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The Unrealizable World

Posted On June 20, 2018 | 13:28 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Kelly Presutti studies landscape and representation in nineteenth-century France

Kelly Presutti, who recently completed her PhD in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her recent research report, “Terroir after the Terror: Landscape and Representation in Nineteenth-Century France,” examined the draining of the Landes de Gascogne, a wetland region in southwestern France, in the late nineteenth century, and artistic representations of the region before and after its reclamation.

Q&A with Kelly Presutti

You mentioned the idea of internal colonization. Discuss how the region being considered an eyesore was used to discount the people living there.

“Internal colonization” is actually a period term from the nineteenth century. Its two main aspects are the transformation of the landscape and the displacement of its people. The landscape of southwestern France, specifically the Landes de Gascogne, was a vast marshland and widely considered unpicturesque. There was even this idea, which commenters seized on, that it was invisible in a way. As the landscape was reclaimed and rendered more “visible,” what happens to the people living there? They were frequently described as “savages,” as “uncivilized.” In my talk I mentioned the curious detail that the Landais used stilts to move through the wetlands, but something I didn’t have time to mention was that it was actually suggested, in contemporary writings, that after centuries of walking on stilts they had developed an opposable toe, like a thumb, that helped them better cling to the stilts—and that this may have made them the missing link between man and monkey. There was some really drastic rhetoric being deployed to discount the people of the region, to show not only that they weren’t French, but that perhaps they weren’t human either.


You mentioned that the region was also considered artistically unrepresentable. How did artists like Jules Dupré go about trying to capture it?

Dupré is fascinating. He started out as a porcelain painter, which is to say, he had a very nontraditional arts career; he didn’t come up through the Académie des beaux-arts, and he didn’t go on the Grand Tour to Italy where artists were learning, for instance, about classical idealized Italianate landscapes. Dupré was committed to depicting the French countryside, which had newly become an object of interest and attention after the revolution. It was Dupré who actually convinced Théodore Rousseau, another painter who depicted the region, not to go to the Alps, but to stay and paint the Landes, to search out its wild and untamed character.

But Dupré struggled with how to paint the region. At the time, many artists were trying to figure out how to take on the fullness of lived experience without relying on the conventions of the past. What Dupré ended up doing in his early paintings was to build up the materiality of the paint itself. He worked on capturing as many colors as he could in his paintings—the tangled vegetation, the swampy ground, the radiant sky—and as a result the paint is almost half an inch thick. I think all these techniques are evidence of Dupré trying to come to terms with what he called “the mirage of an unrealizable world”—the unrepresentable, and at times invisible, world of the Landes.


After Dupré, the photographer Félix Arnaudin begins to capture the region. Talk about his photographs and the significance of some of the alterations he made to his own images.

On one hand, Arnaudin gives us a spectacular picture of the Landes in the form of three thousand photographs of the region, which is an unprecedented visual archive of a place that no longer exists. But on the other hand, he frequently reveals how manipulative he was in producing those images. We can’t take them as an accurate picture of the region, because the traces of intervention are everywhere—his staging of entire scenes, or the careful whiting-out of pine trees in the distance. The pine trees were planted to stabilize the soil as the land was being reclaimed, so they’re almost the emblem of the region’s transformation, and they became a real villain for Arnaudin. They ruined what he saw as the essential character of the region—its vast and open expanses—by closing off the view and, as he saw it, the imagination. And that’s why he wanted to remove them.

These interventions, of course, alert us to the interventions we don’t see or notice, like the framing of the photographs, which areas he’s showing and which he isn’t, and so on. And yet, despite all this, Arnaudin’s photographs still represent how powerful images can be in conveying a particular idea of a place—demonstrating great faith in the possibilities landscape representation offered.