Homo et natura

[Read original version in catalan]

 “How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen”

Victor Hugo

“Where man is not, nature is barren”

William Blake


 If we could see on a great map the major themes of western art over the last three hundred years, we would note that two great obsessions stand out head and shoulders above all others: nature and the human being. From Goya to Bill Viola, from Turner to the Land Art movement… We find a possible explanation for this phenomenon in the historic trauma caused by the break with the ancient world during the enlightened revolutions, marked by humanity’s emancipation from a rudimentary and dogmatic age, though perhaps closer to that myth of the Golden Age when humans and nature lived side-by-side in harmony, without conflict. As occurs today, many pioneering artists at the start of the modern adventure sought to portray concerns, whether pantheist or existential, that were imbued with sufficient spiritual hegemony to replace the worn-out icons of the academic and Christian past. This was by no means a whimsical attitude; rather, it was supported by deep feeling: the need to reclaim the purity sacrificed in the name of progress – Nature – or to affirm a reality with no more references than the unfathomable Self.

Nature, said Schiller, is an idea. It is not merely a decorative backdrop to delight us when we get away from the city and the cement. It is also a concept that synthesises everything that humanity gives up when it takes a civilised step forward: simplicity, innocence, the organic earthenware pot, the natural rhythm of things, animal intuition. That is why we need art and culture; so that we can cultivate that primeval rhythm that helps us to regain our natural being. The Romantic writers were the first to vindicate art as our best conductor of regenerating sap. Rousseau, Schiller, Hölderlin, Goethe, Pope, Wilde, followed not long after by artists: Constable, Turner, Cézanne, Gauguin….

And from this wound, modern landscape art was born. To the most deeply engaged landscape artists, nature was a symbol of unpolluted, unspoiled innocence and, later, a reflection of the individual’s truest and darkest moods.  The truth of this can be seen in landscapes, not only from Friederich to Rothko, but also amongst works by artists pertaining to così detta postmodernity. In a liquid, dematerialised age, the artistic element is diluted in nature itself: Land Art conceived nature in nature, but always in search of that component that can finally perfect man; Cézanne, in his later years, sought the exact volume within the right space; whilst arte povera, in some of its more inspired icons – we think of Giuseppe Penone – attempted to return art to the fragile rhythm of nature. However, in the 1960s, a third way began to emerge, that of the protest, activism engaged in defending the environment.  Artists like Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke, amongst many others who opened up the artistic experiences, becoming references for contemporary practitioners who have today taken over from them, renewing their work, caused catharsis through rebellion against the injustices meted out on the natural environment.

On the other bank stands a solitary figure drifting off into introspection. The split with nature leads us to abstraction – if the artist is speculative – or towards introspection if there is greater engagement with the human condition. A movement that stresses the need for modern and contemporary artists to identify us, as never before in any period, with the profound representation of the human being; a reality that is perhaps accentuated by the unparalleled dehumanisation that our species was subjected to throughout the 20th century. A reality immortalised firstly by some of the great icons of our age: Piranesi’s prisons, Goya’s monsters, Friederich’s contemplative solitude, the scream of Munch and the German expressionists, Van Gogh’s self-portraits. More recently, this movement has spread, particularly after its validation by existentialist philosophy. The anguish of man’s drifting nature, as he affirms his essence through existence, to cite Sartre. Giacometti, Dubuffet, Bacon, Saura, Baselitz and, later, Viola, Kiefer, Louise Bourgeoise, seek catharsis by immersing themselves in human passions, or the tensions of the individual’s fragmented body.

Humanity vs Nature. That is the subject proposed for the 2011ArtMix by the artists of Santa Coloma de Gramanet. As is customary, then, the biennial explores a broad theme concerning contemporary art today, through western thought helping to make art the home of culture, reflection, communication, a culture of action through which we can seek the answers to questions that affect us all: What spiritual or vindicatory links do we have with nature in the 21st century? What is the state of the human spirit in a technocratic age? How are individual human passions represented in the third millennium?

[Text for the catalogue of the exhibition Homo et Natura, Santa Coloma biennial, Can Sisteré Centre for Contemporary Art, 2011