Home Art The Landscape in Art: Nature in the Cross-hairs of an Age-Old Debate

The Landscape in Art: Nature in the Cross-hairs of an Age-Old Debate

by Eric Mount

Man and his relation to nature was perhaps the first theme to appear in art. Evidence is found in France’s famous Lascaux Caves, of 15000 BC, that contain nearly 2,000 figures, grouped into three main categories — animals, human figures and symbols, but not landscapes—they are prehistoric observations of nature. In one-way or another, nature for centuries remained the preferential theme of creative art. It was sometimes treated in a mythical or animist register, or else perceived as a type of framework of existence, a scaffold very often remote and difficult to capture. Apprehended in a picturesque form, nature has also been a source of joy and pleasure, as well as of fear and mystery. When it is given the form of earth as life’s foundation, nature personifies truth and authenticity endangered by technology. In this essay I discuss the changing face of nature within a historical context and how artists’ portrayal of nature has undergone major transformation. Much of our art education about nature has been fed in essence from the history of art through the work of such notable artists as Claude Lorrain, Caspar Wolf, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner. With the passage of time, man’s relationship with nature has marked creative art; the conception of nature entertained by the various human communities has determined this relationship while in fact reinforcing or transforming it. Primitive man made use of the natural elements; Baroque artists as Nicolas Poussin perceived a harmonious ideal in nature that works of art were expected to render, irrespective of incidental and temporal peculiarities. In his early work, as Landscape with the Burial of Phocion (1648), (right) the landscape usually forms a graceful background for a group of figures.  

Eighteenth century European thought is interesting from today’s perspective, because in its course the split between culture and nature was emerging, and the social sciences were still not distinct disciplines. The concept of the state of nature in early modern contract theories, Adam Smith’s theories of moral sentiments and the economy, Rousseau’s ideas concerning the natural man, and Diderot’s holistic materialism are examples of streams of thought that from today’s perspective are relevant and instructive in view of our need to reconsider the relationships of the social and the natural. Thomas Carlyle, the 18th century poet wrote, “the machine represents a change in our whole way of life … because ‘the same habits regulate not only our modes of action alone, but also our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” In Joseph Wright of Derby’s, The Annual Girandola (1775-76), at the Castel Sant’ Angelo, Rome,  he depicts the annual Easter firework display in Rome as an almost apocalyptic vision of the city.    

Casper David Friederic, Wanderer in a Sea of Fog (1818), Coll. Kunsthalle, Hamburg

 However, the development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was brought into prominence in the 18th century. Anthony Ashley Cooper and John Dennis in their writings expressed an appreciation of the fearful and erratic forms of external nature. Joseph Addison in his work The Spectator and the Pleasures of the Imagination synthesize the concepts of the sublime.    

In the nineteenth century, artists were primarily concerned with ideas of truth and beauty—the Romantics passionately yearned to capture a nature that eluded their grasp. The aesthetic theorist John Ruskin, who championed what he saw as the naturalism of J. M. W. Turner, saw art’s role as the communication by artifice of an essential truth that could only be found in nature.  Casper David Friedrich’s, Wanderer in a Sea of Fog (1818), gazes out from lofty heights upon the sea of clouds spread out at his feet, can only imagine what may lay before him, raising the subject of romantic frustration and nostalgia. John Constable delighted in the picturesque nature of the landscape, and like Turner, relished in the play of light produced by the air, the atmosphere amid the destructive power of nature.  And Victor Hugo, in France, touched on aspects of the sublime in both nature and man in many of his poems. He also examined how authors and artists create the sublime through art—for him both the Hunchback and Notre Dame Cathedral can be considered embodiments of the sublime.    

With the growth of cities in the United States during the nineteenth century there was a dramatic increase in industry, and as industry grew, the natural environment was adversely impacted in immediately visible ways. For example, the machinery of many factories was fueled by coal that caused smokestacks to belch black smoke into the air, and industrial by-products flowed into the waterways leaving them polluted. Seeing the damage to the natural environment occur right before their eyes, some people became alarmed and began to search for ways to create a balance between industrial progress and the preservation of natural resources. One of the books that sparked this new movement, which became known as the conservation movement, was Man and Nature, written in 1860 by George Marsh. Marsh argued that the growth of industry was upsetting the natural balance of nature. As the struggle to find balance between nature and industry continued, artists had to move further and further away from the east coast in search of new and untouched scenery.    

