My aim here is to toss a few thoughts into the ring to provoke discussion; I don't claim to be an authority on anything, and I certainly don't want to offend anybody. I'm going to talk about where Art began; where Art has gone in the last 150 years; and where artists might need to take it next.
Cave Art; the Beginning of All Art
Art started with Cave Art; and Cave Art dates from the dawn of civilisation. From the very moment when humans started to become civilised they started to produce great Art. They were necessarily very close to Nature, and their Art was that of the Natural World. There is nothing crude, amateur, naive, or casual about it; it is great Art; and it appeared so quickly, so naturally, and in so many different parts of the world, that you are driven to the conclusion that it is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a civilised human: that buried deep inside the human psyche is an innate ability to produce great Natural Art.
(Stags swimming across a river. Lascaux Cave, 14,000 BC)
We are talking about the Art of the Late Stone Age. Humans were becoming farmers rather than hunters, and were beginning to live in settled communities. We had learnt how to cook. We knew how to make crude tools, but had not yet discovered metals. We were just starting to learn how to weave cloth and make pots. We had developed crude language, but not yet learnt how to write. So it really was the very dawning of civilisation. What we did best was to produce great Art. This was by far the most impressive of our accomplishments - particularly sculpture.
(Horse sculpture; Vogelherd, Germany; 30,000 BC)
Where did the ability come from? Where did the desire come from? The driving force might have been pseudo-religious, but that wouldn't explain where the ability came from, nor would it explain why these early humans chose Art as a means of appeasing their gods; unless, of course, they knew that their Art was the most precious thing they had to offer. Or it might be that an accurate rendition was thought to give power over animals that you preyed upon, or who were preying upon you.
(Lion Heads; Chauvet cave; 40,000 to 10,000 BC)
It is important to realise how difficult this Art was to produce. You would be working entirely from visual memory - you can't get a bison or a rhinoceros or a lion to pose for you in a cave. You would be working in pitch darkness by the light of crude torches and candles. ( I think all artists would know how easy that would be) You would be working, typically, ten feet off the floor, on some sort of scaffolding. You would be working with the very crudest of tools - a stick of charcoal from last night's fire, a lump of ore you picked up, some mud, earth mixed with animal fat. And this was in the last Ice Age, so you would be freezing cold, covered from head to foot in animal skins. You would have to be very determined!
Now, before we look at specific examples, I am going to give you a flavour of where this talk is leading to, so that you can decide whether you wish to continue.
Cave Art; Fracturing of the Succession
Cave Art is the main thrust of my talk, but it eventually died out, leaving no succession. It died out when we stopped living in caves. When humans started constructing their own shelters, these shelters would perish over time and any Art with them, So we can't tell how Cave Art developed, which is a shame. Nor can we trace Cave Art through to any artistic tradition that we know about.
We are forced to skip over centuries of history to the Art of the Egyptians and the Greeks After that we can then trace Art through Byzantium, the Renaissance and on to the present day. But 150 years ago something very significant happened, at least in mainstream Art. We started to intellectualise Art and dis-engage from the Natural World. We started to paint what was in our heads rather than what was in front of us. That process is now largely complete. In our mainstream Art, we no longer seem to rejoice in the beauties of Nature.
Now, I know that many individual artists do still get their inspiration from the Natural world; but if you look, for example, at the last few winners of the Turner prize you will not see much rejoicing in the beauties of Nature.
This image is perhaps fairly representative of what people now understand by Modern Art; and it is of course great Art; the problem is, however, that art such as this it this might be sending an unintended, unfortunate message; it might be sending the message that Artists no longer regard Nature as being valuable as a source of inspiration, no longer worth preserving, as having no value. And, if artists, of all people, no longer value Nature, there might seem to be no need for anybody else to value it.
The Degradation of Nature, and a Possible Response
Humans are, at the moment, degrading Nature at an alarming rate. We are fast approaching the limits of what Nature can accommodate. We have dis-engaged from it to an extent that is detrimental to our well-being. We cannot possibly continue in this way. We are totally dependent on Nature, but we are systematically destroying it. Within the next generation we will have to re-engage.
Now, as I have just said, Artist played a prominent part when humans moved away from Nature. I believe it is now our duty to lead everyone back again. We should all, as artists, be doing our best to persuade our fellow humans to revere and rejoice in Nature, rather than destroy it.
Now I can see that this might be more difficult for some artists than others, but I think we should all be doing what we can.
We might even want to go further and say that Natural Art and a closeness to Nature are essential parts of the human make-up, and that we, as a race, are unlikely to be happy without them.
STONE AGE ART AND OTHER ANCIENT ART
Let's examine some of these thoughts, starting with ancient Art. I have included here several examples of Art produced by peoples who are not actually Stone Age peoples, but are analogies of them - being close to Nature, untouched by modern technology, having no written language, and using tools made of nothing but wood, stone or bone.
(2D sculpture of an antelope, Algeria, ~ 2500 BC). I particularly like this; there is great skill here. It is beautifully designed, skilfully executed.
(Drawing of an Elephant; Libya, ~6000 BC). This is the work of someone who understands elephants very well. You would have to draw elephants many times to arrive at this.
(Bush painting; antelopes grazing, Tsisab Gorge, South Africa). I greatly admire this; these animals are looking at us, despite the fact that they have no eyes. To be more exact, they are 'listening at us'. We have made a slight noise and attracted their attention. If we make another slight noise they'll be off. They are, rightly, very wary, ready to race off any any instant. The drawing is elegant, sophisticated, abstracted, and very alive; you can sense the tension.
(Drawing of multiple horses heads, Chauvet Cave: about 30,000) Here is an artist(s) who has either run out of space, or sees the need to practice some skills, or, more likely, wants to understand differences between different breeds of horse. This could easily be a page from a 20th Century artist's sketch-book. It is certainly drawn with a great deal of love and understanding. It was almost certainly done from visual memory, judging from the wonderfully crisp and economical drawing of a rhinoceros in the background.
(Sculpture: diving seabird; Russia, about 30,000 BC). Anybody would have proud to have sculpted this. That bird is alive, something the Greeks never achieved.
(Front view of the Zaraysk Bison: 20,000 BC, Russia). Another sculpture. What arrests me here is the sense of movement. This animal is quite definitely moving towards us. This takes great skill and empathy to capture. (Again, this seems to have eluded the Egyptians and the Greeks: Egyptian Art is almost entirely static, whereas the Greeks never got beyond the pose; the famous Greek sculpture of a discuss thrower shows someone about to throw the discus, not actually throwing it).
Here is another, much earlier, attempt to capture movement. (Bison; Chauvet cave; about 30,000 BC). The artist has given the creature eight blurred legs, which before the advent of photography is as near to a correct representation as you could get of an animal running quickly, with each leg becoming momentarily stationary to the eye at the extremities of the movement, the whole thing a blur.
Here is the finest possible attempt to capture movement. (Leaping Bison, Altamira, about 16,000 BC). I haven't been able to find a good photograph of this; the Altamira drawings are exceedingly fragile, and the ingress of humans into the cave has caused them to deteriorate rapidly. So we have to rely on copies made by artists some time ago. We just have to trust the ability of the copyists.
If the copying is accurate, and if this is indeed a drawing of a leaping or charging bison, it is a remarkable example of captured movement.
There are all sorts of theories about why Stone Age people were so good at Art, especially at capturing movement. It may be that we have become more intellectual, so we think rather than look and remember. Or it may be a matter of language: now that we have words for 'head', feet', 'back', 'tail', etc, we can't comprehend movement holistically.
(Wooly Rhinoceros, Chauvet Cave; about 30,000 BC). This is a supremely elegant drawing; look at the confidence, the surety of the lines; the complete lack of fussy detail; the way in which the quality of the line varies around the figure, giving all the right emphases; the overall design; the significant degree of abstraction, emphasising the rhinoceros-ness of the image.
(Cave painting; bull; Altamira Cave; about 16,000 BC) This is closer to what we usually expect from a cave-painting. There is a significant degree of abstraction here, with the bulk emphasised, the limbs de-emphasised, and with constructional lines.
Picasso made drawings very similar to this, in order to emphasise to us the nature of bullishness. (Picasso's Bull).
And then we have this. (Uffington White Horse, ~ 3000 years old). This is very familiar to us; but the familiarity may be blinding us to seeing what a stunningly elegant and insightful work of Art this is. Whoever produced this had a great love of horses. While it was being executed there was no point from which the artist could have viewed it in its entirety, (it can be viewed properly only from the sky, which, of course, was almost certainly the point) and it is mapped out, very accurately, over hundreds of metres, on a sloping, undulating surface; a technical achievement which wold have defeated the Romans.
What impresses me most about this and all the previous examples is the sense of rejoicing, the sense of belonging to something bigger, belief in the future, optimism, freedom. This horse is galloping freely across the downs in a great flowing movement, full of life and, I think, joy.
