Friday, September 7, 2012

On Nature in the Contemporary Fantastic Art

-By Petar Meseldžija

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1899

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
- Albert Einstein

“The earth has music for those who listen.”
- William Shakespeare

"Nature is a haunted house--but Art--is a house that tries to be haunted.”
- Emily Dickinson

“I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want.”
- Andy Warhol

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
- William Blake

Ivan Bilibin, 1902
In the showcase section of Spectrum 18 there are more than 500 images. Vast majority of them (more than 85%) are showing no trace of nature, not a single blade of grass. The situation is not much different in the previous few issues of the Spectrum book.  And because the Spectrum annual is a book that gives us still the best impression of what is going on in this field (in all its facets) at the present moment, I can’t do anything else but to conclude that we have almost entirely banished Nature from Fantastic Art.
It appears as if the contemporary artist, working in the field of the fantastic, is not very much inspired, or compelled, to depict nature in his art. And when a piece of nature finally has to be shown, it is often depicted as a piece of prop on the theatre stage, technically and routinely done, but without much love, understanding or dedication. Why is that?  Why, when most of us love to be in the nature (I am quite sure about this) we still don’t find enough reason to show this fascination in our art. At the same time it seems like we almost obsessively and abundantly are depicting desolate places, decay, destruction and the lack of optimism in our art.
Why? Is it some kind of fear? Is it frustration? Or just ignorance, reluctance or opportunism? Or maybe following the current trends and hypes is the reason?  In other words – our unscrupulous professionalism? Or should we take in consideration the fact that the majority of population (certainly in the West) live their lives in big cities and urban areas, where the only piece of nature they see and have contact with on a regular basis are more or less neatly arranged city parks (again in other words - out of sight, out of mind)!?
Or do we quite naturally and automatically just react to the outside world in a way that reflects the given extern circumstances. Something like a mirror that reflects the surrounding world without any kind of analysis or judgment.  A few decades ago, our professor of History of Art taught us that good art has to reflect the spirit of its time. This does not mean that an artist has to be a mere wall which bounces off the information that comes towards him. On the contrary. She meant that the artist has to absorb the outside information and let it go through his inner prism, and then consciously / intuitively and creatively “digest” that information and sends it back into the world.
Not only our fantasy worlds have less need for nature, it also appears that these worlds, ideas and energies, that are populating our canvases, or computer screens, are showing more and more the omnipresence of violence, destruction, deviance, weirdness and ugliness.  
I know that we artists need to make living and that the market, that big, self-centered,  profit-orientated  beast, commends it. If we indeed reflect the present state of mind of the modern world, and its current aspirations, one is compelled to conclude that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!” (Hamlet)
Again, we might say, one has to make living, so it’s still better to make art that shows (promotes) destruction, violent behavior and dehumanization, than to sell weapons. Or is it, really?
Let me make myself clear. I am aware of the fact that, after all, Life is full of suffering. Some even claim that “Life is suffering”. I am also conscious of the fact that we live in a world of dualism. Or in more popular terms, I know about the “dark side” of Life, and its relation to the “white (good) side”. Likewise I realize that Art is a subjective phenomenon, but at the same time it has the power to reveal the universal. It is a perfect ground for expressing all kinds of truths and phenomena, regardless whether they are considered beautiful or ugly.
However, I am also aware of something that is called decadence, which in most simple terms implies a situation wherein the means to a goal become the goal itself. At the same time I know about the inborn characteristic of the human behavior to follow the majority, or to be a part of a group. We are social animals, after all. But I also believe (fortunately I am not alone is this belief) that a true artist should strive to be the group’s  scout,  so to speak, instead of just following the group.  
Everything we do contributes to the world of the future. Today we create tomorrow. Did you ever stopped for a moment and reflected on how your art, things you show and promote through it, will influence that future. Which energies, which archetypal symbols, which aspects of the consciousness (and subconsciousness) of the World will be stimulated by your creations. Which kind of signals do you send into the world and the universe?

