Unveiled Nature – A journey into the relationship between art and nature

Unveiled Nature – A journey into the relationship between art and nature

by Francesca Salmeri



The link between the world of art and nature is known and undeniable; one could almost say that the entire history of art is characterized by the relationship between man and nature, on the one hand, by exaltation and idealization of the natural context, on the other of exploitation of this, bent to the hand of man.

The link between the world of art and nature is known and undeniable; one could almost say that the entire history of art is characterized by the relationship between man and nature, on the one hand, by exaltation and idealization of the natural context, on the other of exploitation of this, bent to the hand of man.

These two ways of relating the human being to nature have crossed the history of this complex relationship. In the world of art, they have both led to the creation of undeniable masterpieces, which are not limited to representing the technicality and beauty of the work of art, but at the same time narrate about the changes in the human being’s thoughts towards a nature that is seen both as a mother and comfort and as death and impotence.

In this short article we will talk about some examples of different artistic approaches to the concept of nature, trying to underline how it is not so much the artist’s intention, but the relationship that he establishes with nature that gives value to what he produces, in continuity with the nature to which it belongs.

Veiled nature, the myth of Isis

Isis[1] is one of the most important deities in Egyptian mythology. Her story, reported by many historians through different details, tells one of the most epic love stories of antiquity – that between Isis and her beloved Osiris – a metaphor for the relationship between human beings and nature.

Isis and Osiris were brothers. They were born in love by the gods of earth and sky, Nut and Geb. The love between the two brothers was great and bright, so much so that it sparked the jealousy of their brother Seth, the deity of discord. Isis and Osiris represented the harmony between the two great powers of nature: life and death. Their harmonious, fruitful, and fertile love is contrasted with the jealousy, hatred, and infertility of their brother Seth’s negative feelings.[2]

Seth had a beautiful sarcophagus built, promising it as a gift to anyone who managed to enter inside. His brother Osiris fell into the deception and was thus killed and then abandoned to the waters of the Nile.

Isis, the goddess of fertility and the richness of nature, becomes a figure of nature’s resilience in this myth phase and does not give up at the end of her beloved, spending the rest of her life searching for his body. Research that will end with the birth of Horus, the divinity of order who will be able to defeat his uncle, the god of chaos, Seth, bringing the dominion of the world back to harmony between the two forces: the vivifying and fertile one of life and the inevitable and overwhelming of death.

The myth of Isis is taken up and reported by many artists and scholars of the concept of nature in the world of thought and art history.


Promethean and Orifcus: the two gazes of the human being at nature in art

Reported and reread in the light of the Promethean and Orphic attitude, treated by Pierre Hadot of the text “The Veil of Isis[3],” the story of Isis narrates the continuous changing of the human being’s attitude towards his companion, mother, enemy…the nature.


On the one hand we have Prometheus, [4] titan, half-man and half-god, who decides to betray Olympus to give human beings the power of fire, a moment which in Greek mythology explains the birth of Tekne[5] – the technique typical of artisans, blacksmiths, all those who: fascinated, but at the same time fearful, of the forces of nature, study how to subdue these forces, how to develop tools that make human beings masters of these forces. The Promethean orientation focuses on the technical domination of nature, a domination that bends natural forces to the will of man.

Forces personified in the case of magic and progressively reduced to impersonal and mechanical natural forces. Initially linked to the natural charm of ancient and Renaissance Neoplatonic derivation, the Promethean worldview focuses on controlling the hidden, invisible elements that operate in the world.

Helped by a Christian vision of the world, which deprives nature of its sacredness and makes it at man’s complete disposal, the Promethean attitude reduces nature to a tangle of scientific mechanisms to be discovered to control it.

On the other hand, Orpheus [6] [7], a very different figure from Prometheus, a musician, and artist capable of listening to and revealing the mysteries of nature, with which he has much in common, from the concept of beauty to the ability to participate in natural cycles, not by fighting them but by understanding them. The Orphic attitude descends directly from the initiatory paths that in ancient times led man interested in knowing the secrets of nature through an itinerary of gradual stages, a spiritual ascent towards wisdom and knowledge. Those who listen to Nature listen to and respect it but also idealize it in a sometimes naive and primitivist way.

It is easy to identify what Hadot defines the Promethean attitude as the root of what will then be the modern sciences. In contrast, in the Orphic attitude, it is simple to identify the birth of all those artistic and thought strands that have led to the birth of holistic thinking in the contemporary era. However, we must not make the mistake of flattening or excessively categorizing historical and artistic processes which, on the contrary, have seen the two attitudes come together and give life to a vision of the concept of nature on the part of man, which cannot be identified solely or with a material manipulable physics nor with a mystical mystery knowable exclusively through contemplation.

If, on the one hand, exponents of the Orphic attitude, such as Goethe in literature or Monet in painting, have brought to light the importance of a humble attitude and respect towards nature, on the other hand the contributions made by many exponents are undeniable of the Promethean attitude, among which it is easy to include Newton for his physical research or Mary Shelley, who expresses the figure of man as master of nature (not neglecting its dangerous consequences) in her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

A great example of the two attitudes included in a single artistic spirit is those of Hokusai and Hiroshige, Japanese artists particularly loved and known by Van Gogh and Degas. On the one hand, Hiroshige represents a great example of technical ability and manipulation of matter to produce his artistic works; on the other, his approach to the natural world is entirely innovative compared to the technique and artistic current he was part of.[8]

Until that moment, Japanese prints had concentrated on depicting typical scenes of society: prominent political figures, geishas engaged in the arts of music and dance, and significant battles characterized by their grandeur.

Hokusai narrates nature, bringing it from the panorama level to that of the subject. And what it tells, even if filtered by the image’s choice of color and perspective, cannot be limited to the image itself. A lily stops being just a flower, a decoration, part of the panorama. On the contrary, it becomes the subject, the artist’s primary interest who, with those lilies, is telling the peace, beauty, and emotions of those who decide to dedicate time to contemplation.[9]

Another interesting example of the two attitudes cited by Hadot is today the open-air museums designed in continuity, and not in contrast, with the natural environment that surrounds them, as in the case of the LUMEN – Museum of Mountain Photography, located in Brunico in Italy [10]or the Audain Art Museum, Whistler which is in Canada. In the case of these museums, for example, the two Promethean and Orphic attitudes coincide: on the one hand, the exaltation of the technique, architecture, and engineering necessary for the design and construction of the buildings; on the other, the awareness of the territory and a thought of respect for nature, which as in the case of Japanese artists, is not limited to being understood as an outline of the artistic work, but as an integral part of it.





[1] To know more about the myth of Isis

[2]  Isis lactans, Musée des beaux arts di Lione. © CC-BY-SA 2.0

[3] Le voile d’Isis, Pierre Hadot, Èditions Gallimard, Paris 2004

[4] Prometheus Bringing Fire to Mankind, Friedrich Heinrich Füger 1817

[5] To know more about

[6] Orpheus and Eurydice, Tiziano Vecellio 1508

[7] For further details

[8] Seki n°48 from the series The Tôkaidô Road – The Fifty-three Stations (Tôkaidô – Gojûsan tsugi) Utagawa Hiroshige 1847-52

[9] Lily, Hokusai, Katsushika 1830

[10] LUMEN – Museum of Mountain Photography,  Brunico, Italy


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