Figurative Painting - Anthropocene Artifacts: Human Relation with NaturesteemCreated with Sketch.

in #art3 years ago

Oreskes and Conway state in their text ‘The collapse of Western Civilization: A view from the future’ that artists might be among the first to understand the magnitude of climate change (2013:43).

I will take a closer look at three specific paintings to investigate how looking at painting might tell us something about the human relationships with nature at different key points in the Anthropocene history. I will analyse this narrative and question how art can play a role not only in portraying the Anthropocene, but in conveying thoughts and feelings which might be crucial to understand if we are to create a sustainable future.

The paintings chosen were created in three different key times in the history of the Anthropocene: the Industrial Revolution, the Great Acceleration, and the increasing discussions about global warming in the 1990s (Chakrabarty 2009:199). I believe that these paintings can encapsulate how human culture creates our understanding of nature, but also the important role which nature plays in our culture.

The Paintings :

The wanderer above a sea of mist (also known as ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’, ‘The wanderer above the mists’) by Caspar David Friedrich, made in 1818 (Wolf 2015:94).

Agua Caliente Nova by Robert Bechtle, made in 1975.

Indecision by John Brosio, made in 1994.

The wanderer above a sea of mist


In all of Friedrich’s work the concept of nature comes with a stream of psychological undertones; such as the perception of God within nature and the encounter of the human inner psyche (Stumpel 2008:43-46). As such it can lend itself as a mirror to understand humanity’s view of both itself and nature in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution.

At the time when ‘The wanderer above a sea of mist’ was painted humanity’s relationship with nature had changed due to the Industrial Revolution. Through the discovery of fossil fuel humanity found means of using nature to its advantage in a capacity not known before (Steffen et al. 2011:848).

Just a few decades after the creation of this painting John Stuart Mill declared in his book Nature from 1874 that nature was to be conquered, not obeyed (Björk 2016:96). At the same time as nature was to be conquered it was also revered, and those who could afford to, took holidays seeking out the most spectacular vistas which could be found and declared them a piece of Heaven (Cronon 1996:09).

I believe that ‘The wanderer above a sea of mist’ encompasses those early days of awe and fear of nature alongside a longing to conquer it once and for all. We see a man standing on a cliff, above the misty mountains spread before him. Nature is shown as a widespread unknown stretching out into infinity and half covered by mist; suggesting it is not yet all ours. But the placement and the stature of the man imply that nature is something which is soon to be under his command.

I believe this painting shows both the yearning for the untouched landscape and the quest to dominate nature once and for all. It is in stark contrast to the next painting, where nature seems to have become just another commodity among others.

Agua Caliente Nova


After the end of WWII initiatives were brought into place to encourage renewed economic growth. This, combined with new technology, raised the standard of living for many people while at the same time ignoring vast environmental damage and colonial implications (Steffen et al. 2011:850-852). ‘Agua Caliente Nova’ depicts a moment in these times of the Great Acceleration and gives us an updated view of nature and the modern life in Western society. It depicts an ordinary world, in which we are bound to the car and to a growing suburbia, but it mixes this with an awkward feeling of alienation (Freeman 2000:128); it is almost too serene.

In a time where the Blue Marble made way for a new Nature to objectify and master, indigenous and poor white people who had historically been displaced due to the construction of national parks now paid the price for atomic testing; toxic wastelands spread over Utah, Nevada and New Mexico (Lekan 2014:181-182). The white middle class American dream depicted in ‘Agua Caliente Nova’ is unsettling because it narrates the eradication of these events in the minds and memories of American people. Land which has been fought over has become not much more than a pretty background for a family day out.

The portrayal of the awe inspiring landscape has changed dramatically from Friedrich’s work. It is no longer the lone explorer who dares to go into the barren wilderness nor is it a picture of the sublime Godly landscape (Cronon 1996:08, 1996:10), but a family scene of a day out with the nature as a mere backdrop. It implies that you no longer need to be a great explorer to see the wilderness, but that the wild has been brought to you in moderated forms of tourism enjoyed by those who can afford it (Cronon 1996:21). Even more telling is that the main protagonist is neither human nor nature; but a car taking up a large part of the picture. This image ties in with this period’s steady rise in motor vehicle usage, international travel, electronic communication and a growing urban population. It also visually tells the story of how natural ecosystems during the Great Acceleration are increasingly and rapidly changed into human-dominated landscapes (Steffen et al. 2011:849-850).

