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.
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.
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.
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”.
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