For every river we sit beside in peaceful admiration there is a bridge that cuts bluntly across it, a factory chimney that looms nearby or the incessant roar of a distant motorway. We’ve manipulated the landscape around us to such an extent that city dwellers often go long periods without seeing any greenery bar the little patches of nature in counterfeit city parks, to which the urban population flocks in summer months.
While many have argued man’s rightful mastery over nature, many others have refuted this self proclaimed superiority seeing instead ‘the source of man’s salvation in nature’ (Baruch Spinoza.) Rachel Carson, founder of the contemporary environmental movement, believed that ‘man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.’ The Romantics, shunning Industrialisation’s accomplishments, affirmed man’s vulnerability at the hands of nature’s incontestable power in paintings such as Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and William Turner’s The Slave Ship.
Numerous artists have sought to visually express this unity, fusing the boundaries between man and landscape. The ancient Daoists depicted the body as a microcosm of the natural world, its anatomy comprising of mountains, lakes, rivers. In his 1200 painting Han Shan and Shide, ancient Buddhist Liang Kai’s shows two monk-poets, their bodies merged together almost indistinguishable from the rocky cliffs of China’s mountainous landscape. This fusion of man with his surroundings is a powerful visual aid and has been seen from the subtle mirroring curves of limbs and hill in Henri Mattisse’s 1910 The Dance to the abstract sculptural form of Henry Moore’s 1938 Reclining Figure.
British photographer Carl Warner echoes the ancient themes of Liang Kai’s artwork almost a century later, fusing man and mountain in his work entitled ‘Bodyscapes.’ Mountains were believed to be the source of clouds and of the abundant water that poured through the Chinese landscape, nourishing the earth and its people. Rather than reflecting these ancient, lush mountain ranges, Warner’s landscapes appear dry and desolate, reminiscent of the barren deserts of one of his early influences Salvador Dali. Yet Warner’s landscapes are comprised not of eroded stone and dusty sand grains but of the human form, imbued with life and energy. The deified, life-giving mountains of ancient traditions are recreated through contemporary photography, as mankind hands over its very existence to the forms of nature in reverent subservience.
Yet simultaneously, Warner’s bodies make up the entire photograph so that without their presence the image would cease to exist altogether. This serves to validate making as a fundamental element to the composition nature’s whole. Similarly, in Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s photography man and nature work together, creating something beautiful in the process. This collaboration is so successful that in some images it proves difficult to decipher where man ends and where nature begins. For Minkkinen, the naked human form is as revered and ancient an emblem as the venerable great oaks or the unsurpassed soaring mountains. ‘Just as rocks and trees have not changed much over time, so our bodies are not much different today than they were five hundred years ago.’ Nudity becomes almost akin to spirituality, gracing man with a natural freedom away from the constraints and decorum of modern life. “There is no age to the picture when it is just the landscape and the body,” he says. “They could be reality from 1305 because of the nudity.”
Using body paint to mirror their environment, French photographer Jean-Paul Bourdier similarly blends his subjects with their surroundings. Bearing the same name as Warner’s work ‘Bodyscapes’ yet perhaps more akin to Minkkinen’s representation, the vast, open landscapes hold the frame while the human forms must adapt and conform. Whereas Minikken’s bodies appear equal in their significant to the surrounding nature, standing side by side to make up the same thing, Bourdier’s natural landscapes dominate the frame and man becomes an almost invisible part of nature’s colossal forces.