Nature: Mother or Stepmother

Nature in the arts from Romanticism to Futurism.

How do humans relate to nature? Moreover, how did this relationship change through time, through historical eras and revolutions? Is humanity a part of nature or is nature an external entity? Do people have the right to exploit nature and use it in the name of progress?

Although nature is crucial to human life, its relationship with them is neither obvious nor predictable. 

Art has been one of the best ways of documenting this relationship. Since the beginning of the evolution of our species, changes in the way humans perceive nature can be traced through art. Nature has been represented in all kinds of art since the moment prehistoric men started to paint animals in their caves.

Moreover, during the last centuries, the industrial and technological revolutions strongly modified the bond between people and nature. Romanticism focused on the disruption of this bond and its consequences: the anguish and the anxiety created by industrialisation. Indeed, romanticism, and especially its northern European variety, which developed mainly in the 19th century, concentrated primarily on nature and how its force disrupts human existence. 

Romanticists showed the two sides of nature, which are its perfection and comforting aspects as well as its destructiveness and aggressiveness. They display two paradigms: the sublime, the aesthetics of the immense greatness of the natural universe; and the picturesque, which goes in the opposite direction, describing the calmness and the sense of familiarity that nature can give. This duality is why nature is portrayed as ambivalent. It is represented both as a loving mother, but also a cruel stepmother. 

One of the best examples of sublime landscape art is that of the paintings created by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His works include the famous “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” and “Monk by the Sea”. They show nature as an element that is indifferent to, and unconcerned with, human lives and their disgrace. Humans are shown as small entities that overlook the infinite abyss of the universe, feeling lost before such a view. Nature is drenched in symbolism: humans belong to nature, yet they are entirely irrelevant to it. The bond between man and nature has broken. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), one of the most famous painters of all time, perfectly symbolises this idea by painting sea storms and violent natural disasters. “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps” represents a unique way to describe a historical event. Hannibal is no longer the brave commander praised in history: he is shown as a tiny and meaningless tiny silhouette in the back of the canvas. This event is a pretext. The viewer witnesses the perpetual fight between humans and nature, a wild and indestructible entity able to cancel men’s hopes and heroic acts. This conflict is at the heart of a concept termed “cosmic lyricism”. 

Picturesque views of the landscape, on the other hand, show the soothing properties of nature. John Constable (1776-1837) was the master of this. He has specifically connected typical English countryside elements to the warm and happy memories of his childhood. In one of his most famous works, the “Flatford Mill”, we can observe an idyllic scene: men working in harmony with, and thanks to, nature. Constable’s colours are soft to render a sense of quiet and the industriousness that characterised the lower merchant class to which his family belonged to.

Moreover, there is another reason why the romantic movement is fundamental to the representation of nature in art: Turner is the first artist to represent a train in a painting. The inclusion of this subject is crucial: it meant that the modification of the landscape, the technological advancements and the progress created by humans had also become integral to art. Indeed, in “Rain, Steam and Speed”, Turner painted a train he saw while travelling under the rain across Europe. This canvas is one of the first examples in painting of the mixture of natural and artificial elements. The artist combines the typical romantic theme of nature with those of technology and progress. 

This later work of Turner’s influenced the Impressionists. Indeed, their favourite subject was city life and elements that perfectly described modernity such as trains and train stations.

On the other side, Expressionists will approach nature differently by examining the primordial purity it conveyed. They looked for a primordial environment to find a lost connection to Earth and a way of living away from civilisation. 

An unusual and controversial artistic movement that had an unconventional approach to the theme of nature was Futurism. This movement began in Italy during the last years of the 19th century, embracing modernity and industrialisation. It represented motion and light as symbols of modernism and progress. The artists emphasised the speed and potential violent use of objects, mostly relating to new and modern means of transport or the growing new industrial cities. They wished to celebrate change while leaving the past behind. 

They rejected all artistic traditions while praising all forms of originality and creating a new way to relate to nature, which was seen as something to be exploited in favour of human’s plans and needs. This is clearly visible in “Lampada ad Arco”, painted by Giacomo Balla in 1909. This painting is the manifesto of the movement, in which the subject is a streetlamp. It was used as a symbol of human progress that tears apart the darkness of the night. In this work, the artificial light produced by a streetlamp completely overwhelms the soft natural light radiating from the moon. The Futurists aimed to show that industry, technology, and human toil were stronger than nature.

These changes in the artists’ perception of nature give us an insight into the many ways in which we may interpret nature. It can be an element in which we may express our anguish and vent our inner emotions, or it can be a space we modify according to our needs and desires. However, we should never forget that nature is our birthplace, and it will be forever home.

Although it is difficult to accept, nature is more potent than the human will, and it can erase our efforts to improve our conditions. No lamp, no train, nor any technological process will ever be as mighty as a storm or as sublime as the tremors of an earthquake. Indeed, as Constable said, “The sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything”. In the end, we are all, much like Friedrich’s monk, wandering by the beach in front of the immenseness of the sea, trying to reach out to an unforgiving nature to comfort and protect us.

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