Humans have always battled with questions about nature—their relationship to nature and their identity as part of nature. And as long as humans have made art, they have artistically explored the questions regarding the relationship between themselves and nature. Societal beliefs and artists’ questions form the way in which art is produced, whether more naturalistic or abstract. Sometimes art has been created as scientific studies of the intricacies of plants, animals, and humans. At other times, art reflects philosophical questions, like if humans and nature should coexist peacefully, or if one should dominate and direct the other. Different aspects of nature can emotionally affect us, making us feel happy and safe, or anxious and fearful. Perhaps equally unsettling to some viewers are artworks which strip away anything recognizable until we are left with only echoes of nature’s forms and colors.
Not only is nature the subject matter, but nature itself produces art—human beings. Eventually art movements step into exploring the nature of an artist as they create. How does the artist move their arms to fling paint? Where was the artist standing in conjunction with the canvas when they painted a particular line? Art breaks through the chains of just being able to explain the human body by intricate depictions of a person’s anatomy, and now shows the actual traces of movement a body makes when creating. Lastly, this exhibit ends with a piece exploring both human anatomy and human nature’s sinfulness.
It is arguable that through any medium and any subject matter (or lack thereof), art expresses some facet of creation—of nature. Through art humans are able to explore and battle their endless questions about nature.
Follower of Bernard Palissy, Platter, last quarter of the 16th century,
Lead-glazed earthenware, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 53.225.52
Bernard Palissy—a potter, architect, philosopher, Huguenot, and scientist—made numerous naturalistic pottery pieces. Within this piece the answer to one of his most major religious questions is hidden. While the piece may appear chaotic, it is actually mathematically ordered into loose triangles of animals and plants. Through pieces like this, Palissy and his followers explore the question of how people should biblically respond to nature’s brokenness. His answer is that humanity is called to cultivate nature back into its original orderliness as God first made it. This piece not only depicts nature in its raw beauty, it asks the foundational question of how to view nature, of how to view the world, as a whole.
Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825–30,
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.51
Looking at this painting you are not left alone to admire nature, but are accompanied by the artist, Friedrich, and his friend, Heinrich, as they gaze at the moon. During this time in Germany, the moon became a symbol of religious meditation. Using the moon in its semi-eclipsed form, Friedrich uses nature to point toward a hidden understanding of faith or God. The mouth of the crescent moon tilts toward the two men, almost as if assuring them that answers will be opened to them. Nature is quite literally reaching toward Friedrich and Heinrich. Roots extend like hands wanting to share with them the food of knowledge they have to offer. Yet in the foreground, the stump of a chopped tree illustrates a divide between man and nature. Friedrich fascination with nature leads him to use it to ask the questions he has about God and religion.
Peter Paul Rubens, A Forest at Dawn with a Deer Hunt, 1635,
Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.196
In this painting, notice that a diagonal tree mirrors the one in Friedrich’s painting. This tree disrupts the painting, giving a sense of precariousness to the scene. Many contrasts in this painting give clue that Rubens is battling to understand the role of life and death. Will the falling tree crush the boy underneath it? Will the deer be mangled by the dogs? Are the birds in the top right corner circling something dead within the forest we cannot see? At the same time, there is hope of life—the boy is running away from the danger; the other two deer seem to be escaping the hunt; a nest in the middle near the top of the painting cradles eggs, symbolizing new life. This painting shows the balance between life and death in nature. Even the ambiguous lighting makes a person question, is the sun rising, or is it setting?
Théodore Rousseau, The Forest in Winter at Sunset, 1846-67,
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 11.4
Within this artwork there is an response to how humans are influenced by nature. Two peasants scurry through the ominous forest. Dark silhouettes of trees bind together, walling themselves around the figures, sealing them in. The contrast between the burning red and subtle green hues of the forest causes a sense of emergency or panic within the viewer. Birds circle overhead. Have they spotted their dinner? Is that dinner you? Imagining standing in front of this almost 6x8 feet painting. The observer would become part of the scene, whether they want to or not. Likewise, no matter what nature presents us with, storms or sunshine, darkness or light, security or danger, it surrounds us and has a degree of physical control over us and emotional pull within us.
Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Red, 1963,
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 63.73
Does an artist have to mirror nature to convey nature? Or can artists interact with nature as a subject in a different way? Here, Kelly’s colors and simple lines are the only factors we have to convey any meaning. Yet the curves between the green and blue sections can be found to imitate mountains. Perhaps the blue plain makes a viewer think of a body of water, the red a plot of land, field, or sand. Even though the paint is very flat without variety of hues, it is innate for viewers to try and separate these parts into different depths. Kelly, with very limited composition, creates a whole realm in which a person’s mind is left to roam over the scene, turning it into a landscape.
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950,
Enamel on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 57.92
Plants and animals have been studied anatomically since the first discovered cave painting; likewise, humans have been anatomically explored through art since little limestone carvings of voluptuous women were discovered dating back to 22,000 B.C. And, like with galloping horses, artists begin to explore how the human looks during different movements. In Autumn Rhythm, Pollock explores the actions of an artist while painting. Instead of looking at a painting imitating a human form, Pollock want us to see a much more fluid example about the nature of humans during the process of painting. For the most part, the previous paintings in this exhibit all contain much more recognizable forms of nature. Here, the image itself is not the subject—the artist himself is. This painting is a human taking control of a situation, of nature, of himself.
J. Stanley Connor, Cain, by 1883,
Marble, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 83.3
Beginning the exhibit with naturalistic plants and animals, we end with a naturalistic human bust. All the artists of these seven works were questioning nature or searching for answers through nature. In this work, the artist battles with human nature’s sinfulness. Cain references the biblical story where Cain murders his brother Abel. Human nature wants us to react to our surroundings, to our circumstances, and our feelings. Human nature can be rash and messy and full of regret. Through this sculpture, the artist physically displays the realization of a terrible deed. An emotion we have all felt spreads across Cain’s face. The exaggerated expression of dismay centers on one of the most common human battles—why do I do the things I know I should not do?