Most blank spaces on the map have largely disappeared, an “untouched state of nature” is barely existent. At the same time, the fascination of wilderness returns to art, to which the SCHIRN dedicates a comprehensive thematic exhibition.

The search for the last free places, expeditions as an artistic medium, and visions of a post-human world as well as the renegotiation of the relationships between human beings and animals shape the works of many contemporary artists. The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is now dedicating an extensive thematic exhibition to the recurring fascination with wilderness from November 1, 2018, to February 3, 2019. Over 100 important and impressive artworks by some 35 international artists are presented. The exhibition brings together paintings, photographs, graphics, video and sound works, sculptures, and installations that trace the connections between wilderness and art from modernity to the present.

With wilderness, what is under consideration is a cultural concept that has always also served as a projection surface for the other and the alien, for antitypes and fantasies of desire beyond the boundaries of a self-appointed civilization. In the current “age of human beings,” the utopia of a natural state removed from culture and human influence seems outdated. The examination of traditional images and fictions of wilderness, however, seem more alive than ever before. 

Wilderness as a cultural concept through the ages

In the traditional meaning of the word, wilderness denotes locations and instances that deny human access and in which nature is left to itself. In occidental history, wilderness as a cultural concept has always been constituted above all as an alternative model—in contrast to the spheres of the cultivated, the domesticated, or of civilization.

Briton Rivière, Beyond Man's Footsteps, exhibited 1894 © Tate, London 2017

It was only in the course of the eighteenth century that the Western concept of wilderness increasingly changed from a terrifying, threatening alternative world beyond human control into a positive utopia that then, conversely, was confronted with civilization as a threat. As an epitome of the sublime Wilderness developed into an aesthetic category that is still in use today. Abstract and ambiguous as the term wilderness at first seems, it nevertheless also directly gives rise to concrete pictures and associations that are rooted in the collective consciousness and perpetuate the legacy of Romanticism.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Plains II, 1954

The artistic examination of pictures and motifs of a disappearing wilderness today also always makes reference to a historical tradition. Against this backdrop, the exhibition is not first and foremost dedicated to the topic of wilderness in terms of iconography, but instead interrogates the relationship between wilderness and art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries so as to shed light on it from current perspective. In this manner it develops as a thematically conceived dialogue between contemporary and historical works.

"Inner Wilderness" as avant-garde art practice

Another section of the exhibition deals with the question of an “inner wilderness.” The notion of an uncharted, forgotten “wilderness within us” became a topic in art at the beginning of the twentieth century. Artists of various avant-garde movements questioned European civilization’s belief in progress and coupled Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s ideal of a hidden or buried human wilderness with the vision of a creation of art liberated from rigid cultural conventions and rational control. Wilderness as an adversary of so-called civilization developed into an artistic concept; depicting it, so to say, became a metaphor—for inner states, for an art based on a loss of control, instinct and chance, or the position of artists themselves.

Ana Mendieta, Bird Transformation, 1972 © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.), Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co.


Something thinking of you

Emphases of the exhibition are on the aesthetic of the sublime popularized by Romanticism, the exploration of wilderness as a space of artistic experience, the metaphorical dimension of wilderness as a creative principle, and the creation of new, artificial forms of wilderness using the means of art.

Asger Jorn, Eine Cobra-Gruppe, 1964 © VG Bild-Kunst, Photo: Thomas Weiss, Ravensburg