Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Art and Nature

Where should we look for inspiration? Art or nature? 

(Above left: by Giovanni Boldini, 1842–1931), above right: by Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905) 

By “Nature,” of course, I don’t just mean the wild woods, but the real world around us. It’s an age-old question, one that passes through my mind sometimes when I’m making a long pilgrimage to a museum to study paintings of a favorite artist. Such journeys take me past scenes of foggy streets or quiet streams that beckon me to paint them. Hurrying to enter the gallery, I ignore the inspiration of reality in favor of the product of another artist’s hand. 

The appeal of Art is strong. Those who have gone before provide a stimulus, a high example. Facing nature can be bewildering. On its own, reality is overwhelming and infinite. Seeing what others have painted provides a way through the maze of appearances. The example of great art provides new ways to interpret Nature. Nature has already been translated, made comprehensible, achievable. The greatest artists of the past have blazed trails into the wilderness that we can use as a guide for our own personal exploration, just as the mountain climber is lifted up by knowing which routes have been scaled before, by whom, and with what equipment.

What if we turn only to Art for inspiration? Those who base their work only on other Art find that their productions quickly becomes sterile, mannered and derivative. Even the most able artist risks falling back on safe habits, familiar methods, and trite motifs.

Sometimes while looking at a painting by an artist I admire, I can imagine his or her voice whispering to me: “Don’t bother looking at my paintings. Go outside, where I got my inspiration, and find your own art there!” Other times I find myself filling folders on my computer with more and more digital images, and I feel like the diner who keeps eating out of habit, savoring the taste less with each bite.

One might object that the two quantities are fundamentally dissimilar and can't be compared. Art is an artificial creation of the human mind, and Nature is unknowable except through human culture. In fact it can be argued that we can't really approach Nature as artists without the guidance of some template of previous tradition. So it's not really a question of Art or Nature, but cultivating the habit of alternating the appreciation of one with the other.

"Art and Nature" by Francisco de Medrano, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The study of Nature—informed by feeling, memory, and imagination—has been the stimulus for many great movements in art history. And it is the source of the art that I love most. In his poem "Art and Nature," Spanish poet Francisco de Medrano (1570-1607) expresses how art is like a cloistered garden compared to the limitless divine creation, a message that inspired me so much that I wrote it out with a dip pen above.


John said...

When I was (MUCH) younger, I had decided to go to college and all I wanted was to go to an art college. One of the key inspirations in my life, our county extension agent, said "no, you really need a liberal arts background". I'm SO glad that I did now because I feel I have a much stronger background for my storytelling. I feel like art colleges probably give a stronger foundation for MAKING art but you can't make art about art. Art is about everything else in the world. I would have only been going to an art college to avoid algebra and I would have missed out on all the history and literature and everything else that makes life great.

James Gurney said...

John, your experience is similar to mine. I also went to college for a liberal arts degree before pursing art. You raise a really important point, that the artist can draw a lot of inspiration not just from nature and other visual art, but also from poetry, history, music, and literature. It's hard to factor in how that enriches a person's painting, but I believe it does.

Steve said...

I'm guessing I'm like most in regard to Art and Nature; it's not a matter of either/or. Sometimes the interplay can be very specific. I'm currently working on some paintings for a show sponsored by a local land conservancy. Several of us have been "assigned" to rural properties that are conservancy holdings. We spend time at our properties and use the visits as the basis of our paintings. I've been assigned a nearby dairy farm. Being there this month, with patches of snow on the ground, led to also revisiting the book, "Wyeth at Kuerners," Seeing Andrew Wyeth's sketches -- which range from ultra minimal to exhaustively developed, and then the tempera paintings that resulted -- was tremendously helpful. I'll be painting the cows and buildings from "my" property, but Wyeth's work will nourish the process.

Michael said...
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David Apatoff said...

Hegel said that the only possible starting place for art is experience, by which he meant walking through the world and developing through osmosis an appreciation for the kinds of colors and forms that nature favors. After all, where would we find the meaning for aesthetic concepts such as "balance" and "harmony" and "beauty" if not from what our senses take in from nature? This isn't to say that you couldn't learn from those same colors and forms once they have been filtered through another artist....

I agree with Steve that the dichotomy is not either/or. In fact, sometimes nature helps out art-- bleaching the bold colors off those statues on the acropolis, oxidizing Chinese Shang dynasty bronzes to turn them beautiful greens, or contributing moss, lichen and cracks to the statues at angkor wat.