John Bauer, 1913
“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”
- Jacques-Yves Cousteau

If you are from the US, go to the National Aquarium in Baltimore (MD). Look for a big screen that shows the future of the forests on our Planet, in case we keep on exploiting them as we did until now. You will be shocked!
Think about it when you start a new painting and see for yourself how important is nature in your life and in your art. If you find out that you, in fact, are very much connected to nature, cherish this feeling and do something about it. Do not help an infertile and desolate world to come into being in the minds of people, for what is in the mind, will express itself in reality. Be conscious about it, about yourself and your place in the world, be aware of your unique way of experiencing and reflecting Life. Be true to yourself and your art will reflect it. Naturally, as your self-awareness as an artist grows, so will your principles become stronger. That might produce some problems when, for instance, a client asks you to paint something which is against your principles, or far from your preferences. It is up to you how to handle that situation. Making living as an artist is not easy, nor is Life a rose garden.
Alan Lee, 1982
“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic.”
- George Carlin

Some of you might hate me for saying these words, or feel the need to ridicule this point of view, but I don’t care. I don’t care as long as some of you think about it, even if it’s for a moment, for that moment might contain a magic trigger.
I presume that it is not necessary to say that including nature in your art would not make your art better. Subject matter does not define the quality of an art piece, but the approach and the way that a particular subject matter is perceived, understood and presented. So, the point of this article is not to promote socially, morally or environmentally engaged art (nor am I somebody who supports the L’art pour l’art ( art for art’s sake) notion without reservations), but to raise the awareness.  
I am not a Greenpeace fantasist (although I financially support  them), or a member of an obscure group or sect that preaches childish or nonsensical things. I love trees but I am not a tree hugger. I try to use my brains and common sense and to love and protect things my very survival depend on. And I am not a naïve person. I know that Nature is indifferent towards us people, and any other spices on this planet. And I realize that nature (Life) has to devour itself continuously (including us, as its part) in order to exist. I also know that when I walk through a delightful meadow, or a forest , on the each square centimeter something is fighting for survival.

But still…it’s home, it’s beautiful, and I love it.

Nature is our mother, our past, present and hopefully our future.  And if Art is not an appropriate podium for showing its beautiful face, together with all its mysterious contradictions, and celebrate it, what else is?

Golden Apple-tree and the Nine Peahens, 2012

“I do not understand exactly what you mean by fear," said Tarzan. "Like lions, fear is a different thing in different men, but to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has power to harm me as much as I have to harm him. If I went out with a couple of rifles and a gun bearer, and twenty or thirty beaters, to hunt a lion, I should not feel that the lion had much chance, and so the pleasure of the hunt would be lessened in proportion to the increased safety which I felt."

"Then I am to take it that Monsieur Tarzan would prefer to go naked into the jungle, armed only with a jackknife, to kill the king of beasts," laughed the other good naturedly, but with the merest touch of sarcasm in his tone.
"And a piece of rope," added Tarzan.”
- Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes



  1. Very interesting post. I'm actually working on a piece set in a swamp right now. :)

    I wonder what happens to that 85% number from spectrum 18 when you look at all the entries instead of the published pieces? Perhaps it speaks more of art directors and judges than of artists?

    In any event this was a pleasant read.

    1. Good point, Joshua. Lots of artists I follow are using the natural world as subject matter. But at this time period, the inner city seems more desirable in which to live than the country--for the young people at least.

      And industrial/apocalyptic/destructive subjects are big right now--even/esp in film. It's sorta the "cool" thing, and many art directors and judges seem overly anxious to appear cool. (There aren't many hipsters at Walden Pond.) Maybe like anything, it's cyclical.

  2. I totally agree with everything you said. Art should be a reflection of yourself; of your passions. Nature is my biggest inspiration and I am far more comfortable in a field or forest than I am in city or suburban area. I also believe that art should be something that is not selfish. My main goal as an illustrator is to one day inspire and enrich, to show worlds unseen and mysterious but also familiar. I hope with my art that I do not alienate anyone, but to invite them in.

  3. I think where one lives can have much to with it. Gallen-Kallela and Bauer are both scandinavian, where a strong connection with nature is an integral part of the national identities...

  4. Petar, thanks for sharing these deep thoughts and memorable quotes. You raise a lot of interesting issues. Perhaps part of the problem for us in the western tradition is that the natural wilderness is often associated with evil, darkness and malevolent spirits. So it ends up as the repository of monsters in most films and books. In the Bible, the wilderness often has a sense of Chaos, where a person can leave society to sort themselves out.

    From a storyteller's point of view, these associations are OK, part of our creative toolkit, but it's good to be aware of them. I remember being struck by how Miyazaki's films, especially Totoro, present a fresh view of the alluring magic of nature. His films have been a big influence on some of the greatest fantasy artists of nature, such as Charles Vess.

    On a more practical or trivial note, painting forests and foliage is just technically difficult, so maybe that's one reason why people paint a lot of rocks instead. I remember visiting Frazetta on his homestead in Pennsylvania, and as we looked out at the forest, I asked him if he ever took his paints out there and did an outdoor study. He gave me that wide-eyed look and said: "I tried that once. No way. It's just TOO MUCH!"

    1. The technical part was exactly my thought. It just takes dedication to paint/draw nature. Nowadays most artists are stressed, stressed by everything around them, the society and by the pressure they put on themselves, so they just cut it. Most people may not have or feel like not having the time anymore to really sit down and do intense long studies of the world, of nature..
      If I think of old masters, well, they had no stress at all, as it seems, they went outdoor, just dedicated themselves to nature and did plein air. There were no digital media that could drain your attention.
      And of course, as stated in Petars post, it is sadly moving out of sight more and more..

  5. Yes, the problem might be that people aren't actually going outside enough, let alone into the countryside. This can possibly be why some modern fantasy art can be very, very samey. What seems to be happening is that people are copying a style of depicting 'nature', rather than observing actual nature. Even a fanstastical tree, for example, can be derived from looking at actual trees. You don't even have to go into the countryside to see trees. Trees grow in cities too. Staying indoors and image googling for trees isn't enough either!

  6. Petar, this is perhaps your best post yet. There *is* something missing in fantastic art, and it's nature. Green trees, blades of grass. A flower. To remove them from art is to remove one portion of ourselves. It's why, Petar, your art resonates so well with people. You give us the whole picture. Humans and nature.

    Your point about Spectrum is valid. Most of those artists live in a world of video games and CGI movies and Magic the Gathering games. There's a kind of inbreeding that happens over time where all artists will copy the latest new thing. Everything must look slick and reek of video game concept art and when Spectrum publishes a book full of it, artists think that's what they must produce. We're at a sterile, stale point in art and Spectrum illustrates this (great book, Spectrum, but since it's artwork is chosen by professional artists, it's a perfect example). Every painting should have drama but it should also have a 'cool drink of water'. A resting place. A tree or grass or, heaven forbid, a river; something to ground it. Glowing orange and blue clouds don't cut it.

    Artists of previous generations have drawn inspiration from nature and were accomplished in plein air painting. Painting something in natural sunlight in fresh air will teach every artist more than they learned in any art class. The biggest lesson is this: You cannot separate man from nature and good paintings cannot either.

    1. Spectrum has always been, to my mind, a sort of cod-fantasy art outlet. I don't think I've ever seen one where I could genuinely say 'Wow, that's a new and interesting take'. The genre does have a rich history, but it seems that this is being largely ignored in favour of rather safe copycat stuff. Shame really.

  7. Interesting observation. I've recently been buying and commissioning fantastic art because I enjoy the feeling it invokes.

    But I find I'm not quite sure what to do with it.

    Aside from a small jungle painting with a waterfall background hung in a bathroom, all the paintings I actually have on my walls are landscapes.

  8. Very interesting post. Although I believe it is cyclical in some respects, and there is a certain amount of visual "inbreeding" that happens, I'm not sure that visual artists are in the driver's seat on this. Whether you are doing book covers, movie or game visual concepting, the visual artist is usually painting what someone else has written. We are free to do what ever we want in our self promotion and personal work, but if you paint too far outside the trend you will either start a new or find yourself with a lot of free time on your hands.

  9. I think the lack of interest in nature in fantasy art is because it is no longer 'mysterious'. Once upon a time, the world was LOT bigger. There were unexplored lands, and with them mysteries. Obviously, not -everything- has been explored yet, but the majority of it has. The world is so connected now, that it feels like just a playground for humanity. People are no longer enticed by the intrigue of the 'deep, dark woods'. Instead, it's the depth of humanity that now offers more mystery. Rather than unexplored lands, we've moved into unexplored social themes. Seedy alley ways, underground clubs, guns, drugs, hackers, vampires, demons, etc.... it's all about exploring the unseen side of humanity and urban landscapes now.

    1. Dan, your point about exploration and the intrigue of the 'deep dark woods' is really insightful.

      I heard someone lament recently, "I was born too late to explore the world, and born too early to explore the stars." That to me sort of points to where our collective gaze for this sort of thing might be turning. To space, and what is still 'out there' in the shadows.

