Nature worship: the new religion
Posted: 07 Mar 2011 | By: Patricia Anderson - Editor
As far back as our prehistoric cousins, man has always reflected on - and been confounded by - nature. Its mysterious, implacable and sublime elements have been endlessly reflected in art, music and poetry. This would confirm some highly developed consciousness of an external world beyond the sustenance of food, shelter and procreation, and a need to respond to this understanding by making something to approximate it: art. Thus, art became a way of making sense of the world.
But a more complicated notion, where art is concerned, is how and why we are transported by a work of art. In his recent book How Pleasure Works, Paul Bloom asks why we respond to art the way we do - and how we respond. He refers to some ideas which scientists have been exploring: one is functional magnetic reasoning imaging (FMRI), a procedure which shows how the brain is responding chemically to visual stimuli.
We understand that most creatures have brains but "only humans seem to have minds that can reflect on this fact" and most importantly, only humans experience art and religion. We know these two creations were deeply intertwined until the 1700s in Europe, when the spirit of enquiry embodied in the enlightenment nudged religion into the back seat of art history and installed a secular spirit in the driver's seat.
Bloom says: "My experience of Vermeer is just that; my experience. And telling me why it happens is not the same as saying what it is." While a brain scanner can detect all manner of brain excitation - it can see things happening - it can't interpret them. Thus, he suggests, the scientists are looking at circuit diagrams but without actually being able to read them.
Painters who respond to nature do so in many ways. The misted and mysterious landscapes behind Leonardo's portraits, with rivers snaking through valleys and between mountains, were his 'private landscape' of memories conjured from childhood and shaped by a powerful imagination. In the seventeenth century, Claude Lorraine and others arranged nature's most promising elements in accordance with certain formulae and principles of perspective to create an arcadia - a benign and idealised panorama. The Romantic Movement in the nineteenth century was a restless and highly charged period for painters, poets and musicians who placed nature's savage beauty and demonic power at centre stage. Yet to talk about art and nature is not simply the business of talking about landscape painting. Movements in America originating in the 1960 and 1970s, loosely defined as 'Earth Art', of which Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is surely the most celebrated, revealed a different way for the artist to map his encounters with nature and had more in common with prehistoric hill figures in Britain, such as the Giant Man in Dorset, and the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. And by the twentieth century, for a growing number of practitioners, the natural world had become a template or armature for dismantling perspectives and experimenting with colour, and the abstract embodiment of states of mind.
In our March issue, we have showcased a number of artists: ceramicist Juz Kitson, sculptor John Davis, metalsmith and jeweller Julie Blyfield, photographer Peter Solness and the watercolourist John Wolseley, who have each distilled some essence of nature in their works by examining its microcosms. And finally, we are also delighted to tell you, the reader, that, beginning with this issue, aAR will now be published six times a year instead of four.