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Art - Ned Denny on how America's 19th-century artists travelled in search of the sublime

Does a picture interest us because it has an interesting subject or because it is painted in an interesting way? Those who are largely indifferent to painting will tend to the former, finding pictures of pleasant things pleasant and being suspicious of any oddnesses inflicted by the paint - on the contrary, a painting is expected merely to hold a mirror up to the world, the degree to which the artist has concealed his machinations being a clear barometer of his skill and industry (spiritually defunct times have a particular inclination towards this fetishisation of "craft", which is reflected in the recent vogue for photorealist art). But surely there can be indifferent paintings of interesting things, extraordinary paintings of wholly ordinary objects? The history of modernist art is the history of the latter, the fabric of everyday life being subjected to an increasingly strange series of transformations. The modern sublime, in other words, is rooted not in subject, but in style.

This is where "American Sublime", Tate Britain's epic survey of early American landscape painting, comes slightly unstuck. There's a wilful conflation of subject and style, of "new land" and "new art". To travel in 19th-century America was doubtless to be overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the place, but it by no means follows that the art of the time will be awe-inspiring to a similar degree. Great scenery, as the work of every holiday dauber bears witness, does not a great picture make. And to claim that there are painters here "masterly enough to embarrass" John Constable and J M W Turner, as did the London Evening Standard's Brian Sewell, is just perverse. Take Thomas Cole, for example, the Lancashire-born artist credited with founding a new, uniquely American way of picturing landscapes. The most cursory comparison of his Mountain Sunrise, Catskill (1826) with Constable's The Leaping Horse (1825) makes the former seem the work of an accomplished amateur, a notation rather than a recreation of sublimity. Constable is painting an old land in a wild new way, while Cole, his neat little brush strokes mimicking the Dutch landscapists of two centuries before, is doing the reverse.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. In the presence of exceptional natural beauty, it could be argued, all our energies are spent on simply bearing witness. The converse of this is in the cities and domesticated landscapes of western Europe, where the deformations of the avant-garde were needed to re-establish contact with the sublime (that beauty which, according to one 18th-century theorist, also excites a sense of holy terror). But the painters on display here hardly needed to be "masterly", it being pretty much sufficient just to record what they saw. So it is easy to enjoy, in the widescreen panoramas of Kensett, Bierstadt, Gifford and Church, the vision of an almost supernaturally empty wilderness. These are paintings that have both America's grandeur and its conservatism, with a few basic elements (the distant peak, the smouldering sunset, the lonely hut, the sky-reflecting lake) occurring time after time. The prevailing mood is one of vacancy and peace, and this is largely because the technique is a polite re-rendering of classical European traditions. Whereas Constable's oil sketches bring chaos to the tranquil fields of Essex, these artists impose calm on an environment that was unfamiliar and dangerous.

This is an exhibition, though, that saves the big guns until last. None of Church's faintly mawkish sunsets can quite prepare you for the splendour of the pictures he completed after his travels to South America and the frozen north. The Andes of Ecuador (1855), Cotopaxi (1862), Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) and The Icebergs (1861) have a scale and inner glow that do indeed bring Turner to mind, sublimity of subject for once corresponding with sublimity of expression. Similar in majesty (and also much indebted to Turner) is the somewhat later work of Thomas Moran, whose thunderously cinematic Grand Canyon of the Colorado (1892) provides the show's finale. But before it ends, the parallels between these early American pictures and the moving ones that were to succeed them are made explicit. The Icebergs is shown here just as it was on its sensational New York debut in 1861, in a darkened room of its own and bordered with a red velvet curtain. Having first queued and then paid to see this single painting, the public gazed into a radiant virtual Arctic so convincing that, in the words of one observer, "we absolutely shivered before it". Almost a century and a half later, a certain Hollywood film was just as popular - the only difference being that the virtual bergs in Titanic were painted not on canvas, but with computers.

"American Sublime: landscape painting in the United States 1820-1880" is at Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8000), until 19 May

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide