THE first paintings to encapsulate nature are from 7th century Chinese artists who were inspired by Taoism. The greatest age of Chinese ink and wash landscape paintings was AD 907-1127, embracing the Tang Dynasty. Artists such as Jing Hao, Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, and Guo Xi painted the majestic towering mountains of northern China, while Dong Yuan and Juran specialized in the hills and river valleys of the south. The sheer beauty of the tower karst hills along the Li River valley, which I saw as a painting in college, inspired me to specialize in tropical karst topography.
Japanese landscape and seascape painting was inspired by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism by believing in the saying “Nature is my teacher”. Creating a living environment by bringing people closer to nature was an important part of Japanese culture in the 12th and 13th centuries. Simple, minimalist gardens have been created in the houses, with bonsai trees and waterfalls beautifying the cityscapes. Carefully raked gravel, most artistically designed in intricate shapes, simulating flowing rivers.
I well remember my late director of the English department, Jo Storr, with his students, creating a Japanese garden outside my director’s office. Jo felt that I needed time for contemplation, like all the students – disbelievers and well behaved – who passed in my office to visit me! He and his gardeners raked the gravel every week in the most intricate patterns between bonsai and giant boulders.
Islamic artists, between the 8th and 14th centuries, celebrated the beauty of the natural world and Allah’s creations by capturing them in ceramics and mainly mosaics depicting the geometric patterns of flowers, fruits, and plant tendrils. Long-standing Islamic mosques are richly decorated from floor to ceiling, truly capturing nature’s creations and inspiring devotees to draw closer to the hand of Allah. The great collector of Mughal art was Jahangir during his short reign as Emperor of Hindustan from 1605 to 1625. His collection of paintings included studies of birds, flowers, and animals.
Fine arts of the early 18th century
The beginning of the 18th century saw the incredible works of art of Maria Merian, an artist of German origin specializing in botanical art. This was when the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus classified the species. Maria’s mother was a botanical artist and from her childhood Maria was encouraged to draw insects and plants. Later in her life she settled in the Netherlands, she visited Suriname, then Dutch territory, and produced the most intricate paintings of tropical plants, frogs, snakes, spiders and amphibians, including a series showing the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a chrysalis and eventually into a butterfly. . His works of art are appreciated today.
This movement encouraged the British public to venture outside, not only to observe the beauty of nature, but also to look overhead to see the sky and the clouds. These have been expressed in the paintings of JMW Turner and John Constable. Turner’s paintings captured the forces of the seas, brutal storms, blizzards, and whirlpools. The viewer of his paintings shows nature not only expressed in art as we see it, but also how we can feel it. Certainly, his paintings inspired people not only to see landscapes and look up above their heads, to observe the sky and its clouds.
The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Sumbawa, Indonesia caused heavy ash rains in Borneo, causing global climate anomalies. The year 1816 has come to be known in Western Europe as the âyear without summerâ. This eruption caused prolonged sunsets brilliantly colored in pink and purple above the horizon at dusk and orange or red near the horizon when the sun finally set. The refraction of the setting sun Turner captured in several of his paintings.
John Constable, by comparison, liked to include figures in his landscapes of the Suffolk County where he lived. Even today, part of the Suffolk countryside is known as ‘Constable Country’.
Mid 19th century
While stunning paintings of deep canyons, drive mountains, forests and snow-capped landscapes have been captured by American artists, it was American photographer Carleton Watkins who captured the beauty of the California landscape. His photographs of the 1,000-meter-high vertical cliff, known as El Capitan and the stunning Yosemite Waterfalls, showed his eye for nature. These photos inspired Abraham Lincoln and Congress to create the world’s first protected landscape in Yosemite National Park in June 1864. This was later followed by Yellowstone National Park. Today, only 15 percent of our world is now officially protected from human encroachment in national parks, nature reserves and marine protected areas.
Changes over time
Geomorphologists and meteorologists have all drawn inspiration from historical paintings. What was before the artist’s eyes in his painting many moons ago has changed over time by the forces of nature and human exploitation of the environment. The fact that Mount Tambora threw millions of tons of volcanic ash into the sky, producing the âyear without summer,â has helped meteorologists, looking at paintings from that year, to conclude that 1816 was the year of the summer. colder since 1400 in British history. It was the vivid sunsets in Turner’s paintings that caught the eye of meteorologists.
The coasts have changed in the shape of beaches and cliffs with storm surges eroding the landscape. Sections of cliffs have collapsed. The latter cannot be better seen in the photographs accompanying this article. The painting in ‘The Crowns’ in Botallack in the former tin mining district of West Cornwall depicts the forces of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the cliffs. It was painted in oils by my former geography teacher in 1982. Bob Quixley, now 93, taught me geography and geology in my high school and is a much revered member of the Newlyn School of Artists . Next to it is a very recent photo. Notice how the landscape changed with the collapse of a cliff between the island containing a “tower” and the mainland “tower”. Mid-19th century photographs taken during the height of Cornish tin mining revealed a wooden bridge, over the zawn (sea sinkhole), connecting the two deep mine shafts. The forces of nature led to the collapse of the bridge a long time ago.
Abstract landscape paintings, although well designed, never captured me. I love to draw and paint what I observe and what I feel when I am close to nature. What I can see one day goes away as time goes on. My late wife had a passion for photographing sunsets and rainbows against landscapes and seascapes in Somerset, England and during our frequent visits to Sabah and southern France. They are memories encapsulated in time. A very close friend sent me pictures of pitcher plants he encountered on many hikes to the peaks of Sarawak and “pictures” of a hum-like bird plucking nectar from its tropical balcony plants. . Photos are treasures!
When I lived in the North West of England in the 1970s, I took pictures of the aftermath of a particularly severe storm that hit Blackpool overnight. Disguised as a city worker in bright orange waterproof gear, I managed to dodge police lines to photograph damage to once-solid dikes and massive erosion of a nearby sand dune system. With global warming and more frequent storm surges, photographs and paintings of low-lying islands such as the Maldives and Seychelles become even more valuable as sea levels rise.
What Chinese artists captured in their exquisite paintings centuries ago revealed the fact that the more we understand nature, the more we learn to understand ourselves. The next time you go on a trip, take a sketchbook or camera with you to capture a view of nature as it can be seen with the naked eye. Be sure to date the sketch, painting, or snapshot, as natural and human forces will inevitably change this image in a relatively short time. Your view of the natural world, as you observed it, will forever remain in your time capsule.