Mark Twain’s, Huck Finn and Jim on their raft. Illus. from 1898 edition

Leo Marx in his eminent book, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, identified a foremost theme in literature of the nineteenth century—the dialectical strain among the pastoral ideal in America and the swift, all-encompassing transformations produced by machine technology. Marx does not focus on the physical landscape but instead looks at the interior landscape—”the landscape of the psyche” and it is literature that he believes offers one largely a direct access to the psyche. He points out that in Mark Twain’s classic book, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the garden is the raft, and the machine is the steamboat that smashes it apart–and along with it, the unfeasible dream of a free and independent existence for Huck and Jim. Marx argues that literary artists such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne especially were critical in raising significant issues and exposed central contradictions in American culture, showing how, “the aspirations once represented by the symbol of an ideal landscape have not, and probably cannot, be embodied” and that, “our inherited symbols of order and beauty have been divested of meaning.”    

History offers examples of the artist’s contribution to society’s awareness of nature. The nineteenth century in North America was an age of expansion and settlement. In nineteenth-century United States, artists who painted, drew and photographed distant landscapes were able to sway decision-makers, by mingling their documentary observation with their visual imagination, with the result that a site’s geographical beauty, made eminent through a particular painting, could cause policy-makers to preserve that place and accord it the legal status of a park or reserve. In contrast to the picturesque landscape in Europe, the American landscape was enormous, convoluted and even terrifying for some by its sense of overpowering emptiness. Man or civilization is nearly always absent—the vast scenes only portray the natural environment. In the enormous images of the American landscape, particularly of views of the West, from the 1860s through 1870s, infinite space and emptiness abounds evoking in some a frightening sense of isolation. However nature for some was not only interpreted as an impressive physical reality but also it included an underlying sense of the spiritual—a place to go for reflection and meditation.    

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) Coll. Smithsonian American Art Museum

 Many artists set out to explore and paint the West, a trend that helped other Americans and even the international community become familiar with parts of the United States that many had not before seen. People began to realize that they didn’t have to go to Europe to gaze at the Alps—there was something as wondrous or even greater here in the US.    

The artist’s perceptive eye not only contributed to the public’s awareness of a place’s immeasurable exquisiteness, but also contributed to its conservation as seen in Thomas Moran’s paintings, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872). Moran’s series known as the, The Great Surveys (Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley), had tremendous influence on the emergence of Western tourism. His paintings helped to sway the members of Congress to set aside vast areas of the West to become our National Parks.    

Thomas Hart Benton, People of Chilmark (1920)

Albert Bierstadt detailed paintings enhanced the appeal for tourist exploration with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes referred to as Luminism. Frederic Church continued to portray New England scenery as a testament to the country’s wilderness pioneering spirit. Thomas Cole depicted the eastern region in detailed portrayals of American landscape, featuring themes of romanticism and naturalism. His work was a testament to the sublime—to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared, beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.    

Later in the century, avid outdoorsmen and naturalists, like John Muir, encouraged people to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness. Muir’s efforts helped to involve the public and President Theodore Roosevelt in the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890. However, in the course of time, artists’ social stature, as well as their ability to influence decision-makers, has declined dramatically. Furthermore the depiction of an ideal and perfect nature has long since begun to falter into the 20th century.    

In the 20th and into the 21st century one observes dramatic shifts in attitudes toward nature. Thomas Hart Benton in his Mid-western imagery addressed man and his relationship with the perils of nature. Charles Burchfield viewed nature as a living wonder of endless variety and magic. For Mark Rothko, nature represented the power of ritual that art can interpret through images and symbols. While it is the glowing, ovoid areas of color that the eye first embraces in a typical Rothko, it is useful to become aware of how they are contextualized with often dramatically emphasized horizons – and borders.    

Nature: As Raw Material    

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970), Great Salt lake, Utah

Over the past few decades there has been a transition from representation of nature to ‘fashioning’ or, perhaps one could say, utilizing it; in this manner, nature is the “\’raw material’ for what we refer to as ‘Land Art’.  This is manifest in the work of such artists’ as Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson and Richard Long. The ‘Land Art’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to newly come to terms with nature in a way resembling the approach of primitive artists. It represented both a new take on the picturesque, and a development towards a less framed way of depicting nature. The famous earthworks, such as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), Richard Long’s Circles and Lines, took contemporary art out of the white cube to make dramatic interventions in the living landscape. Apart from the emphasis on time and process, another important characteristic of ‘Land Art’ is that it cannot be comprehended through a single image. In this sense, it has been described as ‘an unframed experience’, with no one correct perspective or focus. Therefore, it is more the result of different intellectual, sociological and artistic paths than an aesthetic manifesto. The only thing in common is their medium: nature. Apart from the term itself, therefore, what connects these artists is their desire to work on the spot, so that they can leave their mark, in one way or other, on whatever scale, and for however long, without deciding in advance how their works are to be accessed. Long’s earth lines and circles, for example, are rooted in his deep affinity with nature, developed during solitary walks in which he explored relationships between time, distance, geography, measurement and movement.  

