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Art and the Natural World: An Entangled Life

“Art is a fruit growing out of man like a fruit out of a plant” – Hans Arp, 1981

Envisioning the artist as a kind of fruit-bearing tree, Dadaist painter-poet and sculptor Hans ‘Jean’ Arp conceives of art as an extension of our bodies. We produce art, he suggests, in the literal sense, as we move and grow, sprouting artworks like berries in season.

There is something strikingly peculiar in Arp’s characterisation, say, of a painting or sculpture, ‘growing out of man like a fruit’, as though the artist herself is, somehow, by her very nature, more plant than person. In doing so, Arp lays claim to art-making as a kind of natural process, as opposed to an artificial one. Art is not artifice, he suggests, but of a piece with nature and inherently ecological in the fullest sense of the term (from the Greek oikos meaning home).

In this featured content, we explore Arp’s claim and the entangled relationship of art and nature, through gardening, myth and wilderness, to land art and imitative, nature-inspired design.

A man looks at the surrealistic painting The Great War during the Rene Magritte exhibition at the Brussels' Modern Art Museum

Budding artists

For Arp, whose organic, abstract splodges echo the human form, the distinction between personhood and the natural world is perhaps less important than the relationship between the two. Exploring Hans Arp’s artwork, we glimpse how surrealism incorporates modern conceptions of ecology and psychogeography; that we are not exceptions to nature, but part of it. As Donna Roberts puts it in her detailed guide on surrealism and nature, ‘Nature is . . . understood in surrealism as a realm within which the human was firmly embedded, and not as a realm constituting a separate order of things.’

Arp, too, challenges this separate order. His fruit metaphor almost recalls the green apple in René Magritte's painting ‘The Son of Man’ (1964). The fruit famously obscures his self-portrait, like a mask. Floating in front of Magritte’s face beneath a black bowler hat, the apple – a symbol of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden – invokes the permeable, often delicate boundary between the human and natural worlds. The title, too, winks at the Christian origin myth, which Magritte ironizes in his modern reworking with his decidedly post-lapsarian, suit-and-tie formal wear, prompting us to wonder what other kinds of paradises are lost, besides the theological.

A dark path leading to the gate of a bright walled garden

Secret gardens

‘Human life is full of metaphorical gardens’, writes Jette Lykke Jensen in The Culture of Nature in the History of Design, ‘the Garden of Eden, the secret gardens of our childhood stories – we may even think of planet Earth as a global garden in which all earthly creatures live.’ In her chapter ‘Design for the Garden’, Jensen uproots the metaphor of the garden in favour of a materialist approach, considering the contemporary garden ‘as a topos for exploring human nature relations’ and a microcosm of private and global environmental negotiations. Is it beneficial, ecologically, to consider planet Earth a garden to be tended or a self-sustaining wilderness, for instance?

Situating these questions in the context of the Anthropocene in ‘Uncanny landscapes: Tactile and experiential encounters with ecological data’, Zoë Sadokierski, Monica Monin and Andrew Burrell wrestle with how we ‘represent, visualize, understand, exist within an entangled world’ during times of ecological crisis. In light of the climate emergency, David Bourdon’s scrutiny of artists’ environmental footprints feels apt: ‘Many of land art’s prominent figures displayed a chilling insensitivity to nature, regarding the great outdoors as nothing more than a colossal sketch pad on which to impose their artistic egos.’ (For more on this, read the following in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Sustainability: Creating Positive Change through Design.)

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Green fingers

Art imitating nature is an old Aristotelean notion, one Hans Arp preserves in his art-fruit analogy. However, unlike Arp, who is known for his abstract work, realist approaches to accurately recreating realistic flora and fauna are essential to some artistic practices. In Action Analysis for Animators, Chris Webster breaks down, frame by frame, the hovering gait of a Hummingbird in order to animate authentic, hand-drawn flight patterns on film. 3D Game Environments takes this principle a step further, introducing us to SpeedTree, ‘a set of tools for the creation and rendering of real-time forests’ in virtual space.