So, ten miles from here, ancient people, in close touch with Nature, were able to express this closeness eloquently, joyfully, and skilfully in their Art, presumably at considerable material cost to themselves.
THE RECENT HISTORY OF ART
Since the time of the White Horse we have, in our mainstream Art, largely dis-engaged from Nature.
This image is clearly great art. But to me at least it doesn't convey a sense of rejoicing. Why aren't we rejoicing? We're far better off than the cave peoples. Is it possible that we have started to realise that the future we are creating for ourselves is not going to be as inspiring as we would like it to be?
Or It may, on the other hand, be simply a matter of fashion.
For all the time I have been interested in the Visual Arts, work based upon the Natural World has been looked down upon, regarded as somewhat inferior, unsophisticated, out of date. The accepted wisdom from on high has been that there is no more Art to be found in Nature, that all interesting possibilities have been exhausted. That if you are going to represent Nature you must transform it in some way.
My answer to that is that if you could have got Monet, Constable and Turner into a room and told them that between them they had painted all that there was to be painted in nature, I am sure they would laugh. I think that if they had all lived twice as long they would all have produced twice as much art. I would expect that, even in the later parts of their lives, they all had unrealised plans for the future.
The three artists I have just mentioned were essentially the last mainstream artists to rejoice in Nature. (Constable image); ( Monet image). Turner started off rejoicing in Nature (Turner 'Venice Lagoon'), but in the later part of his life became intent on re-inventing nature, eventually tending to paint what was in his head rather than what was in front of him; concepts rather than views. (Turner image; 'Goethe's theory of Colour'). This trend to intellectualise Art was continued, particularly by Cézanne (Cézanne image), and then in turn by Picasso (Picasso image), Matisse (Matisse image), Braque (Braque image), and so on to Rothko (Rothko image repeated), shown here.
Now, I am sure that all these great artists would say that they were inspired by the Natural World, and if you look at their early work, this is certainly true. The trouble is, I think, that someone who is not an artist standing in front of a Rothko such as this would not get the impression that it was inspired by Nature. That gives rise to the dangerous thought that, as artists don't think that Nature is beautiful and precious anymore, other people don't need to care for it anymore either.
The General Disengagement from Nature
As we have seen, Artists started to disengage from Nature about 150 years ago. The same trend can be seen to occur even earlier in music: while the music of Vivaldi, Bach, Pergolesi was palpably about the joy of being alive, the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler seems to be much more concerned with the agonies of being a human being - there was an introspective turning inwards, an intellectualising.
Historically, these changes in direction in the Arts coincided with the invention of the steam engine, by Watt; the work of Faraday, who turned electricity from a curiosity to a practical proposition, and the work of Otto, who invented the engine we now use in motor cars. From then on neither the horse nor the elements could survive as our main source of mechanical power.
So this disengaging from Nature happened simultaneously on several fronts; it has now gone so far that, from a geologist's point of view, humans are now the dominant influence shaping the planet; they are thinking of calling the current era the 'anthropocene'. We are also witnessing the 'Sixth Extinction. An extinction is a period during which an unusually large number of plants and animals die off and become extinct. The first five extinctions were the result of Natural forces. The sixth extinction is entirely due to the activities of humans. We are in sole charge now, and we are killing off our fellow creatures.
We are also, as a completely different issue, running out of many natural resources.
A number of thoughts arise:
Is this what we intended? Is it a good thing? Are we competent? Can we stand the responsibility? Are we even conscious of what we are doing? Will we like it when we are finished?
We do have to realise that, in spite of all our technology, we are still totally dependent upon Nature.
We need Nature, and we can't simply keep on exploiting it; Nature is starting to falter. It is almost certain that we will, one day, and perhaps soon, have to re-engage. The earlier we act the less traumatic it will be. We may even have to occupy ourselves restoring Nature. The human race may need saving from itself.
As I have said, Artists were prominent in leading humans away from Nature. I believe that we have a responsibility to lead them back again.
Is this idea simply Art Nouveaux revisited? Well, sort of, but I think the situation is more pressing now. We would seem to be close to the point that Art Nouveaux Artists were so afraid of. And I personally would not want to be so literal.
150 years ago we were being clever; since then we have become greedy, careless and wasteful. I think we are allowed to be clever, but not greedy, careless and wasteful.
A POSSIBLE ARTISTIC RESPONSE
So, what are artists like us to do? Well, if we are to re-double our efforts to engage with Nature we must find artistic reasons for doing so. It is obviously no good pursuing a Natural Art that we do not believe in. And every artist must make this journey in their own way. That is what I, in my very small way, have been trying to do. I am trying to find new, interesting things to say about a very small part of the Natural world. I hope that what I am doing is Art.
