Art and Nature:
A Mimetic Confrontation
Art and Nature:
A Mimetic Confrontation
CAN ART REPRESENT nature? The answer forces us to return to the debate between the universal and the particular. Since the philosophy of Aristotle and until the nineteenth century, this discussion has been one of the core points of mimetic art. Imitating the forms of nature was a necessary condition for their representation. But modern philosophy insisted that this relationship was asymmetric: culture and nature constituted two opposing forces, where the perception of the cognoscente subject determined the known object. Following the metaphor of Baron Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the modern subject had recovered his "Adamic condition" where nature was there in front of the human being, ready to be known.
In art, more than in modern science, the discussion about the imitation of nature focused on the notion of "scheme" and "model". Aesthetic speculation focused
on the possibility of forming an ideal scheme that would allow us to understand
the universal structure of nature. Works such as Rule of Trees by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and The Study of Proportions by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) showed the
artists' attempt to model natural forms from geometric schemes.
In art, more than in modern science, the discussion about the imitation of nature focused on the notion of "scheme" and "model". Aesthetic speculation focused on the possibility of forming an ideal scheme that would allow us to understand the universal structure of nature. Works such as Rule of Trees by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and The Study of Proportions by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) showed the artists' attempt to model natural forms from geometric schemes.
For the modern artist, nature occurred in experience in a contingent and diverse way. Only through a universal model could the essential structure of objects be contemplated and, in this way, even overcome and correct the imperfect appearance of particular things. As a consequence, nature was represented as a projection of rational archetypes: under this ideal the artist conceived himself as a constructor of the real.
Rule of Trees, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Image viaEloy, Christophe. “Leonardo’s Rule, Self-Similarity, and Wind-Induced Stresses in
Trees.” Physical Review Letters, vol. 107, no. 25, Dec. 2011, doi:10.1103/physrevlett.107.258101.
The Study of Proportions, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
and continuity of nature
This metaphysics of the universal made it possible to justify a conception of nature as something contingent and overflowing, opposed to the notion of culture. In this area, the perception of the subject constituted the fundamental point to determine the split between the human and the natural. But post-19th century aesthetics modified this notion to consider a continuity between art and nature. For John Constable (1776-1837) art is distinguished in two ways: on the one hand, as a reproduction of the forms of a model built by other artists; on the other, the creative work of the artist who observes the qualities of nature as a source of inspiration. Constable thought that an art that did not follow the schemes and models of a tradition was necessary. Throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, aesthetic theory would change its view regarding perception and schema. Ernts Gombrich
(1909-2001) presents the scheme of art as a provisional instance, a process of experimental contemplation. Following the author, the function of the scheme is not to teach to see, but to discriminate. The scheme in art is an instrument that allows us to approach nature, without determining it. In proposals such as those of Gunther von Hagens (1977), Henrik Hakansson
(1968) or Cai Guo-Qiang (1957) representing nature entails the construction of an environment that potentiates individual experience. At this point, it is interesting to think of perception as an “active mechanism”, following the ideas of James Gibson (1904-1979). Perception is a system whose organic structure allows the capture of information from the environment. But this dynamic activity involves learning and maturation processes that lead to the gradual modification of the perceptual system and awareness of the environment. Hence, the artist, as an observer, modifies the environment in his way of perceiving it, but simultaneously his consciousness is modified by said environment.Paraphrasing a principle of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), being is in the world, in a dialectical relationship of mutual co-belonging. The schemes and models of art build a channel through which consciousness and the environment are closely linked, in a process of mutual transformation. The representation of nature in art shows us a way of observing the environment, a model constituted by the habits and customs of the culture; but this observation is subject to time and change, the relentless realm of nature. For this reason, the representation of art allows us to understand nature as a projection of our time, while nature always prevails, episodically modifying the models of art that seek to unravel its mystery.