Seeing Landscapes

The Politics of Nature in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany

Danny Trom

Cooperation Partners: 

Centre Marc Bloch, CNRS (Berlin)

Landscape has long been an object of aesthetic interest. Painted by artists, chanted by poets, depicted by writers, it remained a way to see the outside world, a way to transfigure outside reality. The mode of existence of landscape was essentially dependent on its artistic transfiguration. Artistic activities gave landscape its aura and interest. No such thing as a clear reality called "landscape," situated out "there," was clearly distinguished. Landscape was subjectively framed and extracted. This changed radically at the end of the nineteenth century. Suddenly, landscape became something that “really existed” out there, and  became the object of a new regime of attention. Landscape became an object of public interest and was seized as an endangered entity, threatened by human destructive activities. This shift has been largely commented upon; several explanations of this change have been formulated.

This project aimed at describing how this happened, in particular in terms of the practical activities that drove this change. The object landscape is not completely reframed at the end of the late nineteenth-century: a series of slight changes in the articulation of already exiting ways to relate to “nature” induced radical transformation of landscapes, how to recognize them, how to observe them, how to count them, and how to treat them. Less than a new knowledge or new techniques of visualization, it required the assemblage of varieties of existing but dispersed knowledge, know-how, and techniques in order to attest the importance of landscapes, to shape a stable definition of what they are and are not, to classify them, to protect them and to find an administrative translation of this project. The Bund Heimatschutz, a heterogeneous coalition of associations and individualities (scientists, teachers, architects, historians of art, folklorists, social reformers, curators) was completely devoted to this cognitive, normative, and political project. One can look at the Bund as a laboratory in which heterogeneous perspectives were manipulated and amalgamated in a new vision that had to be promoted. Photography, as a technique of inquiry, played a crucial role in this process. It also enabled the production of good exemplars of landscape, which circulated through networks, and promoted an aesthetic education of ordinary citizens. However, scientists in particular (botanists, biologists, or geologists) were called upon by political authorities to define an objective category, independent of the subjective perspective that was constitutive of landscape. The new scopic regime and the culture of nature that arose at the turn of the century, remained thus ambiguous. The category landscape still remained reluctant to definitive stabilization and the endangered landscapes continued to proliferate. The trouble with the politics of landscape that we still face today is directly related those unresolved tensions inherent to the project, which aimed at introducing landscape into the administrative realm and bringing the visual and aesthetic relation to the outside world and into the political realm.

Funding Institutions

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)