Nature NOW?    

Currently, few artists pursue such ambitions, probably because of the particularly active trend towards reification in the art field. Today the Utopian desire of 70s artists to break away from the stranglehold of the market has given way to more personal projects that center on urban issues or environmental investigations about sustainability. Classicial and Romantic views of nature are no longer valid despite their enduring ability to offer artists refuge and guidance. Engaging the traditional landscape is no longer a paysage moralisé or source of moral edification, as it was considered in France and Italy during the 17th-18th centuries. Artists today take into account both the crisis facing nature and the crisis in the definition of nature.    

Nature – as with a painting, sculpture or building – only becomes significant when we make an active connection with it. Like a canvas in a gallery, a landscape or aspect of the natural comes to life in the eyes of the people who look at it. The act of observation in nature and not as a virtual experience brings about a very different experience that is capable of sometimes posing questions. In return, the observer confers meaning on the works of nature, and, artists and the hybrid forms produced through human action on the environment, and transmit that meaning to others. Twentieth and twenty-first-century artists have increasingly thematized the threat to and human intervention in, nature. In what are occasionally vexingly beautiful pictures, it is often only at second or third glance that astonishment and critical scrutiny set in. This understanding of nature has, however, been revealed as culturally constructed, the product of political ideologies, and conveying human domination over nature. Furthermore, a distant spectator, who remains alienated from the object of his gaze, perceives landscape only through a frame.   

In conventional landscape work that reduces nature to two dimensions, that stresses formal qualities and frames and flattens the natural world into scenery, the complexity of nature is ignored. Nature possesses contextual dimensions, offers a multi-sensory experience, and appears as a seamless unity. On the one hand we have an everyday emotional relationship with it—take for example the observance of fall through the trees changing colors and on the other, to some nature is something alien, mystical and unknowable especially to those who do not venture outside an urban environment or Internet.   

Robert Adams, Untitled, Denver 1970-74

Jean-François Lyotard argued that the modernists attempted to replace the beautiful with the release of the perceiver from the restraint of the human condition. According to him the sublime’s importance is in the way it points to simulated doubt or puzzlement in human reason; it expresses the periphery of our conceptual powers and reveals the diversity and volatility of the Post-Modern world.    

In the past few decades’ artists’ attitudes toward nature has changed. In the 1970s, photographers in the New Topographics movement turned their attention unsentimentally to the industrialized “man-altered” environment; Robert Adams’s 22 photographs offered views of natural landscapes transformed by their intersection with civilization. Adams was one of many photographers to challenge the romanticized view of landscape photography dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, in the 1980s, artists animated the natural landscape with art, movement, and performance; and in the 1990s, Eco-Artists collaborated with scientists to address sustainability, pollution, and politics. This continues today.    

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, for Documenta (1982). First tree planted in front of Fridericianum Museum, Kassel Germany

Maja and Reuben Fowkes, said “Nature as subject in contemporary art acts as a barometer of ecological alignment, while correspondingly artists contribute to a progressive shift in how we relate to and envision nature.” In the 1980s this was especially evident in the work of Joseph Beuys, the forefather of environmental activism in 20th-century art and a founding member of the Green Party in Germany in 1979. In 1982 his piece ‘action’ for Documenta 7, was a canonical work of ecological art comprised of 7,000 Oaks—planted throughout the city of Kassel. Beuys’ desire to sow into the future a change in peoples and communities’ attitudes towards nature and their environment is mirrored in the constantly changing relationship between the tree and the stone. As time passes and the tree grows, the proportional relationship between the two evolves, the tree gaining in strength and height as people’s consciousness and engagement should.    

The group exhibition, titled Unframed Landscapes, curated by Maja and Reuben Fowkes in 2004, offered a reassessment of landscape as a genre in contemporary art. It aimed to focus on our relationship with nature across the full range of current media, including: landscapes painted from train windows, video photography exploring gender and landscape, computer animation researching images of a natural phenomenon on the web, digital snaps expressing the marginality of nature in city life, and physical interventions in the natural environment. In the landscape painting of Croatian artist Matko Vekić, Mountain (2000) the modernist grid is superimposed over a mountain, denoting and denouncing our obsession with classifying and mapping nature as an instrument of rationality and domination.    