The dichotomy of being lost in nature while also being its master, as described in Friedrich’s work, seems lost here. In this painting humans seem to have advanced in the mastery of nature to the point where ‘wilderness’ comes neatly packaged and to which you can take the car.



After incidents such as the acid rain in the 1980s, and the growing awareness of CO2 emissions (Steffen et al. 2011:852) global warming slowly started to be discussed in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until early the 2000s that it truly became a public concern (Chakrabarty 2009:199).

Many of Brosio’s paintings encompass these times’ imaginations of what nature is capable of, and the smallness of man. Looming natural disasters are combined with unstirred humans in the foreground; people who carry on with their lives as if nothing is happening (Dawson, 2008). In ‘Indecision’ the person seems helplessly paralyzed without knowing what to do about the oncoming disaster. The nature around him has been changed into a human dominated landscape, but from afar an uncontrolled force of nature seems to be on course to destroy what humanity has built for its existence.

Brosio himself describes his work like this:

It is… my take on pretence or how much we have to fool ourselves to maintain a sense of civilization against the forces that will eventually claim us all. (Dawson, 2008)

From the almost surreal stillness of Bechtle’s paintings where nature is controlled as a well maintained garden or as a beautiful but unfrightening vista, Brosio’s work captures the growing alarm of later times. He keeps portraying people, houses, worked land and an overall nostalgic scene but instead of showing it as a forever existing scene, Brosio implies that our lifestyle comes with impending disaster, and that we don’t want to look.

In Brosio’s work nature returns as a force that demands to be the protagonist; not in the romantic way in which Friedrich portrayed nature in the nineteenth century, but as something out of a dystopian science fiction fantasy. Compared to Friedrich’s painting, humans have now lost their secure stance and are left paralyzed, not knowing how to manage the geological force which we have become (Chakrabarty 2009:206).


For centuries painting has been a way for humans to express ourselves and to investigate our relationship to nature and the world around us. Consciously and unconsciously painters have mirrored the time in which they have lived. Therefore I believe that we can find some answers within the arts to the more existential questions of the Anthropocene and human behaviour.

Art allows us to move the idea of the Anthropocene beyond natural science and it enables us to engage with the moral and ethical context of global change (Robin et al. 2014:208). It allows us to reach beyond an intellectual interpretation and enables an emotional understanding of what is going on around us.

In the same way that we need culture to grasp the concept of nature, we need culture to understand our own actions and responses in a rapidly changing world. Art can supply a well needed tool to reverberate contemporary issues on a deeper level, enabling us to fully come to terms with our situation, assess it, and move forward towards a hopefully more sustainable future.


Björk, Nina (2016), Drömmen om det röda – Rosa Luxemburg, socialism, språk och kärlek, Falun: Wahlström & Widstrand

Boele, Vincent and Foppema, Femke (red.) (2008), Caspar David Friedrich & the German Romantic Landscape, Hampshire: Lund Humphries (anthology)

Chakrabarty, D. (2009). The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 197–222.

Cronon, W. (1996). The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Environmental History, 1(1), 7–28.

Dawson, Jessica (2008). In ‘Tornadoes,’ the Calm That Tempers the Storm; John Brosio’s Collection of Midwestern Scenes Are Drenched in Nostalgia but Miss the Thunder. The Washington Post; Washington D.C.7 November. (Retrieved 2017-01-13)

Freeman, Marina (2000). A California Realist. Southwest Art; Broomfield, 29 (12), 124-128, (Retrieved 2017-01-13)

Lekan, T. (2014). Fractal Eaarth: Visualizing the Global Environment in the Anthropocene. Environmental Humanities, (5), 171–201. Retrieved from

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2013). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Daedalus, 142(1), 40–58.

Robin, L., Avango, D., Keogh, L., Mollers, N., Scherer, B., & Trischler, H. (2014). Three galleries of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review, 1(3), 207–224.

Steffen, W., Grinevald, J., Crutzen, P., & McNeill, J. (2011). The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1938), 842–867.

Wolf, Norbert (2015), Friedrich, 2 uppl. Köln: Taschen


The subject of the next painting following this progression would have to be nature as a simple background prop for people taking selfies during their holidays; it would have to draw attention at how nowadays the role of nature's wonders is not to inspire awe in us anymore, but to become a tool to impress other people and augment our status by our association with it.

Excellent article, @fugetaboutit, raising the bar very high for the rest of us! Steemit should aim to have more quality articles like this in the trending page on a regular basis.

Thank you. I do appreciate the vote of confidence and definitely endeavor to create more thought provoking content.

