Oscar Wilde and "Nature's Imitation of Art"
In writings, public and private, literature and diaries, for centuries mountains were described, if at all, in conventional and unexciting imagery, or even in terms of distaste and revulsion. They were, according to author Marjorie Nicholson, often described as warts, blister, or pockmarks on the earth, “wasteplaces of the world.”
James Howell, for one, writing to his father about his crossing of the Pyrenees Mountains in 1621 described them as not so high and hideous as the Alps, but compared to the mountains in Wales they were as blisters are to abscesses, and as pimples are to warts. Henry Moore, in 1655 wrote “There is no one save those as stupid as the basest of beasts who would not agree that a cube, [or]a tetrahedron… had more beauty in them than any rude broken stone lying in the field or highways.”
Until about the middle of the 17th Century, no one bothered to say such things, it being understood in most western countries that wild, untamed nature was not a thing of beauty. The Greeks in classical times had found beauty in a small grove, a fountain or other nook or cranny, not in towering mountains, which were the abode of gods, and merely an impediment to travel. Neither their art nor their literature contain any depiction of beauty in the broad vistas, not the sight of mountains from the valleys, nor the view from the peaks. Christopher Thacker had claimed, with much justification, that to Aristotle the great landscape paintings of the 19th Century would probably have been incomprehensible. In Roman art there was a beginning of landscape art, but never fully developed.
In the Middle ages, as can be seen in thousands of paintings in hundreds of museums worldwide, nature is a background for humans and human endeavors. Natural scenery is shown spaced symmetrically and each in geometric form: trees as rounded on top as mushrooms, or simply as balls of green; mountains as triangles, even if slightly rounded at the top, likewise in symmetric patterns. But in the late 17th Century, something was stirring. It provoked a response.
Centuries later, John Ruskin put into the mouth of an unmoved hypothetical 17th Century viewer the words: “There is something strange in the minds of these modern people,”
That was indeed what was implied by some writers of the 17th and early 18th Centuries. They were in fact becoming defensive about the subject , In 1669 Madelè de Scudéri wrote, apparently indignantly, that art embellishes nature, that palaces are more beautiful than caves, and that well-cultivated gardens are more pleasing than a barren waste. Thomas Burnet, in his Sacred Theory of the Earth, said that neither the rugged jagged shapes of mountains, or the irregular unsymmetrical shapes of coastlines could possibly have been the work of the primary creation by God. They must have been evidence of his displeasure with the world, and vestiges of that long-ago flood. This, he claimed, must be a fallen world since so much of God’s original perfection, the smoothness and symmetry has been lost.
A Scottish Bishop, Gilbert Burnet, no relation to Thomas Burnet, expressed similar thoughts. He found the Alps to be so high and irregular that they “cannot be the primary Productions of the Author of Nature: but are the vast Ruines of the first World which at the Deluge broke here into many inequalities.” In 1775, the English author and critic, Samuel Johnson, wrote in response to those who were, of late, admiring the woods, lakes, hills and valleys of France as things of beauty. He had never, said Johnson, heard of such nonsense. “A blade of grass is always a blade of grass, whether in one country or another” Of importance, he claimed, was whether people in one country were different from those left behind.
What had happened to cause such comparisons? The foundation for it came over a hundred years earlier, in the early 15th Century. This catalyst was the ‘invention’ of the depiction of the illusion of three dimensions on a flat, two dimensional surface. The genius who developed it was a Venetian goldsmith, architect and artist, Filippo Brunelleschi. Two of his paintings, both now lost, have been described in great detail. One was of the Florentine Baptistery, still uncompleted, and the open square on which it fronts; the other was of the Palazzo della Signora. Both were apparently done with rigorous three dimensional perspective. The earliest surviving painting of that nature is “Trinity,” which hangs today in the Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
Humans have always seen the world in three dimensions, as have numerous other creatures. What humans have not always seen is any particular aesthetic appeal in it, something discussed in my previous essay on 3-d perspective. Following these paintings in the early 15th Century, such perspective was the subject of much study and discussion, as well as copying. The subject matter, for over another hundred years remained the religious, as it had been throughout Medieval times, though the pictures and portraits now showed depth as well as length and width. The important innovation was the vanishing point, the meeting of lines, known as orthogonals, those intended to be seen as right angles to the plane of the canvas. This was coupled with diminution in size, and elevation in height, of objects intended to be shown in the distance.
It was about a hundred years later. The mid 16th Century, that artists first began to paint nature, for its own sake, rather than as mere background for humans or human activity. Who was the first? Perhaps the artist with best claim is Albrecht Altdorfer, born about 1480 in Regensburg, Germany. The first of his finest three dimensional pictures of nature dates from about 1510. It is titled “St George and the Dragon and hangs in the Alte Pinokothek in Munich. It is most assuredly not about St. George and the Dragon. The two combatants are reduced to absurdly small figures. The key subject in the painting, as is obvious at once, is the all pervading forest and its frightful density. The two ostensible subjects, according to the painting’s title, are marginalized to inconsequence by the looming terror of the overgrowth.
It was about 150 years later that we begin to see the change in humanity’s view of nature. It was perhaps one more manifestation of the part-to-whole relationship developing in the minds of the time. The beauty in the sweep of natural scenery was shown to them in the paintings, and their minds were receptive to it. If knowing nothing of the chronology, one might suspect that it was the love of nature that precipitated 3-d perspective in art. The sequence of events dictate otherwise. It was undoubtedly the beauty that artists began to see in their 3-d view of nature, that they began to put on canvas. Where before, nature was merely a background for human subjects, now humans, , beginning about 1510, if shown at all in these paintings, were a background, incidental only, to the grand views of nature.
And it was not until the late 1600s, well into the 17th Century, that there began a change in humanity’s view of nature as reflected in the literature and ultimately in private writings such as diaries. It ultimately manifested itself in the behavior of many people, who for the first time, seemed willing to travel merely to view the beauty of natural scenery. And it came at a time when the difficulties of travel were no less than they had been for centuries past. We are entitled to ask how and why, as intuitively it would seem otherwise; and that the appreciation of nature would come first. Let us hear from Oscar Wilde.
In an insightful essay entitled “Nature’s Imitation of Art,”[i] Wilde talked about the well known London fog. In Wilde’s estimation, it was art that created the fog, in particular the works of impressionist painters.
“Where, if not from the impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? … The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.”
What is nature, he asks. “She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and only then, does it come into existence.”
He speaks of only one small aspect of the natural world, the London fog. It seems from the history, that what he says applies to our awe of the grand vistas.
The literature that is contemporary with and descriptive of this change will be the subject of a later essay.
The author’s books from which much of this material comes are “Faces: The changing look of humankind,” and “Vanishing Points: Three dimensional perspective in art and history.”