There are, for me, five main things to think about:
The Prospects for Finding Original Art in the Natural World
Firstly, is there anything new, artistically, still to be discovered in the Natural world? (Image, Helical Spring). When I show this to people they sometimes assume that I've just returned from the Amazon rain forest. It was, of course taken in a soggy field in Oxfordshire.
This is a photograph of grass (Image; grass flowers). These flowers can be found along our road-sides for most of the summer; the vast majority of people would pass by without noticing.
And this is also grass (Annual Meadow grass, in flower). Probably the commonest weed we have.
And this is also grass (Second image of Annual Meadow Grass in Flower).
And this is also grass (Image; grass seed-head in front of Meadow Crane's-bill).
And this is also grass (Image; Grass Abstract One).
And this is also grass (Image; Grass Abstract Two). I think you get my point.
(Image; Hogweed at sunset) This is Hogweed; you can tell from the name that nobody finds this plant beautiful.
(Image: Aftermath). This is a spent seed-head. The structure here is quite remarkable; it is essentially a catapult for projecting ripe seeds over great distances. The colour is also remarkable - the bright red characteristic of the foliage of this small plant.
(Image; slender thistle). This is another spent seed-head, this time of a thistle. I find enormous interest in all these curves and folds.
(Image: Clinging to Auntie). Thistle heads produce thistle seeds. Here is a thistle seed clinging to a thistle flower, as if reluctant to sever the bonds and venture out into the world. I love this thought.
So, if it is possible to find artistic interest in an unmade bed, or an idealised shark, or a pile of bricks, and I fully accept that it is, then I feel that I am on safe ground finding artistic interest in the head of a thistle.
So, I simply cannot believe that there is no shortage of new, interesting, vibrant, challenging Art to be found in Nature, at any degree of abstraction that interests you..
The Need for an Artistic Contribution
A second point is that a visual artist has to add something to what is being observed; I see no value in making a beautiful picture of something that was already beautiful; you have to contribute something.
So are we capable of adding anything?
One of Turner's most telling lessons was the importance of including a primary or a secondary source of light in a picture, so as to give the impression that the picture is actually giving out light. Here is a picture of a very common flower: the road-sides are often strewn with them. (The Party Dress). It is bright sunshine. The bowl of the flower is collecting sunlight in the same way that a telescope does; and the inner parts of the flower are a bright white. This creates a secondary source of light within the flower. So this petal edge is back-lit. Flower petals are translucent, which is one of my delights, so we get this lovely, tenuous, fragile, lost-and-found edge across the front. So taking the photograph in this particular way has added something that was not originally apparent.
(Image; simplified image of Crane's-Bill) Here is the same flower, photographed in a completely different way. Here I am trying to do what Cezanne and Picasso would have us do - learn something through simplification. A very fast lens slices right through the flower, presenting, essentially, a section, a simplification.
(Image; line of trees in a breeze) Here we have a picture of a line of trees reflected in water - perfectly acceptable, not very exciting, seen many times before. The presence of the strong breeze converts it into something considerably more abstract. But now we notice a golden leaf, submerged in the water, but scattering sunlight, and acting as a secondary source of light. (Turner again). If we change our position we can bring that secondary source of light into a critical position in the picture; and it seems to me that, acting as an artist, we have now added something, and transformed the image.
Two of the Artists I admire, Bridget Riley and John Blockley, rejoice in the idea of a line of certainty wending its way through a sea of uncertainty; I like this idea. Here is an image of Hedgerow Crane's-bill, taken in evening light. (Image: Hedgerow Crane's-bill 1). I have used a lens that allows only a minuscule fraction of the image to be in focus, picking out that feature against a sea of uncertainty.
And here is another image of this same plant, taken with the same lens. (Image: Hedgerow Crane's-bill 2). Here this technique has allowed the camera to pick out an unsuspected shape within the flower.
So I feel that it is possible to make a contribution, to add something.
Respecting the Medium
The third point I want to make is that you must respect the medium; in this case the camera. I do not believe in making the camera mimic the eye - as optical devices they are not the same. If I go into a wood and hold up a piece of white card the eye will see it as white. But the camera will see it as green or orange, depending upon the time of year. And the light would be very subdued. As a photographer you would be told to correct for such effects; you must adjust your camera so that white cards appear white. But I don't want the card to appear white; (I hope Monet would agree with me; Monet spent his life trying to get us to see colours as they actually are). I want to know what it was actually like to be in the wood. I want the light to be subdued, and I want the colours to be representative of the ambient light.
