprise the most important part of its Center for Western Studies. 

Tony Foster’s diaries describe in detail how he manages to work despite self-imposed difficulties...

Why go on at such length about a minor nineteenth-century prince and a Swiss artist in a book about Tony Foster? Well, in spite of the obvious differences amongst them, there are many similarities. The most obvious is the hardship and sheer awkwardness of trying to work in such unstudio-like conditions. Tony Foster’s diaries describe in detail how he manages to work despite self-imposed difficulties; Bodmer and Maximilian endured hostilities and a near killingly cold winter in a part of the world where winter is never less than long and bitter. Invariably though, as with Foster, the obvious sincerity of the nineteenth-century explorers won them the respect and assistance of the native people they encountered, especially those they lived with over the winter, the Mandan and Hidatsa.

This brings me to a further and less happy parallel. It was clear to Maximilian, even in 1833, that his record of these Native American people, still relatively untouched by “white man's progress,” was likely to be something of a scientific elegy! His journey through the eastern part of the U.S. had shown him the remnants of the tribes that had once dwelled there, but he had no way of knowing that less than three years after his return to Europe, the Mandan tribe would be extinguished and the Hidatsa all but wiped out, not through war but by smallpox. Similarly, in his rainforest drawings Foster has recorded a natural habitat under threat. Where his previous expeditions took him to such hallowed and protected landmarks as the great Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon, no effective protection yet exists for vast areas of natural rainforest, and they are disappearing at a phenomenal rate. With them disappear those who live in them—tribes and cultures doomed to extinction, whole species of creatures wiped out—some going extinct unrecorded.

If Tony Foster is part of a long tradition of artist-explorers (a full list would include a wonderfully variegated contingent of British painters—Turner, Lear, Cox, and Holman-Hunt, to name a few) he also belongs firmly in the camp of contemporary artists whose work challenges the notion of the earth as an exploitable resource. 

If Tony Foster is part of a long tradition of artist-explorers (a full list would include a wonderfully variegated contingent of British painters—Turner, Lear, Cox, and Holman-Hunt, to name a few) he also belongs firmly in the camp of contemporary artists whose work challenges the notion of the earth as an exploitable resource. This movement belongs to no single nation, but British artists are particularly well represented: Richard Long, David Nash, Hamish Fulton, and Andy Goldsworthy all in different ways return to remote landscapes, walking in and working in them; rearranging their forms with the lightest of touch or even touching not at all. Unlike these artists, however, Foster eschews photography and, like his nineteenth-century forebears, is content with watercolour and fine rag paper. He has described how his long examination of a given scene indelibly imprints it on his mind, how he makes visual notes, gathers specimens, take the fieldwork as far as he can before returning to the studio to make the finished work.

This is all splendidly nineteenth-century. One immediately things of Thoreau in quiet contemplation at Walden Pond or Turner lashed to a mast to record a storm at sea. Despite this, Foster's work is unmistakably contemporary. Most of his large landscapes are adorned with annotations; both written notes and complementary drawings that emphasise the process of making the work of art. He also creates images by arranging specimens across a page, mixing flora and fauna, fitting them together, puzzle-like, and setting their hues against the white of the page. Foster’s panoramas are not intended to create a powerful illusion of being in a remote place (as were, for example, the great landscapes of Frederic Church); rather he attempts to express the complexity—the fragility even—of the spirit of the place.

In our distinctly post-Romantic age, the process of exploitation continues. Yet artists like Tony Foster continue to bring home the power and glory of natural places. His jewel-like work reminds us that nature is a delicate, infinitely complex web of interrelationships that, though seemingly eternal in its grandeur, needs care and attention, but above all, protection from humanity and many of its careless modern ways.

The Romantic era—the great age of landscape painting—began even as the Industrial Revolution came into being. It prospered, as has often been pointed out, at the very time that vast tracts of landscape were being covered with sprawling, grimy cities or strip-mined for the wealth that lay buried in the ground. In our distinctly post-Romantic age, the process of exploitation continues. Yet artists like Tony Foster continue to bring home the power and glory of natural places. His jewel-like work reminds us that nature is a delicate, infinitely complex web of interrelationships that, though seemingly eternal in its grandeur, needs care and attention, but above all, protection from humanity and many of its careless modern ways.

Graham Beal | Former Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan

 

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