Review of Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr. Edited by Katharine Lochman with Roald Nasgaard & Bogomila Welsch-Ovcharov (New York: DelMonico Books, 2016).
Review by Ron Dart
There has been a regrettable tendency to falsely and naively assume the right wing of the Enlightenment project (with its excessive focus on the empirical, rationalistic, scientistic and secular ideology) defines the modern ethos. Such an approach negates the ongoing interest in spirituality, religion and a contemplative way of knowing and being that have played a significant role in the romantic and humanist commitments of the Enlightenment. The sheer beauty and bounty of Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr is the way this visual and literary text amply illustrates how many of the finest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries expressed their spiritual longings on canvass as they drew inspiration and deeper insight from the vast landscape of Nature.
The intricate and delicate interplay in this packed tome between multiple essays and classical paintings drawn, mostly, from the European and North American context make for a comprehensive read and visual tour. The fact that Evelyn Underhill is often cited as a guiding visionary of the mystical grounds Mystical Landscapes in a solid and sustained manner. The equally important fact that the paintings included in the text were housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) from late autumn 2016 into the early months of 2017 make this collection an unusual and rare coup of sorts for the AGO.
The wide ranging nature of the topics included in the essays, the depth explored, at both a theoretical and applied level and the constant return to the actual paintings makes Mystical Landscapes an evocative and illuminating read---the sheer synthesis is amply admirable. It might have been valuable, by way of conclusion, to draw in more of the Canadian mountain painters beyond the Group of Seven and Emily Carr (such as Peter/Catherine Whyte---Whyte Museum in Baff) and ponder how Underhill’s journey from her earlier Mysticism (1911) to her more mature Worship (1936) might redefine the relationship between mysticism and landscapes, spirituality and nature but these are minor quibbles.
There can be no doubt that Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr is a pioneering book of the highest quality and, as such, presents, through the eyes and souls of artists and writers, a more nuanced and balanced notion and understanding of the modern enlightenment ethos. Do meditatively read and inwardly digest this beauty---soul, mind and imagination will never be the same.