Earth Day – Laura Halsey ’19

Happy Sunday and happy Earth Day, friends of PUAM and SAB! Looking for a way to spend a day reveling in both our beautiful Earth and our beautiful art at Princeton? Tighten up your waking shoes and get out your sunglasses – here is a link to all of our campus art, a walking tour of which is a perfect way to spend any day.

Louise Nevelson
Atmosphere and Environment X, 1969–70
Cor-Ten steel
The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University

Art and nature are so intertwined, and have been since the beginning, that it is difficult to separate the two. Did I just say “the beginning” of art? Impossible, you might reply. Though I would agree that there is no definitive “start” to the creation of art by humans, I would argue that cave paintings are a fairly good example of one of the first artistic expressions by humans. Now, if you are bothered by my attempt to quantify the “beginning” of art, I will appease you with a fun fact. Did you know the formal name for cave paintings is “parietal art” (parietal, as in “of, relating to, attached to, or denoting the wall of the body or of a body cavity or hollow structure”)? Anyways, I digress. Looking at this example of early artistic expression, we can see how closely intertwined art was with nature. The medium: charcoal or dirt mixed with spit, animal fat or ochre. The surface: rock walls of caves. The subject: often animals or outdoor elements. At the very start of artistic expression with these incredible cave paintings, many of which are still around today across the globe, nature dominated art in regard to both subject and material. As years and centuries passed, technology improved such that synthetic media and materials became available and preferred for higher quality and more maintainable art. However, nature’s role in art remained strong; in movements such as Romanticism, Baroque, Realism, Impressionism and Expressionism, a main subject was nature, or natural creations such as flowers or water. In Impressionism, painting outdoors or “en plein air”, was a major feature of the style. Throughout the history of art, dare I say from the beginning to present day, nature has influenced and been relevant to nearly every movement and style – from material to medium to subject matter.

Claude Monet
Meadow at Giverny
Oil on canvas

The more one thinks about this tight connection and dependency between art and nature, the more evident it becomes. This week in my class on Versailles, we learned about English gardens. This style of gardens, favored by Marie-Antoinette, is characterized by a wild, natural feel with groves, small bodies of water, and sometimes miniature recreations of classical temples. These gardens, outside of Marie Antoinette’s hideaway, the Petit Trianon, contrasted with the well-structured, uniform French gardens surrounding the main chateau. As our professor spoke about the effort, design, and creativity that went into these gardens, yet another way that nature and art are closely linked dawned on me: horticulture. And beyond gardens such as the grand ones of Versailles or the simple, personal ones outside of homes, the art of horticulture in fact can reach even loftier heights. Mosaïculture. Ever heard of it? Me neither, or at least not until after my class this week on the gardens of Versailles, when I embarked on an absent-minded journey on Google – first searching photos of the Versailles gardens, which lead to a website ranking on the best bushes for topiary practices, which lead to Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal, a “competition” of mosaïculture sculptures in Montréal. Please, check it out for yourself: In 2017, the theme for this competition was “Mosaïcanada” – in 2013, the theme was “Land of Hope”. Mosaïculture is “the horticultural art of creating giant topiary-like sculptures using thousands of annual bedding plants to carpet steel armature forms.” The creations made even by amateur Mosaïculture-uses/-eurs (I am hoping this is the correct term) are incredible; colors come from the variety of flowers or bushes, texture from the plant leaves, shape from topiary practices. At this mosaïculture competition in Montréal, thousands of plants would go into a single mosaïculture sculpture – sculptures which could be so large they would tower over visitors. Furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly, these sculptures are relatively maintainable with the proper care. It is truly an art form, and perhaps an art form even more intertwined with nature than ever before. A full circle indeed from the days of parietal art. Art built from nature, on nature.

Mosaïculture Gatineau 2018

When you go on your walking tour, and when you next visit our lovely art museum, try to see how many times nature presents itself in the work you are looking at. Do any of the sculptures mimic geographical structures? Involve the Sun? How many paintings are of natural landscapes? Of flowers? Next time you look at a flower bouquet, realize how the beauty of nature is what creates the beauty of art, how often art is simply putting together components of nature or simply portraying the Earth’s natural state. We humans are deluded if we think art is entirely made by us – and if we do not realize the greatest gift and asset we have is not anything we have created, but what we have been given from our beautiful Earth.