Nature has long been man’s primary source of beauty and wonder. Ever since our minds were forged in the savannahs of our species’ youth we have sought out landscapes, seascapes, the shade of trees, the touch of fresh water, with the same instinctive lust as we sought out the beauteous in our own species.
It’s no wonder, then, that some of humanity’s greatest art has had nature as its dominant theme. The cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, the Assyrian Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, the poetry of Wordsworth, the floral and arboreal motifs in Gothic and Baroque cathedrals, the starry landscapes of Van Gogh and the lilies of Monet.
None of these painters were, in the sense we understand it now, environmentalists. They depicted nature out of raw aesthetic desire, capturing the mysterious wonder for the purpose of profound pleasure. They didn’t depict scenes of natural territories under threat or under siege. How could they; to their pre-industrial eyes nature must have seemed eternal, invincible, and man himself a cursed, fragile wretch.
Now, our vantage points have changed. The 21st century is perhaps the apocalyptic century humankind has been prophesying ever since we have learned to prophecy. I don’t actually think this century is our last – human ingenuity has evolved too exponentially to allow that to happen. But the narrative of our century is certainly an apocalyptic one. My mind, and perhaps our collective minds, are reminded of Bosch’s grand depiction of the chaos of End Times in his Last Judgment. In our century the apocalypse has a more environmental tint.
So I ask this innocently and full of curiosity – where is the great environmental art of today? Where is the art that depicts the plight of nature, the dying of the light, if you will, art that does what art alone does best, make us question, think and marvel?
If we go back a few centuries, to a time when perhaps the seeds of modernist apocalyptic thinking were sown, in the newly-industrialised Victorian age, we can gaze on a beautiful ode to natural desecration by Constable.
In the painting The Vale of Dedham from 1828 we see the typical Constable country mired in a bleak, unnamable ruin. The large tree in the foreground seems to have given up and collapsed, being held up, in an act of arboreal brotherly love, by its companions, kept from hitting the mortal ground by a kindly embrace. Beneath it, a path seems to have been cleared only recently, so that man, ever uncaring man, can picnic in the countryside that seemed to be there to serve only him, man the ultimate colonialist, enslaving not just fellow man, but once-mighty nature.
In 1836, when Constable was giving a lecture, he gave some interesting insight as to what might have inspired the tree that leaned like a verdant equivalent of the leaning tower of Pisa in The Vale of Dedham:
“…Some time afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters, ‘All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law.’ The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered … In another year one half became paralyzed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.”
Constable once confessed that he loved trees more than man and that affection is subtly and elegantly on display in this touching painting that seems to be as full of compassion towards nature as Michelangelo was to the Virgin Mary holding the body of her dead son in the Pietà. For Constable, one could not be morally sound and cruel to nature; morality was innately bound with a care and passion for nature that man has now made his pet.
There have been many a great artwork depicting landscapes and nature after Constable. From Turner’s tumultuous seascapes to Cezanne’s calming landscapes and the 20th century’s semi-abstractions of Georgia O’Keefe. So where are the subtle, nuanced depictions of flailing nature in the 21st century movements? Has the environmental movement been so overly politicised that it has lost the connection to nature that has charmed humanity since the dawn of time? Are the movements – noble and necessary as they are – more concerned with worshipping Greta Thunberg than the beautiful landscapes and myriad of species that are being so rapidly lost for future generations?
Unlike Constable we live in an age where the world’s superpower venerates exuberance, binarism, cheerleading – climate change is happening, for better or worse, in the American Age. Which means the opposition to one of humanity’s most critical crises has been loud, brash, in your face, not much more elegant than a Super Bowl advert.
Any good argument needs to be polygonal as opposed to binary, so I won’t be able to take myself seriously unless I contradict myself at least once; I could be very wrong, happily wrong, and there are in fact great artists creating nuanced, beautiful works of art about nature’s plight in the contemporary art scene. But – here comes another contradiction: the fact that they are not dominating the narrative on traditional media and social media goes to prove the point that they are not ‘in’. ‘In’ is self-conscious installation art, eco-artists that prioritise message and self-marketing over art, and tweets with stats and videos that seek to shock and insult.
Does the real tragedy of nature’s desecration go beyond the physical? Have we deprived nature of her beauty like children suddenly losing their innocence? Are both nature’s enemies and protectors equally complicit in making it into a commodity, a piece of capital to be fought over and sloganeered?
Constable’s gently leaning tree has hit the ground and vanished into thin air, leaving the soil starved and ashen.