Thursday, 24 July 2008

Landscapes in mind

I'm genuinely pleased to see we have at least one regular reader, Felix Grant at The Growlery (a friend and colleague from way back, who is also a proper photographer). A couple of The Growlery posts, They say I'm a dreamer... and Well, maybe I am... concerns trains and reactions to a striking photograph - here - that Felix showed at a recent exhibition in Bristol.

The thrust of the discussion concerned the feelings evoked by the photo - a child on a vista of a railway track vanishing into the distance - which led Felix to mentioning Prospect-Refuge Theory. This is the idea, coined by Jay Appleton, that human aesthetic experience of landscape is based on perceptions that are evolved for survival (e.g. places to hide, escape routes, places with a clear view). Appleton's 1975 The Experience of Landscape, revised in a 1996 edition (John Wiley, ISBN 0471962333) is a key exposition; his Symbolism of Habitat focuses particularly on the concept's application to the arts.

If you like this idea, I recommend also John Barrow's The Artful Universe. Prospect-refuge theory is one of its threads (applied to our liking savannah-like landscapes in gardening and art) but Barrow goes further in arguing that all aesthetics - such as the colours and sounds we like, why we enjoy seeing the moon and stars, and so on - come from evolved reactions to the physical world we live in (Barrow's interest in the interface between cosmology and spirituality won him the Templeton Prize 2006). Dennis Dutton explores similar ideas in Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology (The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

To be fair, as this nice summary says, the prospect-refuge theory is difficult to prove, and it comes into the contentious field of evolutionary psychology, which is often criticised as being glorified Just So Stories. Since we have no direct way of knowing how our hominid ancestors viewed the world, a lot of it is untestable. Possible objections are well summarised in Chris Fitter's Poetry, Space, Landscape: Toward a New Theory (CUP, 2005, ISBN 0521673496) - see Google Books. For instance, when was this landscape aesthetic formed, and why are scenes that don't fit the theory - such as the Garden of Livia fresco, Prima Porta, which has no prospect - still appealing?

Nevertheless, I like it as a potentially useful and unifying way of looking at the world (for instance, as a tool for making photographic compositions that people like). And its assumptions do seem to work: there have been some acclaimed landscape/architectural designs, such as the Bloedel Reserve by Richard Haag, designed using this theory (see Richard Haag: Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, ISBN 1568981171).

I'm not entirely sure what to make of its use in litcrit, such as Prospect and Refuge in the Landscape of Jane Austen (Barbara Britton Wenner, Ashgate Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0754651789) and Bennett's Five Towns: A Prospect-Refuge Analysis (Brian J Hudson, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 33, No. 1, January 1993). But it doesn't seem entirely implausible that if we have an inbuilt reaction to landscapes, that reaction could be evoked when identifying with a character in a fictional landscape. The Hudson paper mentions as an example the opening of Bennett's Clayhanger - here - a scene of two friends on a path crossing a bridge over a canal with narrowboats, relating it to Appleton's "hazard" and "locomotion" symbolism and "the satisfaction commonly experienced when gazing from a bridge at railway lines receding into the distance" ... which brings us full circle.
- Ray

Addendum. An out-take from writing the above: Some landscapes, a weblog with a consistently interesting miscellany of posts concerning "landscapes evoked or depicted in the arts: painting, literature, music, film etc". The topic of landscape and its relation to art and literature is vast, and I may well return to it later.

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