Friday, February 21, 2014

The Natural World as Creative Landscape

Illustration: Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 'Pilvi Tornit' (Cloud Towers), 1904.

If you take a look at any ordinary dictionary, one of the first definitions of the word 'landscape' will be 'an extensive area of land regarded as being visually distinct', and often the second definition will be 'a painting, drawing, or photograph depicting natural scenery'. From this close and familiar association with the same word it is easy to see how the creative world has become inextricably linked with panoramas of the natural environment and the interpretation of those environmental vistas, thorough the visual materials of creativity in anything from paint to thread.

The natural environment has undoubtedly been the pre-eminent inspirational source material for artists and crafts people across millenniums of generations. Humans have experienced and visually judged natural panoramas since our early development as a species, if not before. Whilst the scientific world would encapsulate our early ancestors judgement of their surrounding environment as one of survival and little else, I personally cannot believe that whilst scanning the natural vistas of our planet, our early ancestors did not have at least a rudimentary form of poetic wonder and admiration for what they saw around them.

Illustration: Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 'Lake Keitele', 1905.

We are extremely lucky, some would even say blest, to live on a planet that not only teems with an indescribably profuse array of complex and unique life forms, but a planet itself that offers so many different ways of seeing and experiencing the panoply of life. That humans understood their unique ability to both comprehend and then to interpret through creativity, the endless relationships of life that they saw around them, must have occurred to us at a very early stage. Our creative ancestors understood, as we in our turn do, that the life we are given helps us to interpret the complexity of relationships, the interdependency of nature, the ongoing creativity of the planet, that in turn can be reflected within our own individuality.

There are so many artists throughout the ages that have interpreted landscape in as many different and unique ways. However, Scandinavian landscape painters, and particularly those who produced work at the beginning of the twentieth century, seemed somehow to produce work that was more than visually correct and precise. A number of painters from Sweden and Finland in particular seemed to produce landscape work that was almost emotional in its narrative, compositionally free and wide in perspective, giving the deep impression of both freedom and wonder in the natural landscapes of northern Europe.

Illustration: Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 'Nakyma Jarvelle Syksyn' (Lake View in Autumn), 1905.

The artist I have chosen to illustrate this particular article is the Finnish painter, illustrator, textile, carpet, and tapestry designer Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Gallen-Kallela was a Finnish nationalist at a time when Finland itself was a province of the then sprawling Russian Empire. Although by no means a provincial nationalist, Gallen-Kallela had an international outlook and was familiar with both Germany and France, he studied at the Academie Julian in the 1880s, he had an acute understanding for the natural landscape of his homeland.

The five landscape paintings I have chosen show unique and very different aspects of the natural character of Finland as interpreted by Gallen-Kallela. It has to be remembered of course that the world around us is interpreted forever uniquely. Despite the fact that there are now over seven billion of us on the planet, there can never be a truly shared experience, no matter how much we wish or believe there to be. We each interpret the world around us on a unique level. The differences between understanding might well be subtly different, but different nevertheless. Therefore, interpreting creatively is always a wonder because each creative output is a unique reflection of the individual artist and their inspirational understanding of the world they see, interact with, and then interpret. 

Illustration: Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 'Auringonlasku', 1899.

This will always be the beauty of the human experience, individuality reflected thorough and by individual experience. No matter how complex and structured the communities we live in, no matter how regimented the experience may seem through technology and remoteness, the sweeping majesty of a landscape will somehow always be able to take our breath away. Our connection with our ancestors feelings, understandings and connections with the natural landscape should never be taken lightly. They should be treated with the gravity they deserve. They are of a profoundness that we are only beginning to understand.

For a couple of hundred years now, firstly Europeans and then the world at large have been under the impression that the planet can be treated as little more than an endlessly pillaged quarry of goods, a goose that continually lays a golden egg. However, try throttling the goose into laying more than one egg at a time and see how far you get. The planet is poorly set up for exploitative profit, it was meant as an environment to complement and nurture. That it is beginning to fail as a going organic entity has much to do with a lack of focus and understanding, a distancing of experience and connection. 

Illustration: Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 'Great Black Woodpecker', 1893.

It is through the continued interpretation, poetic reflection, and creative inspiration that the artistic world can help to visualise our ancestors understanding between themselves and nature. By constantly placing the natural environment as a prime source of interpretation, whether through fine art, design, decoration, or craft, we make the connection between ourselves and the natural environment stronger, more intimate, and more compassionate. In turn, the whole human community gradually begins to see and interpret for themselves the compassion that can be engendered again for the relationship between themselves and the natural world. 

Through landscape we see the majesty of the world, through landscape we see the complexity and scope of life on the planet, and through landscape we eventually see our own purpose and role in these superbly inspiring panoramic vistas.


badmomgoodmom said...

I'm a scientist and regular reader of your blog.

I was surprised by your claim that, "Whilst the scientific world would encapsulate our early ancestors judgement of their surrounding environment as one of survival and little else,..."

For one thing, scientists are not a monolithic establishment.

Secondly, scientists work with data. If it isn't backed up with data, it's speculation. We don't report speculation in publication. We might kick speculative ideas around with friends and colleagues, but we won't discuss it widely until we have data to back it up.

Omission in published literature usually means that we lack data about the subject.

Just where did you get the evidence that scientists claim to know what our early ancestors were thinking?

We don't know because they didn't leave us any evidence or clues about their interior lives. Just because scientists don't speculate out in the open, doesn't mean we don't wonder about it. And it also means that we don't dismiss that preliterate people have interior lives either.

Scientists lead rich interior lives, but we are (mostly) a bunch of introverts who don't talk about our feelings out loud. However, your throwaway comment hurt my feelings. You misunderstand us horribly.

You don't have to knock one thing (or people) down just to elevate another. You can do better than this.

John Hopper said...

Thanks for your comment and I do apologise for my flippant throwaway remark, it was thoughtless and crude. My only defence is that I am halfway through an evening course in positive psychology and I am struggling with the concept of the world of psychology and its seeming belief that humans were little more than biological vessels at the mercy of animal instincts for survival, but perhaps that is just my tutor. In future, I will, as you suggest, try to do better :)


I enjoy reading your blog, many of your topics are truly Inspiring. Well written also!

~ Aina ~

pansypoo said...

i agree about survival, but i think they just didn't have the tools for landscapes in the old old days. but going by their woodworking + jewelry, they were inspired by nature. they valued ornamental shells, rocks.

Heather said...

Hmmn, I thought it was a great posting (as usual) and didn't pick up on any slur towards scientists, although on re-reading I see where the other commenter took offense. And I thought since you are taking the positive psych course, you might be interested in Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote - a very interesting read.

John Hopper said...

Thanks for the Amazon link Heather, the book looks as if it might well help me with some of the nagging doubts I have had since starting the course. I approached the Positive Psychology path via Buddhism, but have realised that life is much more about poetry and spiritualism than it is about the measuring stick. Psychology is far too analytically brutal for my liking, although it no doubt suits others, everyone after all finds their own path. Personally, I think that the course was worth doing, even if it was to find that it isn't for me, and I will still enjoy the next few weeks until it finishes.