Friday, September 7, 2012

On Nature in the Contemporary Fantastic Art

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. Thank you so much for writing this, you have described the exact reason why I can't stand most contemporary fantasy art and concept art. Having grown up in the country I used to love the cool and majestic environments I could find in fantasy art, but most of what I see nowadays feels like horror rather than fantasy, it's like an endless Dance Macabre. I can't fathom how anybody can find the thought of gray wastelands and barren worlds entertaining rather than depressing.

    But it's not so much the subject matter. What's most disturbing is the nihilistic attitude which comes through from much contemporary fantasy. It's hard to pinpoint the problem, but it's definitely there and it wasn't there before. Beksinski used to paint mostly bleak landscapes, yet I wouldn't really call his art "nihilistic". The nature depicted in his works is twisted, barren and alien, but it hardly even feels dead because there are always implied forces at work - supernatural forces, wind erosion, decay, twisted evolution, movement. Humanity and familiar things may have been wiped away from his worlds but the worlds themselves are still very much turning. It never feels like bleakness for bleakness' sake. The same could be said for H.R. Giger works, Bob Eggleton's horror works, and so on... there is lively bleakness and then there is bleakness which is just in-your-face and depressing. (And I don't think I'm wearing nostalgia goggles here, since I only discovered Beksinki a few years ago.)

    Because of all this nihilism I prefer so called "anthro art" over fantasy art nowadays. It's a genre which exists mostly on internet and features anthropomorphic animals, usually in fantasy or tribal settings. The average technical quality of the artwork is nowhere near the quality of mainstream fantasy artwork but I'll rather look at a badly drawn picture which communicates some actual sense of wonder and appreciation of nature over a perfect rendition of zombie apocalypse number 12.823.

    It's sad because I love fantasy art like yours which actually educates the imagination soar and encourages people to see amazing things in the real world. But I fear that fantasy art as a whole will soon hit a dead end if it keeps catering to the nihilistic fantasies of stressed out people like it seems to be doing now.

    1. Scale, thanks for taking time to write such a thorough comment. And thanks for the info about "anthro art". I saw some work of that kind on the web, but I was not aware that it exists as a separate genre.

  2. This is brilliant I love you wrote this, I hope to write something as inspiring one day. But for now I will just try to share this with as many people as possible!

  3. Petar... really thank you for these words, it is so inspiring and I certainly added a bunch of good energies inside myself! Great post!


  4. I'm in a personal and creative crisis right now and you've given me a lot to think about...thank you...

  5. Thank you so much for writing this Petar. It's true! There is a clear lack of the natural world in fantasy art (and especially concept art).

    Will be posting this one around!

  6. Hi Guys,

    Thank you for your comments that support the main message of this post. I am glad you felt inspired, for that was one of the purposes of my observation.

    However, I want to encourage you to visit the Muddy Colors blog, where I also posted this article, to read some very interesting comments.


  7. Thanks for your follow-through, Petar.
    I appreciated your post greatly, many of your thoughts paralleling my own, and then to find further contribution at Muddy Colors was still more interesting. I even thought to bite the bullet and try posting my own thoughts for the first time.
    Take care,

    1. Hi Mairin-Taj,

      As I previously mentioned, the purpose of this post was to rais the awareness and to become a bit more conscious about an issue whose importance, in my opinion, seems to be overlooked by many artists working in the Fantastic Art field today. At the same time it is very encouraging to see that many of these talented creators recognize the problem and are willing to admit that, in fact, there is something that is bothering them as far as the recent developments in the Fantastic Art is concerned.

      …I just read your comment on Muddy Colors. Brilliant!