Ara Natura, Natura Morte

The image of nature through history and man’s place in it

Nature is one of the first things that man has encountered as a human being. At the beginning he was afraid of its phenomena, later he started admiring its beauty, fascinated by nature’s uncountable forms and shapes. However, he was always capable of finding ways to live in and within the nature. After all, man originates from nature, nature is his habitat, to nature he returns. Artificially improved nature overlapped with the authentic habitat and its basic use and symbolic meaning was the idea of a fertile and picturesque nature – a heaven on Earth. The idea of landscape, however, doesn’t imply an interest-free insight into nature as it is. Instead, it is a culturally shaped consequence of the transformation of nature done by man. Every landscape functions as a strong conception, revealing the ways in which certain political and social structures have represented themselves and their own world, and, like other similar structures, kept violence over preceding cultures under a veil of secret.

Images of nature appear in art very early. From first attempts on cave walls, nature becomes and remains the primary sphere of artists’ interest. Favourite themes of Egyptian and classical artists, whose technique was mosaic, were the images of animals fighting, still life and landscapes. Gaius Plinius Senior, in his Naturalis historia, refers to a well-known case of classical painter Zeuxis who painted grapes so realistically that birds attempted to land at them.
During the early renaissance period, within the humanistic theory of art, Aristotle’s definition of art as an imitation of nature (mimesis) was commonly accepted. Aristotle claims that art is more than a copy of reality, that it shows natural and human reality, the reality as it should be, in a way that corresponds to its true idea. Understood this way, the theory of art had a didactic function as well, its task being to educate the observer and to convey certain messages through pictures. The works of art which painted nature in a realistic and credible way were valued as successful, almost perfect.

Having nature as an imperative in renaissance theory, it wasn’t easy for the picture of nature itself – landscape – to gain the status of a legitimate genre. Namely, the theory of art, as well as the theory of literature, followed the principle of genre hierarchy from classical rhetoric. There are three basic types of expression according to this principle – high, low and middle style, which corresponds to society classification. High rhetorical style was intended for rulers-heroes, and it corresponded to tragedy in literature and to historical painting in painting and sculpture. Middle style addressed the middle-class society through comedy, and it corresponded to painting and sculpture as a genre. Low style turned to the country people, through satire, and had its counterpart in pastoral landscape and still life. According to this understanding, landscape and still nature are seen as the lowest kind of manifestation in the art of painting and sculpture, being based on esthetic norms which rise from the philosophical system Arbor porphyriana (named after the classical philosopher Porphyrius), where lifeless and dead objects are seen as the most primitive existing forms. It is interesting that this specific principle appears precisely during the period of breaking the traditional system of privileges and transition from feudal to capitalistic social system, by which the existing elite tries to determine the exact place for every social class on the social ladder. Such genre hierarchy was commonly accepted by intellectual circles of the 16th and 17th century, and it hadn’t been called into question until the period of romanticism.

The term landscape was used for the first time in Venice. The first picture characterized as a landscape was Giorgione’s Tempesta. Any broader art history review contains a unit about Venetian painters and their outstanding capability of painting nature and landscape. Even before the picture of nature was recognized as such, landscape had taken an important place in religious and historical paintings in Venice. However, the first landscape was not painted in Italy, but in northern Europe, in the Netherlands. Giorgio Vazari, the first art historian and renaissance artists’ biographer, wrote at the beginning of the 16th century that “in the North there is not a single shoemaker’s house without at least one landscape in it”. It is believed that Flamanian artists who worked in Bologna, Genoa, Florence and other cities in Italy brought with them an already developed tradition of painting landscapes and gave the crucial stimulus to the Italian painters. Landscape as an independent and separate form developed in Italy at the end of the 16th century. In the following century it became widely accepted, mostly due to the influence of Anibal Caracci, whose work was highly appreciated in the Baroque era. At the beginning of the 17th century Caracci developed a new principle and a new perspective to nature – an ideal vision of nature and the connection between man and his environment. This attitude resulted directly from the renewed tendency of finding examples in classical artists, especially Aristotle and his understanding of art as mimesis, which was almost forgotten in the Mannerism period. After the anti-naturalistic Mannerism, Baroque aimed for establishing the new harmony between man and nature. Established codes and the possibility of using nature as an ideology did not change much during the following centuries. The first consequence of accepting Aristotle’s attitude towards nature was that even the image of nature itself, the landscape, got gained the extremely narrative character from Baroque. This was how the landscape became seemingly “innocent”. There is always a certain ideology in landscape, even when hidden under the term locus amoenus – an idealistic place created for enjoyment and contemplation, especially in poetry, whose visual counterpart is landscape; or when it revives classical traditions of Arcadia and the simplicity of life in nature found in Venetian pieces of art. This was the time when symbolism of landscapes, those landscapes on idealistic paintings of Venetian villas, was recognized in Venetian terra ferme, the territory they wanted to rule over. Although it may look like another innocent picture of nature, where one can find shelter, landscape is actually subordinated to the idea of ruling over the territory. The landscapes which appear as a background for portraits of rulers and aristocrats have the same symbolic meaning. The idea of ruling over nature and a certain territory, as well as ruling in general, was embraced by the rulers. In the New Age, the ideology of ruling took advantage of nature in all possible ways, not only by representing the personality of the rulers. Rulers always liked the idea of shaping nature as a form of artificial landscape, with its esthetic quality being inseparable from its economic quality.