Thank you for the well-researched piece! Also I think that reconnecting with nature will be an important part of healing the worldview rift that has occurred and bringing people to leading lives that are more imbued with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours....and a very interesting recent paper (Lumber et al. 2017) shows how activity such as "art" is more important for fostering a sense of connectivity with nature than cognitive interaction, such as learning natural history facts.

I love thinking and researching about the human-nature relationship, have followed in the hope of more! Steem on!

Lumber, R., Richardson, M. and Sheffield, D. (2017). Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS ONE:1–24.

Thank you for the insightful comment. Yes, I agree. Much of this reminds me of Zerzan's work, especially his latest work, appropriately titled, Why Hope? Primitivism has so many valid points concerning the technocratic encroachment on all levels of human interaction.

Just looked that book up on Amazon - looks like an interesting read!

I'm interested in how activities like homesteading, bushcraft and, well specifically wild food foraging, can present opportunities for people to form an emotional 'relationship' with nature and foster respect for the environment, being almost a 'reaction' to the stresses of modernity, a spasmic response to reconnect with a primal activity practised by our ancestors.

Good for you. I think if you can reinvent yourself to live in such a primal state, the benefits both spiritually and biologically would be extremely evident and a welcome change. Zerzan speaks of this throughout much of his published works and essays. Incidentally, Kaczynski 's Industrial Society and Its Future is a good read if you can get past his notorious deeds as the uni-bomber. He makes the connection with industrial society and psychological suffering.

Cool, you're full of good tips. Yes the human rewilding movement I guess explicitly goes about the endeavour of naturalising and dedomesticating humans through activities like wild food foraging, as a well-defined conceptual endeavour, and many others are drawn to it instinctively. And for many others it's just a natural thing that they do in their day to day lives! I downloaded Kaczynski's work, will have a look.

So basically we have moved from being the wide eyed adventurer, who was in total awe of nature, to becoming sheepish and bewildered.

In our race to conquer nature, we have ended up being conquered by the side effects of the we have done.

From the first picture that shows the world in all its majesty and splendor, to the drole, dreary and dull of the second, to nature taking its revenge for our missteps.

What's worst is how man is depicted. We are strong, fit, and posed for any challenge in the first. The second, we believe we have conquered, so we are relaxed and totally at ease, oblivious the damage we have caused. Uncaring to what was done. Well, the third, nature has returned and it's not here for fun.

Interesting. It would appear this way, life in stages, so everything would naturally evolved or transcend in such un-natural stages. Sort of like the whole primitivism vs. transhumanist perspective. For the latter progress just comes from more technology. Thank you for reading ad the insightful comment.

@fugetaboutit interesting post, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share. You've made a nice reading of these three paintings and interpreted the artist's compositional choices in generally clear ways, nicely done. The discussion of these three examples of painting (one drop in the bucket) between the early 19th century and the late 20th century as 1.) exemplars of artists either forecasting or informing the present about the future, and 2.) encapsulating how humans relate to nature and how human culture creates an understanding of nature are both simultaneously way too general and reductionist. What would you make of all the abstract paintings between these times, or the Dutch Still Life Paintings and their mimetic semiotics? Robert Bechtle's paintings don't have anything to do with nature generally and your reading of his painting, while "logical" has nothing to do with his own stated, and interpreted interests. This painting is much more about amateur photography, the everyday narrative of the American family, and the fascination of transference from one artistic media (photographs or slides) to another (canvas). Cherry picking a few paintings and calling them a means for evaluating change does a disservice to these artists. The final question I have though is with your first and broadest assertion: "I believe that these paintings can encapsulate how human culture creates our understanding of nature, but also the important role which nature plays in our culture." What other understanding of nature could humans have other than the one their culture has supported? Maybe the question is Why does culture see nature in certain ways? If you were to compare a few different cultural viewpoints about nature across centuries, continents, etc, that might make this idea compelling. However, the assertion is neither profound, nor meaningful. Of course nature influences us, and of course we see nature through our own eyes. How could these three paintings encapsulate anything so broad? Art isn't a set of statistics, facts, or philosophical statements that equate to a hypothesis. Even if all of what you've claimed is perhaps legible and readily accepted, what is the point such of the few general statements you've made? What do these really tell us? I apologize if this seems harsh, or unduly critical. It is a part of my work to ask for rigor around the interpretation and instrumentalization of art. There is something to your conclusion, but it has nothing to do with nature, or painting, or the spirit of our times. Art is a means of evaluation and critical reflection, but rarely is it so simply defined as you've attempted to do so here. An artist (painter) like Alexis Rockman might give some credence to your argument about nature and culture, especially around destruction and pollution. I think you can make a more nuanced argument, by looking at more examples. Reading some scholarly writing and/or museum exhibition texts or catalogue essays about these artists could help greatly. Artist's make work about very specific things, often culturally or historically specific. Start where the artist starts, not with your own ideas. Again, apologies on being harsh, I'm mostly trying to push you and this platform into a more critical and rigorous space for discussion around art!

Wow. Thank you for the extensive response. This is rare on this platform. You make some salient points, especially in regards to art in relation to my application of these pieces. However, this is somewhat of a strawman since the focus is on the Anthropocene and not artistic interpretation or critique or even historical significance. I appreciate your enthusiasm but that seriously detracts from the principle message of this post which is awareness of the growing significance of the Anthropocene as a NEW epoch DIRECTLY related to human action. After all, arguments aside, there would not BE any discussion of aesthetics or art..etc if the human species continues along this destructive path. No humans left to paint , sketch, draw, sculpt or compose songs, write memoirs, sonnets or even dance in unison. Thanks for commenting.

Hi there! I see what you mean. I would say though that for me it isn't a straw man as you used Art as your means of evidence / argumentation. Wouldn't more specific environmental studies or reports be more suitable, or visual content of deforestation, the amount of green house gas the meat industry emits, or some other specific bit of information be more prescient? Using some else's life's work as evidence for something they didn't expressly have in mind, no matter the discipline or environmental problem you are talking about is troubling. If you're going to instrumentalist something, I think knowing the discourse behind it is necessary. Also, having a "larger idea" or "more urgent idea or issue" in mind doesn't invalidate critique. I want to build a 100 story building isn't more important than the steel you source to support it, right? If A then B doesn't allow for A not being A. Thanks for the response, I'm an arts professional so it is important to me how art is used, talked about, written about, shown, seen. Looking forward to more!

I find the idea fascinating that artists can prognosticate the future with painting rather than experimental observations and data interpretation. I agree that an artist can feel the nature of contemporary states with his or her senses, express in different visual forms- painting. Great article, its pleasure to read it.

Thank you and very insightful observation. I agree, artists present visually and do indeed capture what words fail to sometimes adequately express.

I really love the comparisons of the eras and paintings. Well referenced and thought out. Thank you so much for posting thought provoking content. I will be following.

Thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it and will continue to post relevant material which will hopefully inspire further insights and interest :)

Very interesting post. I really liked how nature, god and men can be combined throught expressions of art by Friedrich's work. So original all of it, continue like that @fugetaboutit :)

I will definitely endeavor to try and agree, art can embody so many expressive elements. A story without words. Thank you for reading and commenting.

You are welcome :)

your painting display and narratives are awesome!
love your work and how you brought all together beautifully. keep it up and thanks for sharing

Your very welcome and thanks for taking the time to read my article/essay.

Very nice post, beautifully presented and explained. Detail oriented with nice pics . thank you .

Well commented.

Thank you for commenting and reading ;)

I'm not a huge fan of photorealism, but I have to say, when it's good, it's good. And Agua Caliente Nova is pretty darn good.

Agreed. I am the same and certain images do indeed reflect or capture a moment with precision.

Congratulations @fugetaboutit!
Your post was mentioned in the hit parade in the following category:

  • Pending payout - Ranked 6 with $ 318,72

Amazing. Thank you for informing me. I had no idea and hope I can achieve more of the same in future posts.

Thank you for this article, @fugetaboutit. I found it very informative. I had to google the definition of the Anthropocene epoch, so I learned a new word. I also had a look at John Brosia's other pieces of art. I do not often enjoy more recent works of art, and I tend to stick to the "classics". This article opened my eyes so much so that I plan to visit our National Art Gallery in Pretoria, South Africa, maybe as soon as next week. Time for me to see for myself how art adds commentary to life.

Thank you. I do appreciate your astute comments, especially in relation to the classics. Tradition definitely will always have it's place, despite these transitional changes. Like geological epochs, each has triggers as well as defining elements, yet all are important when viewed in relation to the historical significance.

This was an incredibly interesting read.

Personally, although Agua Caliente is literally the name of the town I live in, I feel the most salient painting in the bunch was the last one. That colossal twister - approaching like Nature's answer to Godzilla, is just too impressive to ignore.

It being named indecision seems remarkably fitting. What could he possibly do to stop the destruction. Nothing left but to watch it unfold.

I'm resteeming this post. Great work!

