Illustration: Jozsef Rippl-Ronai. 'The Lady in Red' embroidery in wool, 1898. (Google Art Project).
'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.' John Muir
The Hungarian artist and designer Jozsef Rippl-Ronai produced the 'Lady in Red' embroidered hanging in 1898. Although Rippl-Ronai was not an embroiderer himself, the composition is entirely his work and is a beautifully conceived ideal of the individual within nature.
Although there were lots of examples of this particular subject that were contemporary with Rippl-Ronai, in fine art, design, and craft, this particular embroidered piece is a fine definition of the subject of harmony within nature. No matter how seemingly stylised Rippl-Ronai has exemplified the ideal of our human species immersed within nature.
For centuries, there has been a large proportion of fine and decorative artwork portraying differing interpretations of our role within nature. Many have been deeply symbolic, often showing the benefits that can be obtained by drawing towards the balanced relationship we must at one time have originally had with the natural world. Some have even shown the disastrous consequences when we spurn that age old relationship, like a symbolic eviction from the Garden of Eden.
For two million years or so, humans have depended upon their harmonious relationship with the natural world in order to survive as a species. It has never been easy, but it has always been achievable, though only when the understanding of the human role within the natural world has been accepted and not inflated or distorted in favour of greed and avaricious behaviour. If you understand that you as a human being are a small but important cog within a seemingly infinite world of interconnecting but equally significant cogs, then you understand the harmony of nature. There is no hierarchy within nature that places humans above all other creatures, that sees some species as being more important and more deserving than others, only a self-imposed conceit. An earthworm has just as important a role to play, as does a bee, a vulture, an elephant, or indeed a human. All are equal, all have validity, and all are enmeshed in the whole.
It is this theme of the enmeshing of humanity within the harmony of nature that can be seen within the composition of Rippl-Ronai's'Lady in Red'. The composition has no space for hesitation on the part of nature. There is no role for human urbanity or its obsession with space clearing, apart from a small and decidedly non-invasive wooden fence. The woman does not seem out of place, imposed from another world, but stands confidently within the world in which she feels comfortable and obviously belongs. It even appears as if the ivy tendrils that are climbing the tree to her left are only moments away from beginning to entangle themselves around her body, enticing her to stay and become a permanent part of the harmonious whole.
It is interesting to note that Rippl-Ronai's embroidery was completed in 1898, deep within the Art Nouveau movement that had swept across Europe. Within the movement itself there is such a deep theme of the enmeshing of nature, particularly of humans in their primal state. Although 'primal state' often meant portraying young men and women naked within a natural setting, it would be wrong to think that there was little to the primal theme than mild titillation. Although, to be fair that was a definite factor, it would be mean-spirited not to see more than mild eroticism within Art Nouveau and its portrayal of this harmony between human and nature.
Art Nouveau saw the portrayal of nature in all its endless variety very much as its defining theme. The complexity of relationships between species and the lack of imposition of any obvious human symmetry were departures from most forms of previous decoration. However, it was the lack of hierarchy, where humans were often seen encased within natural themes, as part of the nature, rather than imposed, that really stands out, as it does in Rippl-Ronai's 'The Lady in Red'.
It is so refreshing when looking at this embroidered piece, to see an individual human who is part of nature, not apart. Too often we see examples of humans either looking on, or remote from the natural world. We look on as if it were an alien oddity, rather than the system that actually keeps us alive. While we maintain this dysfunctional approach to the natural environment, this alienation from our artificially adapted towns and cities, there seems little hope that we will develop into the species we have so much potential to be.
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