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Avatar | Alien Light (Part 2)

The Pandoran Landscapes of Robert Levitt

Alien Light (Part 2)

A study of seeing, in two parts.

In the previous installment, we learned how the Hudson River School influenced Levitt’s work on Pandora, especially his use of detail and tone. Something the Hudson River School never had to contend with, however, is a terrain that lights up after the sun sets. If “the imitation of color [is] the greatest difficulty of art,” as El Greco says, then Levitt’s nighttime studies of bioluminescent forests must be among the more technically demanding works ever produced.

Avatar | the Hudson River School

Willow tendrils, stream eddies, anemonoids underwater and on forest paths — all glow with their own specific tones, bathing the scene in cold light. You have to ask yourself: what other painting shows a landscape that is both object and light source at once? Where the only light comes from the object-landscape itself? And what other painter is so comfortable with this cool, intimate glow? One thinks of Edward Robert Hughes, but it must be noted that the magical effect of his painting was exactly that: the rendering of a magical, pretend scene. To find a corollary to Levitt, then, one often needs to dip into the fantastic — yet, again, we are talking about the real.

Avatar | Willow tendrils, stream eddies and anemonoids

The Na’vi feature in much of Levitt’s work. Their silent and unbothered bearing in each scene, and the mere fact that they’ve accepted him as a witness to their travels, lend each piece a privileged air, as though the viewer were the first to gaze at virgin frontier.

It’s led some to compare him to the painter of American frontier life, Frederick Remington. There are, of course, aesthetic similarities, but there are also important differences. Like Cole and Hughes, Remington painted for a romantically inclined audience, and imbued his scenes with plenty of mythology. Levitt is a strict naturalist. And in Remington, men are the focus of the eye — men bronc busting and surveying and charging, men mastering the landscape. In Levitt, Na’vi and landscape share the stage equally. Your eye is drawn to a pair of hunters and their direhorses, but they’re as much a part of the landscape as they are an object of focus.

The effect, Levitt says, is deliberate.

“The Na’vi are one with their surroundings. Not figuratively: literally. Because of Eywa, they’re linked to each tree and stone. Their horses are linked to each tree and stone. I could make them the focal point of every picture, but that’s not who they are, and if you’re not trying to capture that then you’re just dicking around.”

Avatar | Two warriors

Even the few Levitt paintings that eschew landscape altogether and feature the Na’vi centrally do so in a way that emphasizes this system of interconnectedness. In “Elders Circle” below, a Tsahik (medicine woman) leads her clan in a ceremonial rite. A bladder lantern lights the foreground, and the surrounding clan gives way to stone arches and then darkness.

For what amounts to a genre painting of everyday Na’vi life, it is intensely intimate and spiritual, creating a cloistered scene that borders on the baroque. But it’s a cloister in which all are welcome and even essential, in which the people provide the structure. There is a young Na’vi warrior at the center of the circle, but the circle is the point.

Avatar | a Tsahik in an Elders Circle

We ask Levitt if he’ll ever come back to Earth. He looks thoughtful.

“You won’t believe me,” he says, “but I honestly haven’t thought about that until now. It’s been awhile. This is my home.”

We’ve moved on to other points when he interrupts.

“You know what it is? This is what it is. I have to imagine what it would be like to go back and paint a landscape there…”

He trails off, and we ask him to explain. He takes his time.

“There are things that, as a painter, I can’t unsee. That I look for now. The shadows between the floating mountains… the cyan coming up out of the dirt at night and the way, once you paint it enough, just seeing cyan can make you smell wet, loamy dirt — I can only see this way now. I’ve been spoiled for Earth.... My eyes wouldn’t work right. They’d be aliens.”

Avatar | Hallelujah Mountains