Spiritual Geographies: Religion and Landscape Art in California, 1890 – 1930
Curated by Michaëla Mohrmann, PhD
March 2 – June 8, 2024
Spiritual Geographies explores the relationship between nature, landscape art, and religion in California from the 1890s to 1930s. At the start of this period, “geography” referred to a broad range of land imagery, including landscape painting, that was often reproduced in print alongside text. In light of this original and expansive Victorian meaning, the exhibition considers how the geographical nature of landscape painting enabled it to circulate within religious printed materials that used landscape to construct spiritual meaning. As readers and writers of this devotional literature, California’s leading impressionist and early modernist artists painted landscapes that conveyed old and new spiritual ideas, contributing to the national perception of California as a place tolerant of experimentation and individual expression.
Examining a variety of religious outlooks, Spiritual Geographies traces how Protestant Evangelism, Theosophy, nature mysticism, and California’s Catholic colonial heritage shaped depictions of the state’s countryside and wilderness—places whose awesome beauty was simultaneously changing popular understandings of the sacred. The exhibition also addresses the contradictions and limits of California’s purported openness to different belief systems by recognizing the enduring spiritual meaning of nature and landmarks to the region’s Indigenous peoples, who were often forcefully converted to Christianity and dispossessed of their ancestral lands. Accompanied by rare books and archival materials, the exhibition’s paintings reveal that nature was a key catalyst for the spiritual effervescence and artistic development of California as it entered modernity.