  10. I think fantastic art, isn't, fantastic anymore.
    To be quite honest, I'm not sure how fantastic it used to be. Sure, we got Franzetta on our minds every time we think about "fantasy art", but what about all the others, countless, "Painters of Body Builders" that we had over the years?
    Fantasy art always seemed crowded with artists having great technique but very low interest in the "creating" aspect of fantasy.

    These days, I feel that video-game concept art tends to fill this void. I can't really recall any recent fantasy game that nature didn't played a huge role. Rocks, Trees, Rivers and Waterfalls...

  11. Many good and thought provoking points. Thanks for taking the time to write so well on this subject.

  12. I think Dan is on the trail with the exploration of human depths, but I also think it has to do with the population shift in the last couple decades where the majority of people now live in cities instead of rural areas.

    I can't remember what show I was watching years ago, but they did a survey of inner city kids asking them how they believed the rest of the world lived, and they literally couldn't conceive of someone not living among tall buildings and concrete.

    Since the majority of the market now live in cities, my guess is that the art commissioned is going to reflect the experiences and world concept of the consumers.

  13. Hi guys,

    I just came back from a comic convention and saw all these smart and thought provoking comments and my first thought was; Here we have another nice proof of the saying “four eyes see more than two”("two heads are better than one"). Then I started to write my comments, and not wanting to leave anybody without the answer, after about 30 minutes of writing I realized that we would be better off if I write another post about the same subject, but using some of your comments as starting point.

    I think this issue is much bigger, wider and very important and if we want to handle it properly, it has to be approached from different angles, like sociology, psychology, economics, spirituality, for all of this is related to some degree to our art field, as you nicely indicated in your comments.

    So, for now I want to thank you for taking time and reacting to this post.

  14. Petar,
    let me congratulate you from my heart to this inspiring post. I think it is a serious matter.
    I agree with you for a 100% and it seems, I found a soulmate. I too have had this experience with fantastic art and it leads to mostly losing my interest in the work represented in print magazines like Spectrum and others. True, technically it is all very well done. It has heart and soul and you can see an incredible amount of talent. But I miss something.
    I love nature. I love it in reality, I love it in words, images, and music. Just as a face can be a landscape, a landscape can be a person. It has personality and soul. Both are just two sides of the same medal, but instead of acknowledging this fact, many of us are denying or neglecting it. Art today is so incredibly anthropzentric, it’s hard to bear, especially if you’re working “for the industry”. Nobody is interested in nature on a book cover (I know what I'm talking about, because I do all my bookcovers myself), It’s all about people, people, people. Drawing and painting people is the only way to be successful in your job. Not that I dislike it. People are an highly interesting subject, but there is so much more. In nature I have found an equal. It can be friendly, fierce, awesome, angry, lovely and puzzling. It reminds me from where I come and to where I'll go. It is nature that brought us to this planet and made us into what we are. It influenced us from the beginning and accompanies every step we take. Even if we don't see it. To exclude it from out art, our homes, our cities and out life means to deny a part of ourselves.

    Sorry if some of my comments may be misleading, but as a native german, it sometimes is difficult to find the right words. I do not wish anyone to be annoyed.
    Your sincerely, Thomas

  15. While I agree with many of Petar's 'Nature in Art' specifics, I am more drawn to the core values pointed out. They apply to creative philosophy, whether nature is a part of the picture or not.

    I have considered versions of this subject, the applicable trends with writers and entertainment at large, and of course art is an irrevocable link in that chain. But art - and the writing behind it - should not be without its creator’s values. As we are essentially visualizing the trends of philosophy, WHAT we are visualizing is just as important a consideration as how and for whom.

    Nor is it a one-time consideration. Being conscious of the VALUE of the stories we depict along with concern for the value of the depiction itself would contribute to artistic integrity.

    Being highly imaginative as we are, there is power in our imagery – and to take a nerdy moment – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The concepts - the mindset - represented by what we create is always something to examine.

    To use Petar’s proposed term, “unscrupulous professionalism” shouldn’t need to be the mental state of a creative individual. Perhaps those veterans in the business would consider my thoughts naïve and idealistic, but I do not hold that we need anything prefacing “professionalism” in order to have both employment and principled work.

    With respect and thanks to the commentary above,


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