Just published a new post on the 5 most expensive paintings ever sold. Check it out! (If you want :) )

Thank you. I think natural destruction has it's own category of provoking indecisive awe. Look forward to viewing your work.

You're welcome. It definitely does. Thanks :)

What a thought-provoking article! Each image reflects what you are talking about so well!

Loved the term rewilding which I noticed in the comments.

Thank you I appreciate the input and yes the term is definitely applicable. Almost as if one was to actually return to a more primal state of existence in mind and body.

interesting up to the point of co2 and global warming both products of a club of Rome meeting and pure propaganda , art has been a vehicle of the rich and ruling classes , even in this age the practice continues , less of a justification of church and royalty and more a vehicle of ad men and globalists , art should deal with truth and co2 is not a green house gas and not a pollutant, and global warming is not a reality out side their computer models and Al gores carbon exchange

Point taken and yes, humanity is historically ripe with references to social engineering, mass manipulation and propaganda. This was evident in the past as well as today since political and economic agenda's are indeed shaped by the ruling elite. After reading Ellul's iconic work, Propaganda, I found no reason to ascribe to any collective truth since as Chomsky states so eloquently, consent for the masses is easily manufactured. We see that more today with mas media complicity as well.

Great article. Thanks for sharing your perspective on history and some inspiring arts! I'm an artist too, I do vlogs, check me out :) @jacquelyne

I have no bunghole!

Thank you I will. Look forward to seeing your work!

nice painting ♥

Art is a language of its own, it's give an incite of the environment and creativity.
I always wish i could draw down the nearest future.

True art is reflective of language, expressing through visualization. One can always write to be creative as well.

good stuff
thank for sharing !

Wow amazing buddy
Pleace my post about art

Thanks I will definitely check out your artwork.

Have always believed that art is a language on its own and just like translating a language to another, it cant be done literally, but you have expressed it as it should, love it

I do try and I think having the requisite topic and a strong interest or passion in the subject matter helps :)

I really enjoyed "Indecision". One can almost imagine what the subject must be thinking

Yes one can stand in awe of what nature is capable. Something our species tends to forget except during a cataclysmic or catastrophic moment when nature surely reminds us.

A very interesting post and could be interested in my heart when I saw it greetings from. @abupasi.alachy

Nice photo
Please vote me
Please follow me
New joining in steemit

Filled with rich information, this is an excellent post. Highly recommended.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

your paintings are awesome...

Thank you for taking the time to comment and read my article.

Sir follow me

ur paintings are amazing :)

nice and good

Great photos my friend. I believe that people should adapt culture , according to the current trend of people changing thier life style , this change is very good for lot of people those who are conservative thinking , they have seen their children progress and also they have to change according to thier childrens needs. This will help the parents to think more openly about their children life.

Yes culture definitely does have external influences, so it does not stagnate, especially in urban settings. However, there does need to be a balance between preserving traditional factors with embracing newness, else you have a complete loss of a culture much like the death of languages.

There will be more bungholes after me!

The Anthropocene is the most fascinating of eras for me. Possibly narcissistic or at least human-chauvinist of me but hey, it's the one we're living through, the one our own actions can shape or change or doom.

Speaking for myself, nature can go hang. Let's pave over everything :D

Indeed even the academics continue to debate on the when and what was the proverbial inciting incident for the Anthropocene. Our love of industrialization will continue to insure we pave over all the glitters green :)

Itz look like game character

None of those are figurative paintings though... what is it I am missing here?

Enjoyed the read! I've always had the first painting as my laptop's wallpaper. Didn't know much about it at all, but loved it ever since seeing it in r/futurology

Ah seems so fitting in that respect. A future perspective almost is always associated with change and evolution, intertwined with nature. Thanks for reading!

nice post! support!

Keep it up man

woaahhhhh it was too long brilliant

Your hard work and fully research is appreciated. The content is in the works!


Why thank you!

beautiful photos, thanks for sharing!

Much appreciated! Thanks for reading and commenting as well.

Very well executed work, congratulations! Keep on promoting great content like this! :) Have a great day...

Your very welcome and I appreciate the vote of confidence!

Great post! The first painting reminds me of the film Highlander :D

Yes the contrarian view. Highlander was a great movie. There can be only one! :)

incredibly detailed with references! i love the perspective.

Thank you for taking the time to read it through. I really appreciate the input ;)

please check my post

Well researched article. Congratulations! Excellent read. Loved the paintings.

This is a very well-written post. Such is the power of art that intertwined with out conscious and subconscious thought, whatever we created reflected certain realities in our lives. Hoping to see more like this.