In ‘Arranging the Aspidistras’, Penny Sparke investigates how nineteenth-century artists looked to nature for inspiration, examining the outdoors brought indoors through interior design, gardening, and gender roles in domestic spaces. Introducing Shirley Hibberd, a best-selling gardening writer of the period, Sparke refers to Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1856) in which Hibberd describes, somewhat loftily, how ‘the present generation may witness the union of Nature and Art in happy ministration to human sympathies within doors’. For more on Victorian conceptions of nature and Hibberd’s utopian ‘ministration’, read this chapter by Nathaniel Robert Walker’s chapter on ‘A Cityless and Countryless World’.

Forest environment in a primeval forest in spring in daylight

Wilderness and wilding

‘If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild,’ writes historian William Cronon, ‘then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not’. For Joel Sanders, in his chapter ‘Human/Nature: Wilderness and the Landscape/Architecture Divide’, this dilemma of how we ‘reconcile the ideal of untouched nature with the imprint of humans and human design’, as he puts it, lies at the heart of modern architectural design and practice.

For example, to what extent is a non-interventionist approach important when creating within green spaces? Robert Thompson, writing of the importance of ‘fieldcraft’ in macro nature photography, suggests striking a balance. To photograph species candidly at home, Thompson recommends leaving aspects of the garden untended (‘perennials uncut over the winter will provide shelter for hibernating insects’, he says) while also using more ‘hands-on’ techniques such as moth traps and pond creation. Discover more about the importance of habitat in Close-up and Macro Photography: Its Art and Fieldcraft Techniques. For more on the theory of artificial habitats in relation to deep-rooted natural environments, read Stanislav Roudavski’s ‘Notes on More-Than-Human Architecture’.

Aerial view of Gasholder Park and the newly developed Kings Cross

More on sustainability and design

Read our new featured content ‘Neoliberalism and sustainability' and 'The Middle East since 1914’ as part of our award-winning Bloomsbury Architecture Library collection, now available on the Bloomsbury Visual Arts hub.

Neil Young’s folk-rock hit ‘“After the Gold Rush” . . . with its allusions to a state of depletion caused by American post-war consumerism,’ writes Murray Fraser in ‘Europe since 1970’, ‘reminds us that environmentalism and sustainability are not new’, neither as an approach to architectural design nor as a cultural imperative…Read more.

Image credits:
Images above: 1) HERWIG VERGULT/Contributor; 2) theasis; 3) Jim Cumming; 4) Schon; 5)Richard Newstead via Getty Images
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Art & Visual Culture: Sofia Minson is a well known artist in New Zealand. Here she creats a mural of Maori Tiki Taane on a boxcar in downtown Auckland. Photo by Matthew Micah Wright, from Getty Images.
Design & Fashion: From Bloomsbury Design Library image collection. Designmuseum Danmark, 'Learning from Japan' exhibition.
Architecture & Interior Design: Abstract red wall and clearing, 3D rendering. Photo by zhihao, from Getty Images.
Craft & Decorative Arts: Peruvian woman weaving, The Sacred Valley, Chinchero. Photo by hadynyah, from Getty Images.
Film & Media: Portrait of a black female photographer. Photo by suteishi, from Getty Images.
Teaching and Learning resources: Plan Creative Class Library Student Teacher Ideas Concept. Photo by Rawpixel, from Getty Images.
Bloomsbury Applied Visual Arts: A view of a workshop where Fayiz el-Keraki, the first animation film producer in Palestine to use the "stop motion" technique, and his team work together in Hebron, West Bank on September 22, 2022. Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Bloomsbury Design Library: Stained-glass ceiling. Photo by Carlos Gotay, from Getty Images.
Bloomsbury Art Markets: 'Auktion Huldschinsky' by Max Slevogt. Inv.-Nr. Gm1771, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. Leihgabe Museen der Stadt Nürnberg. Kunstsammlungen.
Bloomsbury International Encyclopedia of Surrealism: Painting by Desmond Morris: 'The Next in Line', 2004, Private collection, Oxford. (Photo by: Desmond Morris Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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