HBW 3 - Foreword by Robert Bateman on art and nature

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Having spent my whole life avidly involved with both nature and art, I have evolved a number of ideas on the relationship between these two areas of study and activity. I have been struck by the drift of so-called civilized man away from nature. This is manifested by the absence of wildlife subject matter in the mainstream of art of the Western world right into the twentieth century. All other periods of history and all other cultures have normally included wildlife as a subject matter for drawings, paintings, sculpture and decorative motifs. From the nineteenth century until the present, art involving plants and animals was seen as a handmaiden to the study of natural history. Until its partial supplanting by photography, art was used simply to describe various aspects of nature. In my own work I have used nature as an inspiration for my art rather than using my art as a way to illustrate nature. I am a painter who happens to love nature and so that is my subject matter. In the same way, Dégas painted back stage at the ballet and van Gogh painted the countryside around Arles.

I would like to explore the way in which humanity's drift away from nature has been reflected in our art. I will also comment on the way in which art, particularly in recent years, has influenced our understanding of and appreciation for nature.

From earliest times some of the greatest art produced depicted wild creatures. The most famous early works are the great cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux, dating back to roughly 100,000-50,000 years ago. These bison and deer are depicted with sensitivity and power. Of course, the artists were very familiar with every sinew, bone and muscle of their subjects. They had no doubt quarreled over every bit of the anatomy, bargaining for the different pieces. Every part of the animal had a use and a significance. It is not surprising that most of the Paleolithic drawings have an accuracy and realism that is unsurpassed to this day.

The points I wish to make here are both general and particular. In general, since the invention of agriculture, or the Neolithic revolution, we have drifted away from knowledge and wisdom concerning nature and have become increasingly obesessed with convenience through technology. At the end of the twentieth century we must now realize the folly and indeed tragedy of pursuing this course too far, and once again become more closely connected with nature, not only in mind and deed, but in spirit.

This leads to my particular point, that is concerning the role of nature art in our lives and perhaps in a small way in the salvation of the endangered life on this planet. If art has something to say about the human mind and spirit, then surely wildlife art should have a clear and forceful voice in contemporary culture.

In order to place the art of wild animals in historical perspective, I would like to return to the so-called Neolithic revolution. As I have mentioned above, for hundreds of thousands of years humans lived as an integrated part of the natural world. Then, about 20,000-10,000 years ago, our ancestors found ways to control nature and so make life easier for themselves. Perhaps the earliest innovation was the domestication of the goat. It has been said that this one “breakthrough” was by far the most earthshaking development in the past million years, surpassing the invention of the printing press and the splitting of the atom. Nomadic tribes in the Middle East found that they could control herds of goats, guide them to pastures and water and protect them from predators. In return, the goats gave milk, meat and skins for clothing, and fibre for weaving. Man the pastoralist became much more the enemy of nature than man the hunter. All larger predators were a threat to the flocks and had to be exterminated. This same prejudice is still with us worldwide, even for example in North America, as recently seen in the strong protests against the proposed reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park, USA. In addition, grazing wild animals became competitors for pasture and water and were either killed or starved. Since most of the needs of the tribes were met by the goats, the peoples did not require detailed and complex knowledge about their neighbours of other species, either plant or animal. Over the centuries nature was seen as chaotic and irrelevant to the reorganized human condition, and the prevalence of this view increased with the domestication of certain plants and other animals. It allowed humans to live in villages which needed physical and social structure in relation to the complex and confusing web of the natural world.

Art totally changed, from the realistic renderings of the Paleolithic peoples, to highly abstracted and structural designs of village people. This work may be seen in the Geometric Period of early Greece (900-700 bc), as well as in the art of prehistoric peoples in China and Europe. There are abundant examples of Neolithic-style art being practised all over the world until the middle of the twentieth century. This would include the great tribal art of Africa, New Guinea and west coast North American natives. In each case, the art is abstract with distorted images of humans and animals and plants all done in a strong, stylized and decorative fashion. Wildlife of every kind was contorted into strong curves and dynamic lines with interlocking positive and negative shapes. Thus we see lions, ibexes, eagles, bears, fish, hornbills or crocodiles woven, carved or painted into or onto fabric, canoes, pots and almost every other man-made item. This decorative art is found even in Europe until quite recently. It may be seen in rural art, on clothing and furniture, especially in more remote and mountainous areas.

As early European tribal art evolved, it departed from nature and created mythical and magical creatures. Nature is seen as mysterious and menacing. Thus we have dragons, hobgoblins and griffons. The Church became more and more dominant over every aspect of life. Nature, even human nature was seen as the enemy. The magnificent and complex cathedrals of the Middle Ages were among the most comprehensive expressions of human endeavour. And yet true nature was either distorted out of almost all recognition, or it was left out entirely. Instead we have gargoyles, fantastic animistic demons and symbolic plant forms.

