Skyscapes and Anti-skyscapes: Making the Invisible Visible

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Skyscapes and Anti-skyscapes: Making the Invisible Visible
James Rodger Fleming1
In The Anti-Landscape, David Nye and Sarah Elkund, eds. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.


A skyscape is a view of the sky or an artist’s depiction of part of it. It is often strikingly beautiful, evanescent, and colorful, but it may also be an anti-skyscape —gloomy or menacing. Undoubtedly the genre has received less attention from scholars than its landed cousin. This essay examines the long history of skyscapes and anti-skyscapes and how recent collaborations between artists and environmentalists are making even invisible aerial threats visible.

Approximately half of every landscape painting, from the horizon up, is a skyscape, sometimes celebrated, often largely ignored, but unquestionably extremely difficult to render in most any media, given its transience and transcendence. Many are realistic, as in the work of Albert Bierstadt, John Constable, and George Innes; others, by George Catlin, Claude Monet and Alfred Stieglitz, are smoky and moody; recent works by Andrea Polli and He He are abstractions. The vista of a natural skyscape, whether serene or ominous, is undoubtedly evanescent, rendered visible by reflected and refracted light. Blue sky and white clouds are only two of myriad colors that include the black of storm clouds and the near infinite luminous pastels of sunrise and sunset, rainbow, aurora, and other meteors.

Anti-skyscapes can be infinitely more pernicious than even the most violent storm, which will surely pass. They were visible in the acidic skies of the Manchester factories, smog in London or LA, and dust storms over the prairies. More recently, however, they are largely invisible. They are the polluted spaces of our planet, including now the planet itself, often rendered visible by scientists through idealized false color imagery and by artists in their own special ways. Anti-skyscapes undergird narratives of environmental degradation, anxiety, despair, disease, dystopia, collapse, resilience, sustainability, collective action, inaction, heroic action, and even faith. Miasmas. Acid rain. The ozone hole. Carbon dioxide climate warming. No one has seen them, yet, in a way, everyone has. Today, highly politicized images of the atmosphere link scientific, environmental, technological, and aesthetic histories as they codify and symbolize fear, angst, urgency, control, and lack of control.2

This paper mobilizes cultural studies, science studies, and art history to examine human-modified, but ubiquitous aerial spaces that are both ominous and threatening, yet truly serve, across boundaries, as the “background for our collective existence.”3 The genre of skyscapes complements the terrestrial conversation and highlights emerging interests in environmental art, toxic airs, and climate engineering. They are interdisciplinary, international, and intergenerational vehicles.4 Skyscapes are often overlooked. Anti-skyscapes are overlooked at our peril. Look up. And look out!

Skyscapes and Landscapes
“Sky” is the apparent arch or vault of heaven, whether covered with clouds or clear and blue; it may be the climate or clime of a particular region, nowadays usually designated more globally than locally. The appearance of the sky is variously sunny, starry, hazy, overcast, azure, copper, even milky white. According to Raffaele Milani, sky is “a concept that incorporates meteorology, astronomy, and astrology, and we find within it theological theories pertaining to the origins of the cosmos. The creation myths describe the marriage of earth and sky. In the Bible the sky is the throne of God and is represented as divided into levels and vaults, which are the seats of angels of different orders. In ancient Chinese symbolism, instead, the sky represents the energy moved by the destiny that directs all things terrestrial; it is a cosmological image in which the sky does not appear as a symbol of the afterlife.”5 The sky has been read, historically, as a panorama of visible portents. It also carries the breath of life and the weather each day, whether gently cooling or wildly devastating winds, nurturing or flooding rains, or life-giving warmth or enervating heat.

Medieval artists made God’s wrath visible (Fig. 1). “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (Genesis 19:24). The menage-a-trois (literally) in the foreground depicts Lot with his daughters, who are making him drunk so he will sleep with them, which they do (Genesis 19:30-38). We can assume that the Biblical authors and the medieval artist did not have air pollution in mind. Nevertheless it is an anti-skyscape in which the invisible is being rendered visible and the numinous threatening.

Fig.1. Master of the Lille Sermon, The Burning of Sodom, Flemish, ca. 1550-1575, oil on panel. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine.

The English Romantic painter John Constable is widely known for his bucolic country landscapes, with more or less naturalistic clouds painted under the scientific influence of the contemporary London scientist Luke Howard, who also influenced Goethe. This seascape with rain clouds (Fig. 2) is particularly dynamic, since the sky occupies 80 percent of the frame, and the clouds and rain are particularly powerful and eventful, depicted by bold and aggressive brush strokes reaching from the sky to the choppy, dark sea.

Fig. 2. John Constable, English (1776-1837). Seascape Study with Rain Clouds. 1824-5, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 220 x 310 mm. University of California, San Diego.

Humans entered the skyscape in 1783 based on the pioneering work of les Frères Montgolfier (Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne) in scientific ballooning, but the balloons were soon applied to military purposes. In The Balloon, or The Rising of the Montgolfiere (circa 1816), by Spanish painter Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, a Montgolfier-style balloon is soaring over the battlefield, higher than the mountain and higher than the clouds. The signal flags indicate the aeronauts are actively involved in the combat below, where death is crammed into the hollows of the landscape. The general (Napoleon?) on the white horse and the observers on the hillside have no such privileged perspectives. It is an anti-landscape depicting the new technology of aerial surveillance that made the devastation of war more complete.6
Photography brought new scientific, technical, and artistic opportunities and challenges in rendering the sky. Gustave Le Gray (1820-1882), a noted French photographer known for his images of the Mediterranean Sea, developed a new methodology for toning prints in order to capture the evanescent lighting of both the sea and the sky. A double exposure of an albumen suspension captured two elements separately, with the negatives combined to produce a final image, as in the 1856 print shown here. The skyscape is first (literally) separated from the landscape, then visually combined. How much time has elapsed between the two exposures?