ask23 > Lingner: Main Aspects of the Concept of Nature in Modern art

Michael Lingner

Main Aspects of the Concept of Nature in Modern art

If I were not convinced that today, for widely differing reasons, it is especially interesting to discuss the aesthetics of nature, I would not have accepted the invitation to write this essay. The crucial question for me is not whether, but in what sense, we can speak of an aesthetics of nature. Some perspectives will be covered elsewhere in this publication, so I shall not deal with them here; I am not going to claim the necessity for an aesthetics of nature, for example, because of an ecological obligation, nor is it my intention to reason philosophically on the plausibility of the idea of an aesthetics of nature.

What I will attempt to show is how an aesthetics of nature has formed within the development of modern art itself. From here, we can gain a perspective on the possibilities, which modern art in general has on call, as to how an aesthetics of nature actually comes about. For what can, at least artistically, be realized as an aesthetics of nature, is above all dependent upon the positions and potentials within art, and less upon ecological necessities or philosophical reasoning. A basic question is inherent in such an assessment, namely: in what way can scientific theories have a productive effect upon artistic practice? In any case, the following essay will concentrate on just two aspects: the initial historical situation of the development of modern art, and one particular, current end-point. Through this, I will study the exemplary appropriation and aestheticization of nature.

'For what is nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life... what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us... At present, people see fogs, because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London... But no one saw them... till Art had invented them.' (1) Oscar Wilde, anticipating the twentieth century and (as we will see) reverting back to the Romantics, formulated this modernist creed on nature at the end of the nineteenth century. Giving art a creative role by reason of its inventive imagination, contradicts the century-old belief that art can and should do no more than imitate nature. The origin of this conviction can be traced back to Plato, for whom art was a useless producer of shadows. This extreme disparagement was not shared by Aristotle. His idea of mimesis consisted of freer depictions and interpretations, in which art could even make nature's essences visible. But in the end, art is thought of as being restricted to refining nature's works, on the one hand, and on the other, to imitating them. (2) Insofar as it must obey the prefigurations of Mother Nature, even the act of 'refining' is widely considered to be no more than her executor. According to Aristotle, someone who builds a house is only doing what Nature would do if, so to speak, she would let houses grow. (3)

In Christianity, Nature is still seen as an absolute measure of man's art, since the will of God the Creator is manifest in her. Based on the conviction that 'God did not create the unwanted and that he did not want the uncreated', (4) nature is accorded the highest validity. Only as a result of the Enlightenment - which began at first as a philosophical movement and later, with the French Revolution, became political - did the tendencies of scientization and secularization reinforce each other and lead to a fundamental change in attitudes towards nature. Knowledge and domination of nature increased as man's faith in the eternal divine order began to crumble. His awareness of nature's irrevocable, normative force, as well as his own ability to directly experience nature, became increasingly lost in the accelerated process of civilization.

The way art was seen also changed radically at the end of the eighteenth century. As. a result of the French Revolution, art freed itself from its feudal and clerical bonds. Because of this greater autonomy, it could - and had to -see itself as a 'free' or liberal art. At the same time, this meant that from then on it lost the financial basis, social function and thematic content it had had previously. Artists could now no longer restrict themselves to inventing forms for the subjects and purposes that church and court had hitherto predetermined. They found themselves at early Modernism's zero-hour, at a point where, for the first time, they must think up the content for their artistic forms. In addition, they must contend with the difficulty that is part of being autonomous, namely that their works have no other end than that of being art.

The fact that art had to strike out in a thoroughly new direction provoked extremely diverse reactions; we find, for example, more or less contemporaneously, the trend towards a revival of Christian art, as in the case of the Nazarenes or Lukasbrüder. Opposite is one typical example: 'The Adoration of the Kings' painted by Friedrich Overbeck in 1818, and the 'Wedding at Cana' by Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from 1819.

In terms of historical development, however, what was more important was, of course, the search for new content, which took two quite different approaches. One such search resulted in a return to Greek mythology, as we find in Classicism. Goethe, for example, favoured this trend, and from 1800 on, he supported it by inviting entries to the so-called 'Weimarer Preisaufgabe'.

Opposite is an entry to the Weimar competition from the year 1801, which took as its theme the battle between the hero Achilles and the river god Scamander. The two versions were submitted by Philip Otto Runge, during his pre-Romantic, Classicist phase. Runge heard that Goethe had an aversion to heroes pictured from the back and, at the last minute, produced the second version, below.

