SAATCHI GALLERY, LONDON 13.2.11
Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephens, commented ‘Before the nineteenth century, a civilised being might regard the Alps…with unmitigated horror’.
The Alps are a hundred million years old but as recently as about 250,000 years ago they were shaken & stirred into what we see today. Throughout this time, they were alternatively licked, hammered, soothed & baked by various weathers. Human beings saw them as disordered, chaotic, uncouth & misshapen. The fact that they were ex-volcanoes conjured up visions of fire, brimstone, dragons & hobgoblins. Glaciers were mysterious, unstoppable. Avalanches brought random terror.
And then it all changed. The Alps got a make over - or rather several makeovers. The Romantics developed an appetite for the terror and beauty of the Sublime. And my Swiss grandfather Emil Strub invented a cog railway track which meant that trains no longer were subject to the wrong kind of snaow. The winter season was born. The Alps became a studio for painters & photographers, a laboratory for scientific research; a sports arena, a convalescent home for the sick and a giant playground.
It seems as if the artist is tapping into our ambivalence. Cadwalladar does not allow us to stand at the breath-taking beauty of the sky, the mountains and the glacier. Instead he brings us into the picture, planting our feet firmly on the untidy green and brown cliff in the foreground. The view’s still lovely but that path is scary – what lies ahead? And then there’s a horse. A dead horse. What on earth is it doing there? We could make up any number of imaginative answers but to no purpose. The label only tells us that ‘Cadwallader made the painting in response to some (undisclosed) personal experiences’
Literature is full of stories of paradise and perfection being spoiled by ‘a fly in the ointment’. We lost the Garden of Eden because of an apple; Achilles was vanquished by his heel; and the Sleeping Beauty would have been spared a century of oblivion if there had been no spinning wheel. We are left with an insoluble riddle.