Landscape and Nature

March 27 - August 1, 2012
SNG, Water Barracks, 1st floor
Curator: martin Čičo

Something never heard of before... Less-known visual arts from SNG’s collection

Although land and nature make up man’s living environment, his relation with them and the surrounding world have not always been positive. On one hand, they provided him with everything he needed for life – albeit not always abundantly – but on the other hand, they also posed numerous threats, and facing the elements, man felt their domination. Thus, he gradually distanced himself from nature by creating his own habitat, and his relation to land and nature remained influenced by this feeling of insecurity and respect.
During his early days, man inhabited all of the places that scared him, were difficult to reach or completely inaccessible, together with all demonstrations of the nature’s power, by many deities – or, in other words, personifications of the natural forces. He reduced the nature’s substances and manifestations into the four fundamental elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. All of them essential for life, all of them capable of threatening or taking life away – of course, namely in extreme situations like natural disasters, which torment people until the present day, even though we no longer attribute them to purposeful acts of mysterious deities.
But later – after the breakdown of the ancient world of mythology, when the Christianised Europe accepted the view of the world as a creation of the almighty but good God – man’s relation to his environment changed neither automatically nor quickly. The nature remained outside the reach of his will – untamed, unpredictable, uncontrollable, as the habitat of wild animals, dark forces and even fairytale creatures, veiled in a shroud of mystery, yet vital for life. However, man became gradually interested in the vast space beyond his immediate surrounding environment, and by discovering it, his relation with it became more positive.
At the turn of the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Times, man’s awe and curiosity combined with the heritage of the Ancient Times led to a new rise in his awareness of the world.
Man started to view nature and land from a new angle, not only with regard to natural sciences, but also aesthetics. However, it took a relatively long time before a new artistic genre was born. It developed from the initially marginal interest in natural and land elements integrated into works that primarily focused on a different, mainly biblical content – through portrayals of nature and land related to urban and suburban environment, to the almost romantic take on the natural realm and riverside or forest recesses, which were cleared of complementary characters or other ties to content, thus becoming a topic on their own, announcing the romantic admiration of nature in the ensuing 19th century.

Four Elements
The substances and demonstrations of natural forces were reduced to the four fundamental elements already by the ancient Greeks, who understood their tremendous might. A good example of personified and allegoric portrayal of the elements is found in the series of works crated by an unknown engraver, who found his inspiration in the artwork of the Dutch mannerist Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617). Continuing in the ancient tradition, he combined them with verses from Ovid’s Cosmology (1, 26–31), which characterise the elements and put them into a certain order. They hold that the principal element is Fire, reaching all the way to the skies, followed by Air and Wind, which enable breathing and flying. The third element is Earth, with its horn of plenitude and fruits, which was at the centre of the ancient understanding of the world. The last of the elements is Water, surrounding the Earth. To this relatively traditional portrayal of personified elements, Goltzius adds motives of significant topics from the Judeo-Christian tradition of redemption, however, placing them in a different order: He begins with Adam’s creation from clay of earth, continues with the sacrifice of Elias at Mount Carmel, then with water during Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan, and finally with air in the scene of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles during Pentecost.

Biblical And Mythological Land
The topic of nature was initially connected with content-related biblical, but also younger hagiographic subjects of Christian iconography, which is so-to-speak most senior within the European post-ancient art. Examples include several Old and New Testament scenes, with their context being placed in the nature’s framework, created first only by symbolic references, most commonly taking on the shape of a tree. Initially, this was even true for portrayals of the topic of Adam and Eve in paradise, which is at the same time also the most direct subject of the obligatory depiction of natural environment in European art. Nevertheless, examples of its development into portraying a wider scenery is still quite rare even in the first half of the 16th century. However, the topic gradually evolved, leading to attempts at portraying the biblical land with its terrain and vegetation (J. Luyken). From 15th century, a parallel development can be detected also in the field of portraying ancient mythology, introduced to art and made popular by the Italian renaissance masters (works of S. d. Bella and L. Cranach).

Suburbs And Inhabited Lands
Despite what has previously been said, the selection of works in this sub-topic will demonstrate just how closely man was related to nature also in his immediate environment. Edges of cities are oftentimes a continuous transition from landscape and the city itself. This is even more evident in the case of rural areas, since certain houses represent kind-of islands in the green sea of vegetation. Here, nature has an even more intensive impact on man, and he does not even resist it; man is a natural part of nature. Of course, the more is his life tied to breeding domestic animals (which still depend on the nature in its “natural form”), the more is this true.
During the period of the early positive development of man’s relation with nature, the life of shepherds was idealised, even becoming a part of higher culture, integrating also certain folk elements. However, this is only one of the approaches to the relationship with the nature. Another, more ancient one, is represented by the world of festivities and celebrations, together with gallant scenes of the seasons, when the nature becomes home to court games and social pastimes.

Hunting Scenes
The more distant and still ‘wild’ nature of forests and mountains, together with large rivers, displayed its might, which man disrupted only occasionally at the times of hunting, when he strived to snatch something away from its wealth, or just to display his power of the master of creation in organised hunting amusements, as presented by etchings by J. E. Ridinger. On the other hand, paintings from a more extensive collection of works created on the basis of drawings by J. Stradan represent various hunting styles, during which a hunter must employ not only skill and courage, but oftentimes also wit.