The second movement that grew from the search for new subject-matter was Romanticism. The crucial characteristic of Romanticism is that it takes nature as its subject, and holds it to be the most suitable theme for art. Whereas, until this point, nature's role in art had been merely that of a backdrop (even for a painter such as Claude Lorraine), now nature became painting's central theme. The fact that the perception both of art and of nature were - at the same time and in similar fashion - radically changing, would in itself be enough to explain why Romantic art was so dedicated to nature. But the concept of nature incorporates, above all, the natural in man, which for the Romantic is most strongly evidenced in man's sensibilities. As is generally known, it was the cultivation of this inner, emotional nature that was the crux of the Romantic programme, one which turned against the rationality of the previous epoch of the Enlightenment, which it considered dictatorial.

The key to the aesthetic appropriation of nature is found in Romantic painting's notion of landscape. For it is landscape which offers the Romantics a place where they can sense nature most profoundly, in its inner as well as its outer manifestations. Though this sense of nature is at the source of Romantic art, landscapes were no longer the most authentic expression of nature, but were conceived of as 'artworks of the mind'. (5) Interestingly enough, the concept of landscape was already formulated in 1798, in Ludwig Tieck's novel Franz Sternbald, by the main character, a painter. Philosophy, too, stood as one of landscape painting's spiritual godfathers, in the form of a somewhat naive idealism which we can discern in Runge's following thoughts on the art of landscape: 'Just as even philosophers come to see that one can only imagine everything from inside oneself, so we see... in every flower the living spirit that man puts into it and through which landscape comes about... Thus man imprints his own feeling onto the objects around him and everything is given meaning and speech... There has never been a landscape painter who brought the original meaning... and clear beautiful thoughts into a landscape.' (6)

It was along such exclusively theoretical lines that Runge, following his fiasco with the 'Achilles and Scamander' drawing, completed his transformation from Classicist to Romantic. But already in this transitional phase, between 1801 and 1802, he speaks restrictively of 'landscapery, if you so will', and speculates that one must 'understand landscape as something completely different'. After this, the concept of landscape does not occur again in Runge's voluminous theoretical writings. The manner in which, via the idea of landscape, Runge then ventured out and arrived at a new, expanded understanding of nature, can be seen in the first practical work he did after his 'conversion' to Romanticism. He again took up a drawing with which, early in 1800, he had finished his studies at the art academy in Copenhagen. This drawing had originally been inspired by a poem by Herder, on love:

'Liebe! dich führt ein Wagen von Schmetterlingen beflügelt, und du regierest sie sanft, spielend die Leier dazu. Gütiger Gott, laß nie, laß nie die Fessel sie fühlen; unter melodischem Klang fliegen sie willig und froh.'

His meeting with the woman who was later to become his wife, brought new life into his poetic imagery. Under the impression of this genuine emotion which Runge, as a Romantic artist, considered a prerequisite for any art, he again took up the motif of the triumphant Cupid. Above is the drawing (based on many preliminary studies) which was to be the basis for Runge's painting, intended as a supra porta. Unfortunately, there is no colour image available of the original painting, since it has been undergoing restoration for many years - however, it was painted in the same way as the second chef-d'oeuvre of Romanticism, above: the 'Lehrstunde der Nachtigall' ('The Nightingale's Lesson'). On closer inspection you may discover that, from the earlier, simple illustration to the Herder poem, the new version of 'The Triumph of Cupid' has become a comprehensive comparison of love and life. Here, Runge has taken love to be a process and depicted it in different stages of development (which I have marked by number). On the right you see the first acquaintance, which is intensified in two further steps, leading to a family (front left). This, in turn, is reduced to the two parents, from which point the cycle begins again in the upper right.

From the rather trivial theme of triumphant Cupid, Runge has thus created a symbol of the life-cycle as it successively and endlessly unfolds. In so doing, he has not presented 'external nature' in the sense of a beautiful landscape, but has undoubtedly visualized nature by making her underlying principle of birth and decay the theme of his work. By allowing us to perceive not only external nature but also birth and decay as her immanent law, the artist makes it possible to render an even more powerful intensification of emotions, thereby providing greater animation to the inner nature of man. The fact that Runge's concept of art corresponds so closely with the whole Romanticist programme, is the reason why art scholarship now sees him (rather than the more popular Caspar David Friedrich) as Romanticism's prototype for the visual artist.

