The Big Idea
The Bottomlessness of a Pond
Transcendentalism, Nature and Spirit
January 17 - March 11, 2020
The mid-19th century in the United States saw the emergence of a group of progressive thinkers who advocated for a new understanding of the relationship between the individual, the divine and the natural world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, among others, came together in a shared belief in humanitarian causes and religious purpose. Transcendentalism, as their theological and philosophical ideas became known, embraced elements of Unitarianism and advocated for a personal knowledge of God based in a rejection of materialism in favor of a spiritual experience of nature. In the U.S., Transcendentalism’s ideals found their most famous embodiment in Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond (then believed to be bottomless), where he spent a year living in a small, spare cabin, focusing on the spiritual rewards of a life lived in harmony with nature. This BIG IDEA project offers the notion that Transcendentalism’s retreat from the material in favor of a spiritual or divine encounter with the natural is an idea that continues to be relevant—and one that is perhaps more useful now than ever before.
View Exhibition Photo Gallery
The exhibition includes work by six contemporary artists responding to Trancendentalism and its legacy.
Richard Barnes has made a series of photographs of the Montana cabin once inhabited by Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), now kept in an FBI storage locker. Four present the cabin floating against a black background, like evidence. Kaczynski’s cabin,modeled on Thoreau’s, offers an extreme interpretation of Transcendentalist ideas.
Sculptures and collages by Lesley Dill include fragments of text from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, both affiliated with Transcendentalism while never fully embracing it.
Spencer Finch made the sculpture Walden (surface/depth) after learning about Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond. Finch performed that survey again, creating a sculptural record of his project that consists of the 120-foot-long rope he used for his Survey along with watercolor swatches he made at each sounding.
In 2014, the deCordova Museum commissioned William Lamson to make the film In the Roaring Garden, which he filmed using a floating camera obscura inside a 1:5 scale model of Thoreau’s cabin. The exhibition also includes photographs of Lamson’s Solarium, a structure similar to Thoreau’s cabin.
Jane Marsching made the prints in Ice Out at Walden in response to Thoreau’s notation of the day the winter ice cover disappeared at Walden Pond each year. Marsching’s prints use marks to pair Thoreau’s notes in his 1847 weather almanac with measurements collected from a contemporary Concord weather station.
Claire Sherman is known for large-scale paintings that envelop viewers in the natural world, placing them in tangles of dense tree branches or vines. Her dynamic and richly painted images celebrate nature as a place to escape the material world.
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