Matko Vekic, Mountain (2000)

At Mass Moca in 2009, the  exhibition, Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape addressed contemporary ideas of exploration, population of wilderness, land usage, environmental politics and the relativity of aesthetic beauty comes at a critical time, when the world is more ecologically aware yet more desperately in need of solutions than ever before. While deeply aware of the legacy of the nature, the artists reinvent the genre to produce works that look beyond vast beauty to address current environmental issues. The exhibit showcased artists’ fascination with the earth, gathering work by contemporary artists who approach landscape through history, culture, and science. Much of the art in Badlands dealt with decline and ecology. The discord between image and (censored) text suggests something irreconcilable, even schizophrenic, in our relationship with reality, and it’s from this that Ed Ruscha’s piece, Be Careful Else We Be Bangin On You, You Hear Me? (2002), gains its peculiar charge. Ruscha re-invents the traditional awe-inspiring landscape in his Country Cityscapes series in which he takes calendar-like panoramas and cuts away sections of the prints, filling the voids with text (phrases like “It’s payback time” and “You will eat hot lead”). Known for his ironic perspective on American vernacular imagery, Ruscha allows the landscape to talk back, this time with a stereotypical Wild West twang.    

Melissa Brown and J. Henry Fair deal more directly with the beauty of a declining landscape. Brown’s “Pond Scum”, 2007 Anime-inspired paintings look like postcard images of national parks until closer examination reveals an oil slick on the surface of the water or a Technicolor view of Niagara Falls. J. Henry Fair’s unaltered aerial photographs, Bauxite Waste drains from an aluminum refinery in Darrow, Louisiana seem to capture beautiful abstractions of the landscape, while, in truth, their “beauty” is actually the result of man-made chemical processes that are actively polluting the environment.    

Ed Ruscha, Be Careful Else We Be Bangin’ On You, Hear Me? (2002)

 Anthony Goicolea, 28 photographs straddles fantasy and reality by presenting monumental images of surreal landscapes that reference the Hudson River School and Ansel Adams but are decidedly contemporary, and almost sinister. Oft his images such as Tree Dwellers (2004), are punctuated with alternative makeshift living spaces that are made up of, as well as incorporated into, the surrounding environment. Many of the figures in the photos are reduced in size and are almost swallowed by their surrounding.     

The exhibit, Weather Report: Art & Climate Change, guest curated by Lucy Lippard in 2007, partnered art and scientific communities to create a visual dialogue-surrounding climate change. Lippard said, “The thing that makes this show different from most is that 20 of the artists worked directly with scientists”…The Structure of Evolution, is Rebecca Di-Domenico’s depiction of global warming. Agnes Denes’s piece, Grand Unification Theory (2002) demonstrates her views about the new role of the artist – to create an art that questions the status quo and the direction life has taken, the endless contradictions we accept and approve, while offering intelligent alternatives.    

In March 2010 “Sustainability and Contemporary Art: Art, Post-Fordism and Eco-Critique” was held at the International Symposium at CEU Budapest, Hungary. This symposium focused on the intersections between globalization, ecology and contemporary art, and examining the relevance of Post-Fordist theory for both environmentalism and artistic practice.    

The rise of environmentalism/ecological, feminism, and critical theory together has significantly changed our understanding of nature, and consequently artistic practice. Collectively they have raised awareness and have challenged the anthropocentrism of a culture based on the objectification and exploitation of nature. Post-modernist theory demonstrated how our relations to the non-human world are always historically mediated and constructed. The post-modern reading of nature was a textual construct made up of countless layers of human interpretation, none of which is privileged over another, is ultimately unsatisfactory. Beneath the many layers of cultural framing, there remains something irreducible about the natural world. For when the frame is dissolved, ‘the spectator orientation associated with the fixed gaze disappears, and we are in the presence of another vision entirely. For post-modernists, landscape was a set of contingent visual and verbal conventions, rather than something natural and given. Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory expressed “it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape.”    

Agnes Denes, Grand Unification Theory (2002)

 Issues of Environmentalism are evident in the contemporary work of Olafur Eliasson, Ann Hamilton, Diana Thater, Andy Goldsworthy, and Charly Nijensohn. Louise Lawler, Hiroshige Sugimoto, Justine Kurland and Alexis Rockman. Several of the artists as did Land Artists use photography as a medium to document their projects as well as to explore ideas of reality and illusion about nature.    