Because of his intention to depict not only nature's single phenomena (trees or hills) but one of her fundamental principles, Runge let himself in for the formal problem of having to represent something in time and sequence on a flat plane. However difficult he may have found this attempt to arrange the visual in chronological order, it did bring him closer to fulfilling art's Romantic ideal. For while the visual arts evolve in space, time is the organizing force behind music, which in Romanticism was considered the highest art form. In this sense, the need to create a time frame meant that Runge automatically 'musicalized' his art. Thus, altering the theme of love, in the 'Triumph of Cupid', to one that represents the different ages of man, relates it to the way a musical movement is structured.

More and more, Runge consciously cultivated the integration of music and painting, and later composed paintings in analogy to the fugue or symphony, quite apart from the many musical instruments which were central to his work. In his musicalized paintings he not only bowed to the Romanticist hierarchy, he also did justice to his intention of manifesting the inner essence of nature. For, in line with Naturphilosophie and its expanded Romantic understanding, Schelling interpreted music as a primal rhythm of nature and the universe. Novalis, too, saw the true conditions of Nature reflected in musical relationships. Just as Nature and her principle of birth and decay supply Runge's painting with its theme, so does nature, via musicalization, also model its form.

With 'Die Tageszeiten' or 'The Hours of the Day', his chef-d'oeuvre, begun in 1803 and left unfinished, Runge attempted to bring his art even closer to the principle of nature. He now no longer linked the theme of birth and decay to love, but directly to the phenomena of time and nature. The four stages of the day, morning, noon, evening and night, are drawn on separate sheets of paper, but all four sheets have a common construction as their base, which binds them together in a cycle. All four drawings have the same underlying compositional frame. Despite this given standardization, each drawing can only be viewed singly and in sequence; that is, one after the other, so that the viewer's reception takes on its own temporal dimension. In this way, the cyclical course of nature is not only represented pictorially, but is performed in reality.

Each single drawing has a temporal structure inscribed into it. This is achieved by a specific compositional arrangement, leading to a particular movement of the eye. In 'Morning', the eye follows the strong upward sweep of the sharply pointed triangle, the underlying form in the composition. This triangle is more than once taken up again in 'Noon', but is breached by various round and elliptical forms, delaying the upward sweep of the eye which soon gets caught by the upper ellipse. In 'Evening', the figure's central emphasis has been shifted upwards to the height of the noon ellipse, so that the eye sinks just as slowly as the evening darkens. 'Night', by a reversal of the tip of the triangle, becomes the exact counterpoint to morning and forces the eye to descend, from where it can then be raised again with morning.

In this illustration you can once again see the course your eye follows, and the pictorial construction which underlies its movement, represented schematically from left to right. This shows that it is not only the composition that corresponds to the cycle of time, but, through the movement and rhythm of the viewer's gaze, the characteristic nature of each time of day is made physically tangible to a degree that is only otherwise achieved by music. The striking proximity to music is also demonstrated by the lines I have marked on 'Evening', to show the main linear structure common to all four sheets. The standard horizontal and vertical lines within each time-of-day picture correspond to the five-line system of notation. Thus the 'Tageszeiten' have justifiably been compared to a musical score - one to be played with the eye.

The sensation of birth and decay in Runge's 'Tageszeiten' is primarily transmitted by means of the act of perception itself and not through its cognitive contents. All scholarly attempts to interpret the drawings as symbolic or allegorical representations of the hours of the day could only fail, and were pursued in the face of Runge's declared intent. He did not want to have his 'Tageszeiten' understood 'as a guide to pleasant dreams'; what really mattered to him was the 'equivocal sense... (as) the highest art'. The children and plants that populate Runge's pictures do not embody their own meaning per se, but take on meaning in association with an ever differing and undetermined meaningfulness. What he reproduces as realistically as possible is used by him primarily as a mere 'figurative sign', in order to be able to construct his compositions - compositions that his contemporaries criticized as hieroglyphic. No one before him was ever closer to a breakthrough to a more abstract or even completely non-representational art. However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the logical consequence of absolute painting was apparently not something within reach. But for the open art-work that addresses the imagination of the viewer, the hour had decidedly been struck.

