Art has been man’s attempt at deciphering his position in nature and the natural world.
“Suddenly, (a painting of) a big, red bear rose up before us. Transfixed, we stayed for a moment to admire it.”
-Eliette Brunel Deschamps, French speleologist, on discovering Chauvet, a site of prehistoric art.
The Great Hall of the Bulls in the Lascaux cave, France which holds six gigantic, painted bulls is one of the numerous, richly decorated sites discovered in the Ardeche valley in France. Cave art was a global phenomenon. The hunter gatherer with his limited resources paid homage to the life forces with colours so vivid and techniques so sophisticated that it continues to produce disbelief amongst art historians and experts. As studies proceeded, historians came to the realization that these paintings rarely served the purpose of depicting daily life but were associated with ritual practices and spiritual beliefs. These were our ancestors’ attempts at answering questions that have always plagued humanity, questions about our existence, our purpose, and our place in nature.
Although we are a part of nature, religions have insisted that we are separate from it. Art shows this very strange confrontation that mankind has to face.In the Renaissance world, the ideas of NeoPlatonism made a comeback. One of its concepts was called the ‘Great Chain of Being’. It placed mankind at the centre of a hierarchy that began with God, descended towards the planets, stars, heavenly beings, towards all life forms and ended with demons and devils. The Vitruvian Man, placed at the exact centre of a circle and a square not only answered the mathematical questions of its time but also removed man from the chain and placed him at the centre of the natural world, with an ability to exist within all of its elements. Man was an intelligent being , created by God to fully comprehend the beauty and complexity of what he had created. It is no wonder then that art surmised man’s questions about nature in this one defining drawing.
Breathing Proportion by Indian artist, Samir Mohanty
Man has always intended to turn nature into culture, to make things of beauty that echo our earliest creative impulses.The influence of nature on the artistic styles of the impressionists and post impressionists is no secret. Monet’s magnanimous work, Water Lilies goes on to betray his attempt at recreating nature within the confines of a gallery, with natural light deftly allowed in to accentuate his recreated garden.
The famous art critic Barbara Rose had said,”A dissatisfaction with the current social and political systems results in an unwillingness to produce commodities which gratify and perpetuate that system. Here the sphere of ethics and aesthetics merge.” Every art movement has been birthed under the direct or indirect influences of the socio-political, and cultural movements of the time. Art Nouveau (the late 1800s) was a movement born out of the disenchantment that artists of the time faced with growing industrialization and the dying inventiveness that came along with it. So coupling functionality with beauty gave rise to this movement which featured motifs of natural elements like flowers, leaves and muted colours .
Surprisingly this movement made a comeback in the Hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s when the world was rife with conflict. It came to be adopted on posters, clothes, architecture and album covers.This was also a period that saw the birth of the modern environmental movement and numerous modern and contemporary artists seized the opportunity that art gave them to express their discontentment with the systems in place. Art compelled the audience to confront their complicated relationship with nature.
One such artist was Agnes Denes. In her astounding work, Wheatfield, a Confrontation Summer, she reclaimed 3 acres of a landfill right beside Wall Street and grew a harvest of wheat. This underlined the choice being made about a piece of land which was valued exorbitantly, and asked questions on how we manage and mismanage our natural resources. Wheatfield showed the inherent connection with nature that evades us by working with the landscape.
Wheatfield by Agnes Denes
Skyspace by James Turrell is a work that does something astounding in its simplicity. It compels you to pause, to have patience, to look up at the skies, and revere their magnificence. It fills you with questions about nature, and our relationship with it, our vain attempts at controlling it, and our impact on maligning it. Like in every work of contemporary art, the art here is not merely the skylight. It is what happens between the viewer and the slice of nature that he is forced to confront, a search for meaning that progresses, where there may be none. The viewer’s perception is the art and he is also the institution.
Skyspace by James Turrell
Nature in art has depicted unforgettable struggles against the elements, as well as peaceful thought provoking havens. Each of these is an attempt to question man's innumerable attempts at making a mark on the natural world that he has committed to rule.
Through art, we have collaborated with nature, intervened with nature and battled with nature. We have wrestled with our feelings of alienation and of intimacy with nature. Throughout history we have marvelled at mankind’s ability to control the landscape and dramatically fail to control it. Art has been a way in which humans have tried to negotiate a place for themselves amongst the mysteries of nature.