Without a doubt artists are noticeably reacting to news about climatic disaster, the extinction of threatened species, or the depletion of natural resources and confront us with their subjective response. Undeniably nature even today offers artists refuge and guidance, but with real estate developers, oil spills, toxic waste and nuclear disasters and with beer cans proliferating in Serengeti grass and Himalayan snow, it is hard not to feel that nature needs refuge and defence. In order to make influential art about the natural world, it’s necessary to take into account both the crisis facing nature and the crisis in the definition of nature. Today it ever more becomes hard to arrive at any clear sense of what ”nature” is, especially in an era of new technology, instantaneous gratification and countless individuals only experiencing nature virtually through the Internet or television. The artistic representation of nature is closely linked with the social perception of the natural world. This is a two-way process: society draws its ideas about how to view and experience nature from the mediated conventions of visual culture, whilst artists react to current societal attitudes and governmental policy about the environment.    

In conclusion increasingly artists, mainly in England, Germany and the United States as well as in Central Europe are devoting their life and art to the investigation of and response to environmental problems. Museums and galleries as mentioned above are organizing extensive exhibitions about ecology and galleries sell documentation of degradable work that is designed to leave behind only a photographic record.   

Art has much to contribute to this familiar and experiential connection. Even the most proficient scientist would not succeed in communicating the severity of an environmental problem to the larger public, because she/he would not know how to evoke a mixed response from the audience, or provoke a deep sense of belonging or familiarity and responsibility on a more regional and local level. This can be the role of an artist, a director or a writer. Art has the power to impact the environment, as well as raising awareness of environmental issues beyond charts and statistics. Perhaps artists and humanists should increasingly be incorporated into decision-making processes, at the highest level. Planning committees on environmental policy should include environmentally concerned artists, philosophers, historians, etc. as an inseparable part of the team. A place perchance to begin could be at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Council On Environmental Quality (CEQ) in Washington, DC. Artists focusing on ecological and environmental issues are already either environmentalists themselves or collaborate on a recurring basis with ecologists.  

Andrew Rogers, Shield (2010), 100×70 meters, Kenya, Africa

The core of interdisciplinary work is the inclusive equality of all professions and disciplines, working together from dissimilar perspectives for a similar goal. Each of the participants brings with him/her a varied solution, thus as a consequence the whole process receives broader dimensions and gains in richness. This is already occurring at numerous universities and think tanks around the world. Conceivably time is at hand for environmental incentives to be given to scientists and planners to include artists in ecological projects—governments consult with ecological artists before reclaiming a river, a quarry or a garbage dump.  

A recent exhibition including the work by 30 international artists was held at The Royal Academy of Arts in England titled Earth: Art of a changing world. Through their works they elucidated the role of the artist in the cycle of human and cultural evolution – as communicator, reflector and interpreter of key issues of the day. Artists as Sophie Calle, Antony Gormley, Mona Hatoum, Yao Lu, Lucy and Jorge Orta, Cornelia Parker, the poet Lemn Sissay and Shiro Takatani addressed the issues of nature, ecology in an ever changing world. Furthermore writers Ian McEwan, Mariele Neudecker and Emma Wieslander offered insight, vision and hope, responding powerfully to this cultural shift, some with a celebration of beauty as well as the urgency to acknowledge what we stand to lose. These artists approach this shift from various perspectives: some engaging with the rigor of scientific endeavor, others through the use of imagined worlds, film and music, delving into the emotional understanding of knowledge.  

Most surprising of all, however, is that artists have tried, and continue to push the specific nature of art to extremes while refusing to produce objects that are specifically objects’ d’art. No discoverable common meaning or motivation seems to underlie various artistic intentions; artists “representing” nature and those “utilizing” it cannot be measured with the same yardstick. Yet despite the positive ongoing zealous efforts of artists toward raising awareness about the crisis of nature and environment there is also a need for caution— artists too must pause and re-evaluate how their art and efforts are contributing to the growing global carbon footprint.  

by Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer    

Carnegie Mellon University    

Professor, History of Art,    

Theory and Museum Studies    

The original text for this article was presented in a paper delivered on 22 October at the Mid-America College Art Assoc./Southeastern College Art Conference held at Virginia Commonwealth University. It has been expanded for this essay published in ARTES. 

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