The independence of the role of the camera as an unique source of truth was well illustrated by the career of Jane Bown, a great journalistic photographer, who died over Christmas (2014). To give an example, she was once sent to photograph a man, then known as Sir Anthony Blunt, who had just arranged the purchase of some valuable paintings on behalf of the Courtaulds Institute. She photographed everything there was to photograph. In the ensuing article, Jane's photographs of the painting, and of the place where they had been housed, etc, was included. Her portrait of Anthony Blunt was however excluded. It was excluded on the grounds that she had made him appear to be too sinister. (image: Jane Bown's portrait of Blunt). So a decade before Blunt was exposed as a Soviet spy Jane Bown's camera had seen something that human eyes had been missing. Similarly, Jane's portrait of Samuel Beckett would be seen by many to be the only portrait of him ever to capture the penetrating nature of his intellect.
So, I think we should believe what the camera tells us. It is telling us something that the eye cannot see.
(Image; Some Shapes of a Summer Meadow). This image is taken from deep down amongst the grasses in a meadow, looking towards a hazy sun. I was interested in the shapes and the lines, taking it all to be an exercise in composition. I hope this expresses what it was like to be down in that meadow on a hazy morning.
(Image; Some Colours of a Summer Meadow). This image is taken from almost the same position, but on a very different day, with dew on the grass, and bright sunshine. Now, this would be seen by photographers as a very bad photograph: it's full of artefacts. But to me the 'sparkles' express very well exactly how it felt to be there that morning. I could, of course, remove the artefacts electronically, but I have no intention of doing so. In this I hope I am following in the footsteps of the great Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi; she seems quite content to leave artefacts where they are.
(Image: The Last of the Light). This was taken after sunset in woodland. No 'corrections' were applied. The colours are completely different from what they would have been in normal sunlight, and the light is clearly subdued. And the flowers are doing what flowers do in subdued light: they appear to glow. Also, due to the subdued light, the image is distinctly grainy; this is because the camera is receiving insufficient light to make the image smooth. To me, therefore, this image is truthful to the moment; it carries all the marks of having actually been produced on the spot, at the time.
Is Photography Art? Can it Transmit Emotion?
The fourth thread that exercises me is that if photography is to be considered to be Art it must convey emotion.
(Image: Turmoil) This image, to me at least, exemplifies struggle. I would like to hope that it has some Turnerian qualities about it; there seems to me to be a distinct sense of 'vortex' here.
(Image; Common Purpose); this image, to me conveys the idea of common purpose; a joint striving upwards.
(Image: 'Congregation'); this image, to me, conveys a sense of congregation, a coming together for mutual comfort and support.
Now, these are photographs of common weeds. They lead me to believe that photographs, even of common weeds, are capable of conveying emotion.
Is Photography Art? Does it Resonate with the Other Arts?
(Image: Giselle) When I first showed this to my daughter, she immediately said 'ballet shoes'. Alright, so this is ballet: but which ballet? Well, it's Giselle, clearly. Giselle is the story of a girl who's lover deserts her for someone else. Towards the bottom is Giselle, and above is her one-time lover, with his new amour. To me the image conveys much of the emotion of the ballet; love and tenderness here, juxtaposed to loss and desolation here.
(Image: Romeo and Juliette). This is Romeo and Juliette; Juliette is shedding a tear: she's knows it will all soon come to an end.
(Image; Swan Lake). And this is Swan Lake. There is here, I hope, the elegance and aloofness that you would expect from ballerinas.
(Image: Orpheus Looking for Eurydice). And to me this is Orpheus searching for Eurydice in the Underworld; I would hope that this image conveys the idea of a frantic search for somebody very precious.
(Image: Dance of the Blessed Spirits). And when I first saw this I said immediately 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits'. I would hope this image conveys the sense of frenetic, impassioned activity.
So, to me, photographs are capable of evoking emotions; and clearly resonate with ballet, opera, classical music and literature.
I hope my photographs reveal a closeness to Nature; and I hope they convey a sense of rejoicing.
So, to summarise; we used to be very close to Nature, both in our everyday lives, and in our Art. We have now moved away from that position. This may not have led us to the place we wanted to be. If, for whatever reason, we find ourselves wanting to retrace our steps, it would be good if artists led the way. We then might be surprised to find the wealth of Art still to be uncovered in the Natural World.
So I am going back to the Cave, hoping to uncover some of the secrets that Nature has been hiding all these years.
Thank you for listening.