Nature in Art
Throughout 2020, those attuned to art’s trends witnessed a return to nature. Landscapes, florals and animals grew onto artist’s easels, collector’s homes and gallery walls. Something about the steadiness of nature, it’s reliable ebb and flow, helped ground a world grappling with ceaseless uncertainty. The land’s power, precarity and therapeutic character was thrown into light; the yearning for freedom, to lose one’s self in flora and fauna came bright and fast.
To understand this impulse flowing through art makers and lovers alike, trek into our collection of art about nature.
Art and politics have always been entwined – just look to Clifton Pugh's work, which as a form of environmentalism, impresses the vulnerability and vitality of the land. This sense of reverence was brought to life in 1954 when he visited the Nullarbor with friend Noel Macainsh. Pugh described the sight as:
“the boundless extent of a land, paradoxically both harsh and delicate, together with the illimitable space above it.”
Three years before this trip Pugh bought land at Cottles Bridge, the setting for what would become the artist community ‘Dunmoochin’ (as in, done mooching around). The Dunmoochins were key in Australia’s conservation movement, working to repair the damage wrought by feral and introduced animals.
In works like ‘Presence of a Dingo’, Pugh’s dual reverence and concern for the land unite. Despite the vivid colours, threat linges; James Gleeson’s reflection that Pugh’s land is a battlefield between native and introduced species comes to mind. While the scene is tranquil, the quiet presence of a dingo hangs in the air. It is as though Pugh is cautioning us that the environment’s undoing will not always be visible.
Across his career, Pugh won the Archibald Prize twice, was made an Officer of Order of Australia in 1985 and in 1990 was appointed Australia’s War Memorial’s official artist at the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing.
An artist who treats his practice as an ever-evolving adventure is John Olsen. For decades, he has been trekking into various landscapes to record what he sees; sometimes the view is bird’s eye and sometimes it’s up close, eye to eye with a frog. In ‘Lake Eyre in Flood’ it’s in the midst of his own life.
Olsen’s love affair with Lake Eyre started in the mid-1970. But like all great loves, the waters were not always still. One time, Olsen and the naturist Vincent Serventy were sailing across the lake's pristine surface when a storm hit; their paints and sandwiches flew seaward as their boat capsized. No matter, this didn’t quell Olsen’s fervour for the place.
The art historian Patrick McCaughey once described Lake Eyre as part of “Olsen’s Dreaming”. This was echoed by the artist himself when one day, crouched by its sparkling banks he happily recounted “Gee, I’m very small-time here”.
In nature delicate machinations some artists see lessons for living. Charles Blackman’s ‘Tree of Knowledge’ for example, may look like just a winter stricken tree but it is in truth, a metaphor for inspiration. Cyclical, enduring and reaching towards the cosmos, this tree is Blackman’s mind, from which, as his son Auguste reflects
“ideas emerge like spring blossoms”.
Refined, original and clearly signed, ‘Tree of Knowledge’ is an expression of inspiration, nature and endurance. Despite its naked limbs, we know this tree will again spring blossoms; even moments of denouement promise new beginnings.
It might seem strange to describe art about nature as a “trend”. Indeed, it is the kind of subject, like a self-portrait, that will forever be in the minds and hearts of artists. It offers the viewer inspiration, advice and a cipher for their internal landscape.
That said however, it’s still interesting to chart when nature returns to the front line of art. Under what circumstances to the dreamers, thinkers and poets of our culture go back to nature? After a year spent either in solitude or at home, the stoicism, expanse and sheer power of nature is critical. It’s the fresh start we all need.
"Great art picks up where nature ends."
– Marc Chagall