The Renaissance brought a renewal of classical interest in humanity and science, but wild animals and wilderness remained “beyond the pale”. As European art developed, perspective and realism in painting animals became the norm. However, the subjects were almost entirely domestic animals, typically dogs, horses, cattle and sheep. This tendency continued through the great paintings of the seventeenth century. If wildlife was shown, it was quarry being exterminated at the end of a spear or ready for the table, being hung up by its feet with a bunch of grapes. One of the superb masterpieces of Peter Paul Rubens (Tigers and Lions Hunt) shows huntsmen on handsome and heroic horses spearing and trampling the magnificent carnivores. Man, the greatest predator, must exterminate all other predators, or so it would seem through most of our history. There are a few exceptions to this general pattern. Dürer produced his famous hare painting, and also an elaborate and inaccurate rhinoceros, while Rembrandt drew elephants and other zoo animals. These and the handful of other examples were created more as curiosities than anything else. For most of European history, I am not aware of any examples showing wildlife in its own domain, eye to eye, with respect.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries an increasing number of artists tried their hands at accurate renderings of plants and animals. This was the great age of expeditions and a naturalist artist was an essential part of the record keeping on any such adventure. Specimens were shot, stuffed, pinned and painted. It was all part of the gathering of knowledge and accumulation of collections.

Artists such as John James Audubon struggled to show birds and mammals in scientific detail. These works were often based on freshly killed specimens arranged with appropriate plant forms. The results were sometimes artistic but to my mind they fall into the category of accomplished flower arranging. Nevertheless, the body of his work, particularly in his Birds of America, was a major landmark in the history of wildlife art. The great “double elephant” folio brought striking and quite accurate images of birds to a wide public.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century some powerful painters of wild animals emerged. The most famous of these, men like Richard Friese, Wilhelm Kunhert and, in the early twentieth century, Carl Rungius, catered to the big game hunter. Aristocrats had always had a taste for shooting wildlife. Now the new business elite aspired to join the “sport”. These men were the patrons of a new art form, the depiction of the quarry species in its own habitat. These paintings hung on the walls along with the heads of the trophy animals. Not only the animals in the picture, but also the landscape, was intended to evoke memories of happy times in the field.

Of course, these artists were themselves big game hunters. And so, as in most great art throughout history, the artist explores what is meaningful to him in his own life. Since some of the painters were well trained and talented, they produced some excellent paintings, and indeed were on a par with the works of many of the more famous artists of that time. However, since the subject matter was outside the more conventional human-centred material, many of these pictures were not shown in major art museums. Those animal paintings which were priveleged to hang in art museums during the nineteenth century soon found their way into permanent storage as modernist curators took charge in the twentieth century.

A noteworthy exception to this practice was Bruno Llijefors (1860-1939) of Sweden. His work has always been recognized as having a position of status in Swedish art, and it continues to hang in major art museums of that country along with art of all periods, including contemporary. Llijefors enjoys a lofty reputation among wildlife artists and aficionados to this day. He employed great skill with brushwork and a fresh eye for his compositions. His paintings have a startling sense of verisimilitude which is almost photographic without being slavishly detailed. One definition of a masterpiece is that when you view it you feel you are seeing it for the first time, and it should seem as if it is done without effort. In my opinion, much of the work of Bruno Llijefors falls into this category. He not only produced pictures which would appeal to wealthy hunter clients, but also painted a great many pictures showing glimpses into ordinary little incidents in nature. These are treated with freshness and imagination. For this reason Bruno Llijefors has a proud place in the history of painting as an artist who looked nature eye to eye with respect.

There were others in the nineteenth century. One of the most gifted was Leopold Robert (1794-1835) of the Neuchatel area of Switzerland. He was famous as a painter of landscapes and of the human figure; a magnificent mural may be seen in the entry hall of the Neuchatel Museum. But his high position as a nature artist arises from his superb paintings of passerines and, oddly enough, of caterpillars. These are not mere scientific renderings but are small, perfect paintings showing the activities of these creatures in their habitats.

The tumultuous twentieth century has produced, not surprisingly, a multiplicity of trends in wildlife art. In the early years, artists continued to be used as illustrators of stories about animals or scientific books on natural history topics. As the century progressed, photography gradually took over this role.

There are, however, many areas of illustration in which the hand of the artist is superior to the camera. Detailed renderings of particular parts of plants or animals are shown with far greater clarity by draftsmanship, in which certain confusing relationships of the different parts of the natural world can be sorted out and simplified. Medical and botanical art are good examples of this.

