Nature Art Uncovered - Coming of Age

Robert Parkin - AFC
July 24, 2011 share
Artists for Conservation

We have seen that with the development of serious scientific research the ‘exploration' of nature took on new meaning.

The audience for visions and views both of the scientific minutia or expansive scenes of distant places allowed artists to travel and expand their own belief and ideas on nature. Landscape painting itself evolved one avenue toward the portrayal of the exotic - both human and wildlife - as well as the view. Specimens of this new wildlife went far beyond the familiar depicted in painting for generations (or chased and eaten at home) - even the images of Hieronymus Bosch were eclipsed.

These specimens, or skins, verified the often unbelievable images that artist's had created on their travels. To the artist came a new market, and one that was expanding, and fast. Old empires had generated new wealth and settled communities in what had been the New World - this presented opportunity. In the case of Marian Ellis Rowan and her work on Australian flora this was perhaps perceived as in some way - not art, or at best, the ‘whim' of idle hands. For years, long before Wildlife Art as a genera evolved, landscape art had laboured under a similar lesser status, considered second class to that of the Grandiose Historic Painter.

Surprising then, when you consider that many of the great masters developed within their paintings sublime landscape and nature. Consider St. Francis in Ecstasy by Giovanni Bellini. This staggeringly beautiful painting encompasses belief in a greater power - it's true. A look at the landscape, and the labours of man are in evidence in almost every corner. But the painting goes well beyond that detail to a belief in the true ‘nature' of faith.

St Francis is nature represented - the creator and preserver, or the conservationist perhaps? Living away from the evils of the world, and its corruption, he has chosen nature, or his God in the guise of nature. He is transcending from the mortal, the corruptible - to the divine. These artists were able to represent nature as a prop as well as an ideal. A small part of an image, or in the case of St Francis almost all the image (some of the painting having been lost) but playing a supporting role to that of man as the originator never the less. What did they have in mind in an age of religious fervour? Will we ever truly be able to say? What separates them from us in this human journey of expression?

We on the other hand live in a world of instant images and messages, purveyed to us in a panacea of sordid forms. There can be few secrets. You, like me, know the world is getting hot, not because you see it, feel it, or measure it, like me - you have been told. Unlike the secrets no doubt whispered in the cloistered walls of religious institutions, as was the case in 1480 when Bellini finished his painting, we all know, it's common knowledge.

With the expansion of our world, and science, has come knowledge, particularly in regard to what we as humanity, have done to our natural world. So too has come responsibility and guilt. We see photo images of our world in crisis - a human world on the edge of catastrophe, the natural world teetering on a knife edge.

So where are the Bellini's today?

In the world of human achievement, of painting, sculpture, music, writing, and science, where are the peddlers of magic hiding that can express the fundamental emotion of ‘belief' in nature and therefore humanity - and a future? Well, as yet, not in the world of wildlife art - ‘Nature Art'.

There are those who have carried the baton, raised the flag, you know them: Bateman, Shepherd, Scott. Each has been a herald, all have created a legacy, all have laid a path - but to where and to what? Scan the pages of Google and see for yourself. Portrayers of beautiful images - yes. Renderers of doomsday scenarios - yes. But time passes. Our art may well be a requiem, a memorial to our natural world and ideals. Is that the best we can do? How many images of a bald eagle in tree tops does the world need? How many owls in a barn do we paint, and for what? We are artists, visionaries - we must escape the silo that wildlife art has become and ask ourselves: why do we paint?
It is not sufficient to say that we work in celebration of our natural world, or, in fact any of the obvious and trite claims that we make as nature artists. Nor indeed is it enough to shake a box, or rattle a tin in the hope of attracting charity - ‘merely' to support nature. It is not enough. Within AFC lies a precious opportunity, a place for challenge, debate, for re-focus, and renewed hope. The gauntlet lies at our door. The hill just got steeper, and we need to shift gear only if we want the natural world, (not humanity, detached as it is from the heartbeat of the natural world) to have the equivalent of an ‘Arab Spring'. As Jeff Whiting of AFC said in my recent debate with him on this topic, "We need to build on forums to show our leadership as artists and galvanize means to enact change as a group." I would add: To build on our shared history, past and present as artists and humanitarians.

If Bellini were standing where we stand today, if Darwin stood beside him, and, if Bosche were to pick up his brushes knowing what we now know, what work would they create? Would it indeed need paint, words, a chisel? Our images, yours and mine, carry the expectation of generations. More important, they carry the silent cry of hope for those, not only human, yet to come. We have been writing letters in the sand for millennia, taken, cast away, in the hope that they will settle at some stage onto fertile soils. We are still here. Nature Art has come of age, can we rise to the challenge? Do you ‘believe', and if so - in what?

Or does the future for artistic expression of our natural world, the building blocks of humanity, our relationship to it, and it to us, lie elsewhere?

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