Thursday, September 14, 2023
The first portrait of the human being was not their face but the impression of their hand on the wall of a cave thousands of years ago. Since the Paleolithic era, in the night of times, the relationship between art and nature has generated countless artistic movements, but above all, a way of understanding time. Artists have taught us different ways of relating to it, and even in such important and current issues as climate change, they have been like canaries that once warned in coal mines of the escape of firedamp gas. A great creator is someone who, understanding their time, is able to anticipate it. Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Titian, Goya, Turner, Picasso, Miró, Richard Serra, and others. All fit into that sentence.
The history of art offers a fascinating view of how human beings have understood the natural world. From cave paintings to photographs and site-specific works that simply celebrate the beauty and coexistence with nature. Of course, it was not always like this. Although nature has always existed in art, as a mere excuse for the main scene, it did not become a source of inspiration popular among Western artists until the 17th century, when two essential themes emerged in landscape painting: those dreamlike, idealized settings popularized by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, and the more realistic style that spread throughout northern Europe. The Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael depicted nature in its wildest contemplation on his enormous canvases. Generally, the human being was reduced to small spots, like a dream. There was some help. The Protestant Revolution turned harmony with nature into a new form of worship.
The 17th century begins to fade away. We are in Venice. British aristocrats embarked on the Grand Tour (a journey through Europe that encompassed the social, political, and sexual "learning") and fell in love with the city. This passion gave rise to a movement, almost an industry (produced in dozens), the veduta. Paintings of views that served as gigantic souvenir postcards. Gaspare Vanvitelli, Luca Carlevarijs, and, above all, Giovanni Antonio Canal, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, and Bernardo Bellotto exploited this discovery. Vedutism had caught on. Later, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romantic movement, Friedrich, Turner—who tied himself to a mast during a storm to sketch its fury—and Constable sought to portray wild nature.
Every artistic movement is a response to the search for a new vision of the world. And a succession of "isms" traversed the Western world. At the end of the 19th century, plein air painting and French Impressionism almost overlapped like layers of paint. The former used natural light to capture effects such as water reflections or movement. And the sun setting on trees and reeds. Rousseau, Corot, or Millet—with their famous peasants—are part of this interpretation. They are answered by others. Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, and, above all, Monet, who then created Impressionism. Painting was now en plein air (outdoors) The name comes from plein air (outdoor) and it means, with irony, that in his paintings he only observed impressions. In other words, sketches. That suffix keeps growing. Then came Luminism. Loose brushstrokes, light, and landscapes. Taken to the extreme of their beauty. It originated in the United States and spread to the Old Continent. Fitz Hugh Lane, Albert Bierstadt, and, of course, Sorolla in Spain. "Realism, one might say, illuminated with a powerful film spotlight," describes Jorge Pérez, a patron based in Miami and one of the world's leading collectors.
Next comes German Expressionism (1905-1933), born out of the premonition of the horrors that would engulf Europe with the First World War. "It is the pain of the internal landscape of man, and no one comes as close to that suffering as the Norwegian Edvard Munch," describes architect Juan Herreros, who inaugurated an extraordinary building in Oslo in 2020 that will house the painter's museum. One more stop and we have to delve into recent times. Cubism. The first avant-garde. "Painting fractures. The vanishing point disappears—something that has been present since the Renaissance. Nature is represented as alternating planes. Traditional perspective dissolves and transforms into multiple," describes painter Juan Uslé. Behind are Braque, Juan Gris, and Picasso. The Malagan painter alone represents a century of painting. Against the current. "Through art, we express our conception of what nature is not," he explained. His great opponent in those years, Matisse, on the other hand, said, "An artist must possess nature." Meanwhile, Cézanne became the father of modern painting.
The geopolitical landscape of art changes. The city of Paris, especially after the American Robert Rauschenberg won—the first American to do so—in 1964, the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, cedes its place as the center of art to New York. Abstract expressionism is forged. Pollock, Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and even a young man from Granada named José Guerrero emerge in the city. But the canvas is not enough. Artists begin to look at the largest canvas that exists: nature.
At the same time, nature photography finds expression. Perhaps the foremost environmental photographer has been the American Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and his essential series of national parks. The emergence of the environment as an artistic genre begins in the late 1960s. Works for specific locations (what is called Site Specific Art), Land Art, Arte Povera, with its Italian origins, dialogue with nature in different ways. Robert Smithson presented an exhibition (Dwan Gallery) in New York entitled Earthworks. These are large ephemeral interventions in nature that can only be captured through photographs. But they have a problem. Smithson's famous sculpture Spiral Jetty (1969) in the Utah desert used excavators. It damages what it seeks to protect. But the seed had taken root. The British artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton work on sculptures designed for nature. Although perhaps the most important environmental intervention of the entire 20th century is not the best-known. During the Kassel Documenta (the world's most important art exhibition that takes place every five years in the German city) in 1987, the artist Joseph Beuys and his assistants planted 7,000 trees (the piece was called 7,000 Oaks) in the German town.
From then until today, countless creators like Olafur Eliasson, Íñigo Manglano Ovalle, Maya Lin, and Cristina Iglesias - who even submerges her pieces in the Mexican reef - have made the environment their canvas. Is this a Golden Age for creators and nature? "I don't think so. For me, the Golden Age implies a certain bucolic idea of nature. It is an urgency to which many artists, like a part of society, react," reflects Manuel Borja-Villel, former director of the Reina Sofia Museum. But the truth, according to curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, is that this relationship "has become very visible in recent years." There are initiatives like Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary TB21 with the oceans. Many still remember the excellent installation in 2020 by New Yorker Joan Jonas.
Behind many of these creators and artists, there is a critical movement. Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña installed monumental quipus (a communication and measurement system used by the Quechua people before the arrival of Spanish colonization) made of 27 meters of wool and debris found together with her assistants in the River Thames turbine hall of Tate Modern in London. They were like immense shrouds of the environment. Cecilia leaves a thought: "Art, like a river, is always transforming. It is similar to poetry, it is similar to life."
The question is clear, like the bottom of a stream. Where do the current currents flow, combining the environment and sustainability? One aspect is to give visibility to artists who always defended it but were peripheral to the art system. The incredible drawings of Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe (a Yanomami artist) were already seen at the Venice Biennale and Art Basel. The Reina Sofia dedicated an exhibition in 2021 to Vivian Suter (born in Buenos Aires, 1949) who works on a former coffee plantation in Panajachel, Guatemala, near the volcanic Lake Atitlán, in the jungle. The relationship between creators and the environment and sustainability is no longer peripheral. It is not just about using certain materials or exposing certain wasteful or polluting attitudes (although that is also true, like Cecilia Vicuña). It is about creating where nature and sustainability merge into a shared geography and language.
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