Isak Hall, Isenheim, 2019, tempera on panel, 77 1⁄8 × 63 3⁄4". From the series “Tempelserien” (Temple Series), 2019. From “The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting—Past and Present.”

Isak Hall, Isenheim, 2019, tempera on panel, 77 1⁄8 × 63 3⁄4". From the series “Tempelserien” (Temple Series), 2019. From “The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting—Past and Present.”

“The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting—Past and Present”

Amid our ever-increasing worry about climate change, the clear-cutting of forests, fracking, and the extractionist economic imperium that threatens our survival, it was a pleasure to encounter the beguiling exhibition “The Trees, Light Green: Landscape Painting—Past and Present,” curated by Theodor Ringborg, which paired contemporary Swedish nature painting with the genre’s development in Sweden at the time of the second Industrial Revolution; that is, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The exhibition implicitly proposed that Swedish landscape painting in this crucial period, diverging from the romantic nationalism of the era, could be seen as a response to the rapaciousness of capital and how it subjugates the earth. To this end, Ringborg assembled a who’s who of modernist painters—including Vera Nilsson (1888–1979), Evert Lundquist (1904–1994), and Albin Amelin (1902–1975)—who made work in the wake of two linked historical phenomena: the country’s creation in 1848 of limited liability companies, which made it possible to raise capital to modernize its timber and mining industries, and the designation in 1909 of Sweden’s first national parks.

Most of the historical theorizing was left to the exhibition didacts, as the works shown rarely directly acknowledged industry or pollution in their imagery. Viewers were instead invited to do a bit of forest bathing amid endless images of mountains, rivers, and woods, presented in a dense, salon-style hang. That something more lurked beyond the frame, though, was hinted at by the inclusion of Amelin’s less familiar nature paintings, instead of his well-known expressionist depictions of working-class culture and, particularly, of miners.

Even the contemporary works, made at a time when the costs of our exploitation of the earth have become more evident, seemed to consider not nature itself but its transcendental potential. The most successful of these pieces were five ethereal works in tempera on panel from Isak Hall’s “Tempelserien” (Temple Series), 2019, showing celestial bodies floating in the void of space and conjuring a chance encounter between Hilma af Klint and the anonymous pop sci-fi street painters in New York who used to trace, for instance, stars hovering above ancient pyramids in spray paint. Equally trippy were six gouaches by Olle Norås, which depicted highly abstract swirls echoing slime molds and mosses in a fashion recalling the transhumanist cyberpunk metamorphoses in the 1988 Japanese anime Akira. Ann Böttcher’s chillingly hyperrealistic pencil drawings of botanical forms oddly complemented these more interpretative works through their eerie detail.

Just outside the main body of the show hung a strange painting showing a couple of ships near an idyllic island. This undated work, by Arnold Plagemann (1826–1862), was titled Utsigt vid S. Barthélemy (View of St. Barthélemy), and depicted the Caribbean island, now part of France, that was during Plagemann’s lifetime Sweden’s only overseas colony. The reference to it here served, deliberately or not, as a reminder that the current climate crisis is inexorably tied to European colonial history through the multinational corporations that are its potent progeny. With such specters hovering inconspicuously in the background, the show’s atmosphere was as uncanny as it was bucolic. The forest is haunted, but that lupine howling in the distance might be the echo of your own imagination.