However, the basic principle of an aristocratic ideology, which emphasizes courage as a major human quality, comprises the specific attitude toward nature. In fields of art, this attitude was formulated in Caracci’s time, as idealized “heroic landscape”– the ambience of an artificial “ wilderness”. It originates from an early-Christian idea about Christ’s temptation in the desert and a monklike withdrawal when faced not only with the “dangers” of wildness, but with oneself as well. Only partially secular, this concept was transferred by analogy to every habitat where wild animals were held, and this concept could fit into the context of heroic landscape through the hunting habit of aristocrats. According to this, the idealization of ambience of nature was not only an instrument of a politically motivated representative, but the instrument of glorifying the solitude, as well as a self-reflected attitude toward nature, one’s own liberty and leisure.

In every ideological speech, including the one about nature and its image – landscape, the personal turns into the public and political, and vice versa. By the definition of the city–nature relation, nature functions as a shelter, as a heaven on Earth, the place where our privacy is secured. As an ambience of a protected liberty, nature is a strong symbol of people’s self-awareness and democratic connotation which originated from the renaissance understanding of the unity of urban and rural landscape, representing the allegory of good ruling. By its structure based on the unity of city and nature, this understanding of political landscape should renew the ideal organization of the world. The ambivalent understanding of nature in New Age culture influenced the self-understanding of people, reflecting changes in the ideal life conception.

The idea of a “natural” garden became the embodiment of new attitudes about man’s capability to understand the divine origin of harmony in nature, and to be morally upgraded in return. Nature stands in the center of esthetic interests, being the measure of both good and beautiful at the same time, but also an area which comprises both the physical world and the subjective spiritual sphere. In the history of Garden Art, the idea of a “real” garden, as a sensual subjective area of man’s experience, was tightly linked to the rejection of the “old style” of a French garden and its static looks and accepting of an English garden and the concept of the age of Romanticism. Artificial nature was given a “natural” look, eventually. Garden became a landscape, a painting reflecting the nature genuinely, making it possible to experience it emotionally.

Since the industrial revolution which began some 200 years ago, humankind has never stopped destroying nature and natural resources. A frantic desire for progress and becoming rich led us to an ecological catastrophe with incalculable consequences, threatening to destroy years of evolution and do what numerous asteroids and wars did not succeed in – to destroy life on Earth. The idea of nature has been changing with the improvement of human thought, and contemporary concept of nature is based on the problems regarding nature as an object of scientific research, causing a whole philosophy to succeed in perceiving it. There are two natures, genuine nature and human nature, nature modified by humans. Those two are often in collision with each other.

It’s a pity that the concept of untouched nature has become a dream, wishful thinking. Modern man is faced with countless challenges and threats, but the most significant is definitely the one relating to ecology. In times when cities are being turned into concrete jungles, small green oases and parks are valuable rarity. Ever since ancient ages nature has been a place of enjoyment (locus amoenus), associated with the golden age, and the place of human enlightenment.

Technological nature of digital work itself contributes to overcoming of the ambivalent position of nature and contemporary art. Contemporary art distanced itself from nature as its inspiration, due to the character of its production, and exhibiting in galleries greatly contributed to this. Exhibiting works of art in gardens, for example, aim at making the viewers start their own quest and gain an insight into numerous problems of pollution and environmental destruction.

Sasa Janjic i Katarina Mitrovic