A colossal breakthrough in the understanding and appreciation of natural history was developed by Roger Tory Peterson in the 1930's. His Field Guide to the Birds brought clear, standardized illustrations in a very accessible form to the general public. This meant that an ordinary beginner could buy the book and become a proficient birdwatcher, able to distinguish between all of the different species. The significance of the field guide has been enormous. As S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, writes,


“...because of the field guide, birds have become the best known animals in the world. Peterson entered a world in which identification and study of birds was the exclusive realm of the specialist with a shotgun, and he transformed us into a world of watchers. The impact Peterson has had is incalculable; in providing the means for the popularization and refinement of bird-watching, he has immeasurably furthered bird study and the conservation movement worldwide. He enables even the most untutored person to identify birds; he showcased the unparalleled beauty of birds in his painting and photography; and by getting millions of people interested he has helped to guarantee the survival of birds.”


The field guide principle has now multiplied into every area of identification of plants and animals and even rocks, minerals and stars. This has the potential of bringing Homo sapiens full circle and gives us some hope that modern-day man may end up sharing at least some of the knowledge of our hunter-gatherer ancestors about the world of nature.

As we approach the end of this century, the most serious problem facing the planet is the disappearance of biodiversity. The extinction of species will mean an ugly and impoverished future and may even threaten the survival of our own species. How can we preserve biodiversity if we can not even identify the different living things in our own communities, let alone in the world at large?

In my view, artwork is superior to photography in all field guides. The standardization and lack of confusing poses and lighting conditions makes good illustration irreplaceable. Photography does have its place, however, in the depiction of nature. Photography at its best is truly an art form along with drawing, painting and sculpture. In the last few decades photography has made significant technological advances. In recent years, photographers as artists have been producing a plethora of beautiful books showing nature as it had never been seen before by the general public. In many cases, the artistic merit and creativity of the photography was, and still is, truly inspirational. This has played an important role in raising the consciousness of the common person, at least in the Western world, to the beauty and value of nature.

At the same time it is undeniable that films and television have had a major impact in the same direction in recent years. Nature shows are perennial favourites, perhaps reflecting a yearning among a modern populace for the purity of the Garden of Eden that we are rapidly losing. In fact, wildlife painting has experienced a historic surge in popularity since the 1970's. When I was a teenage wildlife painter in the 1940's, I knew of only three or four Canadians and a dozen or so from the USA who painted nature. Most of them were illustrators of books or magazines. A few had, as their main job, teaching or musem work. Today there are hundreds of artists supporting themselves with their nature art, and many more are serious amateurs. The limited edition production print has increasingly enjoyed enormous popularity, especially in North America. This has meant that high quality reproductions of wildlife paintings are avidly collected, bringing wildlife images into thousands of homes and offices.

Natural history art in many forms has proliferated. It may be found as decoration on coffee mugs and T-shirts. It is often enlisted in worthy causes such as to “Save the Whales” or “Stop Killing Baby Seals”. It is now so much a part of our late twentieth century Western culture that an appreciation of nature seems to be akin to virtue. One scholar theorizes that, whereas in earlier centuries religious icons, for instance of the crucifix, showed that one was a good person, now wildlife images on one's clothing or wall are the new icons of virtue.

Moving to the opposite end of the creativity scale from the coffee mugs and clothing, wildlife art can be found in major paintings commanding as high prices as most other forms of contemporary art. Although only a few pieces have found their way past the “ priesthood” of modern art museum curators, a few excellent museums of wildlife art have opened in recent years. In general these have much healthier attendance records than do their so-called fine art counterparts.

Wildlife art has been directly enlisted in the fight to save threatened species and habitats. Often artwork of this genre is the best fundraiser at charity art auctions. In British Columbia, where I live, a group of artists joined forces with environmental organizations to paint a particularly precious stand of old growth Sitka spruce forest on Vancouver Island. The forest was slated to be cut but, after the raising of public awareness through the production of an elegant art book and a travelling exhibition, the logging company and government were shamed into protecting the forest.

A Netherlands-based organization, the Artists for Nature Foundation, is targeting two areas of great natural significance in order to raise consciousness and save them from development, particularly industrial agriculture. One is the Biebzra wetlands of eastern Poland and the other Extremadura of western Spain. Both are ancient cultural landscapes where human activity and nature have evolved together in a gentle interface. This results in an abundance of wildlife including many species endangered or extinct in other parts of Europe. The Artists for Nature Foundation has organized groups of leading wildlife artists from various parts of the world to draw and paint these areas. As in the Vancouver Island example, beautiful books and travelling exhibitions have resulted.

On a poster for the Munich Art Museum I read “Kunst öffnet die Augen” (Art opens the eyes). If this is true, and I believe it is, then the world of nature as seen by artists has a crucial role to play not only in bringing pleasure and appreciation of that world to mankind, but also in teaching us all what to cherish, and therefore what to protect and guard.

The following quotation is attributed to Baba Dioum:


“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.”


Let us hope that humans will become truly civilized and drift back to a deep appreciation of nature. There are signs that wildlife art at the end of this millenium may be part of an optimistic trend.


Robert Bateman