Benjamin. said...

But I live in Ohio, and its almost always freezing and cloudy and I have no great landscapes around me.
I want to paint landscapes, what else can I do?

Don Ketchek said...

You ask "Art or Nature" - but the title of your post reveals the answer: Art AND Nature.

mp said...

"These speak of grandeur that defies decay - "

Beautiful poetry.

Great post.

James Gurney said...

Steve, I'm so glad you mentioned Wyeth at Kuerner's. We were talking about A. Wyeth, too, over breakfast before reading your comment. He blazed a trail into interpreting America's rural landscape, gave us a way to see it that influenced a generation of artists in the '70s and '80s. Look forward to seeing what you come up with.

David, I don't know if I agree with Hegel in theory. Aren't ideas of balance, harmony, and beauty human constructs? Are those qualities really self evident and mutual to people who wander in nature? For the sake of argument, let's suppose there were two feral children, one raised in the wilderness by wolves and one raised 24/7 in an art gallery (or if you prefer, playing video games). If either of them felt moved to create artwork, what would they come up with? What would be the strengths and limitations of each?

I agree with Don, Steve, and others, that it has to be both Art and Nature, or the interplay between both inspirations. But I posed the question as an "or" question because it does come down to choices of one or the other when one plans a limited trip to Europe (to sketch or to go to the museum?) or when one buys books for reference (art books or nature photo books?)

Benjamin, you're joking, right? Freezing, cloudy Ohio sounds inspiring as an art subject to me.

phiq said...

I'm glad to find others have the Art + Liberal Arts education! It makes me feel less weird to have done so. Few seem to have bothered in my generation.

For me, I look to art to feel inspired, to attain an energy that makes me work. I also look to art for technical reasons, so I may improve my methods. But if I want to be influenced, I look to the real world; history, religion, literature, nature, design, architecture, and so on. The most I ever look to be influenced by art is to seek out a kind of design philosophy of a particular artist. There's always a lot of same, and that's my way around the problem, and of adding to it.

phiq said...

There are a few exceptions to my comment above, but generally speaking... ;-)

David Apatoff said...
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David Apatoff said...

James, if harmony and balance are human constructs, I guess Hegel's question would be, "out of what are you constructing them?" How do you know what is harmonious, as opposed to dischordant? Why do certain visual combinations feel good? If we construct beautiful things, how do we know when we have arrived at beauty? How can we tell we are going in the wrong direction? Ever since college, I try to avoid straying too deeply into Hegel whenever I can avoid it but these strike me as worthwhile questions.

The mind reels at your thought experiment of a feral child raised in art gallery. Would this gallery be displaying the work of Jeff Koons? Tracey Emin?

Anonymous said...

I think art is more important than nature due to the time tested cultural canon of art (disregarding the last 100+ years, which isn't long in cultural time). If nature is aesthetically complete, why any need for art at all? And if you think nature is aesthetically complete, you couldn't have much of the spirit of art and creativity within yourself.

Very interesting line of questions which are, in my opinion, pointing towards phenomenology.

Roberto said...

I don’t see this as an either/or thing, either(?). I guess I’m w Steve. The middle path is always a good place to start wandering/wondering from.

I see two ways into this koan:

1.) Nature, as infinite input, is processed by our consciousness,... we have an aesthetic experience… and struggle to express or reproduce or interpret it. Once in a while some of us, if we work very hard at it, and we are very, very lucky, might come close to sort of getting it right; but not without the help of a few geniuses/mystic/alchemists who “have blazed trails into the wilderness that we can use as a guide for our own personal exploration.” But it’s mostly an internal process and struggle to learn and practice and improve our techniques. And like the chimp* that recognizes when it’s painting is done, we are pleased with ourselves when we recognize in our masterpiece the ‘divine spark of Nature’.
B.) Consciuosnes as infinite input, is stimulated by our limited perseptions of our environment… we have an aesthetic experience… and struggle to express or reproduce or interpret it. Facing our own internal nature can be bewildering also. On its own, our imaginative-reality can be overwhelming and all of our “productions (can) quickly become sterile, mannered and derivative.” (see #1 above about getting it right.).

Either way it’s mostly an internal process and struggle to learn and practice and improve our techniques. Thanx for the Journey. -RQ

*ref. Blogspot: Why do chimps paint?