Creativity Unlocked Part 2: The interwoven history of science and art

Heidi Ma
by Heidi Ma on

Heidi Ma, Hainan Gibbon Project Coordinator

The second of a four-part blog series 'Creativity Unlocked: Exploring the art in the science' by Heidi Ma, about how the history of art is shaped by the environment and scientific endeavours, and reflects diverse human-nature relationships. 

Throughout art history, artistic periods were often inspired by nature and reflect the changing relationship of people with nature. In some of the earliest known artworks, such as the prehistoric paintings in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France, megafauna such as aurochs, lions, horses, and rhinos were depicted in large numbers while few humans were shown, suggesting the importance of animals in paleolithic life. Besides demonstrating advanced artistic skills, even inspiring Picasso’s modernist experimentations, early cave art around the world is also a rich source of data for research on human evolution, development of language, indigenous ecological knowledge, and human-wildlife relationships

Top, 'Lion Panel', c.30,000 B.C. Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave, Centre National de Préhistoire, France. Bottom, 'Guernica', Pablo Picasso, 1937. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain.
Top, 'Lion Panel', c.30,000 B.C. Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave, Centre National de Préhistoire, France. Bottom, 'Guernica', Pablo Picasso, 1937. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain.

More recently, Romanticism coincided with the Enlightenment and later, the Industrial Revolution, and was an emotional response to the rationality of the scientific method and technological advances, some of which caused environmental destruction. Romantic painters captured the sublimity of nature with moody palettes and portrayed vast ominous landscapes often with tiny humans or none at all. Today, they give us clues about topical issues in conservation, such as the extent of glacier melt and colonial agendas of wilderness preservation at the expense of indigenous peoples.

The next century spawned Impressionism, which liberated artists from the academies and ateliers to step outside and paint en-plein-air. They captured natural light and the environment first-hand, instead of natura morta (‘dead nature’), from still life set up in the studio. The very essence of painting, how we see and interpret colour, is now better understood with advancements in neuroscience. In fact, the colour palette of the Impressionists, a radical experiment at the time, was inspired by a physicists’ study of optics and new insights on colour theory. 

'Dodo in landscape with animals', Roelandt Savery, c.1629. Zoological Library and Archives, ZSL.
'Dodo in landscape with animals', Roelandt Savery, c.1629. Zoological Library and Archives, ZSL.

In classical East Asian culture, nature is essential and dynamic. For example, a central concept is the constant state of change and the ephemerality of both natural and human worlds. Rooted in Daoist and Buddhist philosophies, they are omnipresent in artistic interpretations of human-nature relationships. Flora and fauna carry culturally salient symbolism, often reflecting observations of biological and ecological characteristics. For example, red-crowned cranes are auspicious symbols of immortality, turtles are associated with longevity and creation myths, bamboo stands for resilience and strength, and pine trees for adaptability in adverse conditions

Left, 'White Crane in Pine Tree', Ito Jakuchu, 18th century. Tokyo National Museum, Japan. Right, ceramic funerary urn, or ‘spirit jar/hun ping’, with animals, c. 200-600 A.D. Six Dynasties Museum, Nanjing, China.
Left, 'White Crane in Pine Tree', Ito Jakuchu, 18th century. Tokyo National Museum, Japan. Right, ceramic funerary urn, or ‘spirit jar/hun ping’, with animals, c. 200-600 A.D. Six Dynasties Museum, Nanjing, China.

I was travelling in China for fieldwork last year, when I saw a collection of ceramic funerary urns in a museum. They depicted a curious mix of wild, domestic, real, and mythical fauna, along with human figures and the occasional immortal. Believed to be containers for the souls of the deceased, their decoration reflects the important symbolism of animals in ancient Chinese funerary rites. The myriad creatures all crowded together in a pagoda structure stacked on top of a voluminous vessel somewhat resembled Noah’s Ark. 

The value that people place on nature has shaped both historical and contemporary relationships with nature, from the uses of wildlife to the perception and management of wilderness. Looking for clues in art can help us understand some of these otherwise obscure relationships that might hold keys to more effective conservation actions. 

In the next blog, I will share some examples of how contemporary art becomes a medium for science communication and environmental activism.

See more of my art on Twitter and Instagram @heidima825, or in my first blog post of this series, “How art and science go hand in hand in lockdown and helped me survive”.

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!

Conservation

We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.

Science

From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Education

A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Chagos Expedition

The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.