Runge's aestheticization of nature does not relate to the visible side of nature, and does not aim at improving or intensifying the natural. Here, the 'aesthetics of nature' means the attempt to shift the principles of nature, thematically and formally, so close to art that harmony with the inner nature of man is achieved. Nature is implanted into the very core of artistic practice as its productive principle. It has since played a creative role that has become ever more important in art. I cannot go into the details of its historical development, here, but I should mention, at least, Impressionism's preoccupation with the nature of colour perception; classical Modernism, moulded by its studies on the artistic medium; Surrealism's use of chance and - above all -the Process Art of the 1960's. Everywhere, and increasingly, the origin of the art-work is accomplished independently from the artist, so that art has actually become more and more a 'product of pure nature', in the Kantian sense.

A more recent example of this tendency - an especially prominent and subtle one - is Sigmar Polke's installation 'Athanor', at the 1986 Venice Biennale. Alongside more or less traditional painting materials, Polke also used various chemical substances, whose unpredictable natural reactions affected the appearance of the installed paintings. One especially remarkable wall painting changed colour according to changing humidity levels, as a result of the hygroscopic property of the cobalt chloride used in the work. Thus, the painting took on certain manifestations in rhythm with the climatically different times of day; Runge would probably have approved. In the end, however, this comes down to no more than a scientifically inspired, semi-kinetic variation on monochrome painting - Yves Klein's paintings were also conceived in such a way that their appearance would change according to the external conditions of their surroundings (such as architecture or light).

Creating works of art or their aesthetic conditions according to natural principles, or even allowing them to arise automatically, is a method for art-making as widespread and cliche as academicism and its imitation of nature. The impression that both methods are rather ancient, is surely an important reason for the present renaissance in the figurative representation of people, which examines the tendencies of denaturalized bodies and genders, and yet is not considered regressive. The 'new academicism' has, in any case, allowed us to forget that the artistically productive force of nature is not the only means of making the art-work independent of the artist, and raising the probability of additional creative factors. There is also the viewer's own creative potential to be taken into account.

I would like to look at one of the few contemporary examples in which art reception - and via art reception, nature as an aesthetic principle - has been intentionally brought into play.

The painting opposite, by Josef Schwaiger, was produced following a complicated process of applying and removing many coats of paint. During this process, very fine, highly light-reflective metallic pigments are used. Thus the colours have an extraordinary intensity and, at the same time, because of the layered glazing and its partial obliteration with solvent, great transparency and depth. Each of the many interpenetrating layers reflects light in a different way, so that one's general perception of the painting's colour is highly unstable. Changes and variations occur either when the viewer changes position or when the light conditions change - so it is that all attempts at photographic reproduction are doomed to fail. The insurmountable difficulty of reproduction has something to do with that character of certain media which reveals light itself to be the prerequisite for seeing - with anything else we look at, we do not find ourselves asking 'what is it that makes it possible to see something?'

The more actively a picture is received, the stronger the impression that it, and the gaze directed at it, are constantly reorganizing themselves. Looking at several of these paintings, there is never only one in sight; but the single work disappears imperceptibly into others. Thus the paintings are, more than anything, in a form of probability rather than present in reality, and seem to be independent of material fixity. To look at Josef Schwaiger's paintings is like watching a natural phenomenon whose physical parameters are thoroughly determinable, yet which can lead to unpredictable situations. They have been perceptively referred to as 'painted meteorology'. This art concept is consciously set up in such a way that art reception occurs through a self-organized process. Self-organization, today recognized as an essential principle of nature, generates the paintings and the gaze directed at them. As far as his own paintings are concerned, Josef Schwaiger's own paradoxical formulation is correct: 'Even though Nature does not paint, she paints after all.'

(1) Oscar Wilde, 'Der Verfall der Lüge', in: Oscar Wilde Werke, Berlin, 1929, p. 233. Es habe 'keine Nebel gegeben, bis die Kunst sie erfand'. ('They did not exist till Art had invented them', Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Collins: London and Glasgow, 1977, p. 986).

(2) Hans Blemenberg, 'Nachahmung der Natur'. Zur Vorgeschichte der Idee des schöpferischen Menschen. In: Wirklichkeiten in denen wir leben, Stuttgart, 1981, p. 53.

(3) Op. cit., p. 53.

(4) Op. tit., p. 77.

(5) H. Rehder: Die Philosophie der unendlichen Landschaft. Phil. Dissertation, Heidelberg, 1929, p. 144.

(6) Philip Otto Runge: Hinterlassene Schriften Band I + II, Göttingen, 1965,1, p. 16.

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