Biophylia in Art

by Fiona Stewart

While looking around the site I have noticed the repeated presence of images from the natural world – plant life, animals, landscape, and as these are areas in which I also tend to specialise I found myself wondering why they are such perennial themes.

One has only to cast the most cursory glance over the history of world art across the widest span of times and cultures to find that the representation of the natural world (as opposed to human made objects and lifestyle) is by far the dominant presence. This is not to say that there is not great beauty in other subjects, in the non figurative, in modern and urban art, but something in Nature captures the human soul and draws us back, again and again.

Moreover, there is a strong and frequent link between the representation of the Natural world and religious, mythological and psychological themes. From the earliest cave paintings, created as magical acts to summon the required food animals; through the Greek, Celtic and Egyptian mythological representation of animals to the sympathetic and allegorical landscape backgrounds of medieval and early modern art, it is as if the natural world is a gigantic mirror, reflecting back to us our cultural preconceptions.

When one considers a painting like W Holman Hunt’s "The Scapegoat" for example, one of the most striking things is the utter pathos, grief, desolation captured in the goat’s expression. No human figure, nothing but the tortured colours of the landscape and the animal’s face serve to present an allegory of the whole Victorian mindset regarding religion, sin and shame.

Similarly, in the frequently analaysed "Last Supper" of Michaelangelo, what grips me is the deathly mood of the landscape seen behind the figures. If one analysed that portion alone one might guess that death and betrayal were central themes. The emotions of the subjects are vividly daubed in the colours of the canvas.

One might consider this a homocentric projection, for we, in the "Ecological Age" realise of course that "Mother Nature" is a great beast of uncertain temper, one to be feared, nutured and revered but never tamed. Is it a nonsense to see our mind, hearts and souls reflected back to us through the natural world? If so then it is a truly ancient one, as old as the first anthropomorphised deities of wind, thunder, water, sun.

Even in this modern age, where the rise of angry urban art sells for vast sums, there are a larger number of artists than ever taking Nature as their predominant theme, from the traditional watercolour landscape to colossal sculptures of semi abstracted plant forms. Reading the ‘Artists and Illustrators’ professional periodical recently I was interested to see thatin their ‘Artist of the Year’ competition, the Landscape, Animal and Botanical sections all contained (and were won by) very traditional and highly skilled watercolours and oils. The same periodical contained coverage of some vast semi abstract sculptures by Christopher Le Brun, one of a beautifully modelled horse flanked by gigantic discs, giving in a Graeco-Egyptian, mythologised appearance. I was recently captivated by the work of Judith K MacMillan, a photographer whose X ray images of plants capture a numinous sensitivity that borders on the sacred.

So what does it mean, this love of Nature, this addictive persistance of the Natural world in art? Could it be that even as we have, for the main, enclosed ourselves in urban environments and abandoned the wilderness, our hearts cry out with the loss? For me, when I see (or paint) a natural image now I approach it with something like reverence, asking myself "How does this stir my soul? Why am I moved by this? What am I trying to learn?

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