A Modern Natural Aesthetic

By Tiril Sofie Erdal.

We are aware of arts subjective character. How we observe, interpret and appreciate art changes considerably over time and differs within different contexts. Our contemporary ideology has a significant effect on our aesthetic taste. How can we see what the aesthetics of our time are?

The old art form of landscape painting has for a long time been looked down upon. It was an academic art form from the past which did not seem relevant to contemporary times. Lately, landscape paintings have however had a renaissance. Artists like Peder Balke, Nikolai Astrup, Kitty Kielland and soon Harald Sohlberg are being put in the spotlight again. Can this be perceived as a change in the esthetic appreciation of our time? These landscape paintings are more accessible for the mainstream audience and don’t call out chaotically to get everyone’s attention. They are simply the landscape they depict as well as having the poetic dimension created through the colour choices and painting techniques. Considering how relevant art depicting nature is to contemporary times, this should not be surprising. The biggest challenges of our times are related to climate change and numerous other nature related issues. We are living in an age where our surroundings are increasingly shaped by humans. We spend most of our time indoors, and the time we are outdoors, we mostly spend walking on streets of asphalt lit up by electronic light with one or other strictly trimmed tree planted symmetrically next to the road, the so called «concrete jungle». We are living in a strange world, where we should appreciate untouched nature while we can. Living in a world which is continuously shaped for human convenience. Our society is systematic, mechanical and the calm moments are scarce. The wild, untouched landscapes are therefore deeply missed. Therefore it would make sense if landscape paintings, although they have long been neglected, now are among our most contemporary art forms.

Balke, P. (1864) Stetind i tåke [oil on canvass]. Can be found at Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, inventory nr.: NG.M.03335.

Why have we neglected this art form for so long? Perhaps an answer can be found the ideology of modernism, which is based on ideals of progress, technological advancement, a rejection of the past and a glorification of machines. Arguably, modernism rejects the natural for the benefit of the mechanical, technological and on top of the hierarchical pyramid: humans.

As a consequence of our over-use of natural resources the world has entered a the new geological period, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means literally the time of humans and is suggested as the period following the Holocene. The reason for our entering the Anthropocene is because human activity on earth has lead to irreversible changes. (Halland, 2016, p. 209) Western philosophy is based on the idea of the world only exciting through the eyes of humans. We have based our understanding of the world on the ideas of philosophers like Descartes with the famous quote: «I think therefore I am». This human-centric view of the world legitimizes our over-consumption of natural resources. We need therefore a new ontological philosophy to change how we relate to environmental issues. The relationship between humans and everything around us needs to change. (Halland, 2016, p. 213)

There is now a change in philosophy where nature and humans have equal value. Post-humanism attempts to break the idea of humans as superior and show everything as having equal value. (Halland, 2016, p. 210) The perception we have of our world is manifested in art and how it is viewed.

It is not the first time nature as a source of aesthetic quality appears as a reaction against unsustainable industrialization. This happened before for example with the Arts & Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. These movements where richly ornamented with plants, included organic shapes, a great focus on materials and a social focus on the humans creating these objects, but these products where sadly not produced effectively enough end therefore could not compete on the major market, they where replaced by the inorganic and mechanically produced products in a cold ideal of machinery and constant growth in productions believing this was where the future was.

Today nature and modernity are no longer separate. We know that if humans want a good future on this planet we need to pay attention to what is going on around us and adapt. We cannot continue in the belief that we are separate from and superior to nature and that we can bend it to our every convenience. The future lies therefore in a collaboration of nature and technological advancements. Shouldn't then our aesthetic taste be coloured by a new style of modernity where technology goes hand in hand with the organic?

The American company Pantone, best known for the Pantone Matching System (PMS), distributes catalogs of 1114 colours and their recipe to a variety of industries. They have a deep insight to colour trends and therefore selects the colour of the year every year. The colour of 2017 was «Greenery» (PANTONE 15-0343). Nature has become fashion. Of course all the fuss around avocados and fashion plants like monstera and cacti is superficial, but the context it arises from is serious.

Naturally, there are many other themes in art and there will always be a huge variation. This is a generalization, but it is still worthwhile to observe this type of natural aesthetic in art and fashion, as well as the growing amount of art thematizing the Anthropocene. Artists are generally people concerned with contemporary themes and one of arts most important tasks is to bring light on the most important issues in contemporary times.

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea

Akomfrah, J. (2015) Vertigo Sea (screen shot), Courtesy of the artist / Smoking Dogs Films. [digitalised photograph]. Available at: <http://www.bildmuseet.umu.se/en/exhibition/john-akomfrah-vertigo-sea/20548> [Found 23. september 2018].

While I lived in Edinburgh last year, one of the art pieces that were talked the most about was John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) at Talbot Rice Gallery. It was also one of the most celebrated works at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Vertigo Sea is a three-screen installation with breathtaking scenes of nature at its most spectacular from BBC Natural History Unit, footage shot in Scotland by the artist, excerpts from maritime books and footage of slavery, whaling and the current refugee crisis. The video installation overwhelms the spectator with impressions. What makes it so overwhelming are the many themes which are weaved together and placed within the broad picture of nature as something incomprehensibly wast and powerful. It is bizarre to watch clips of polar bears wandering around in their natural habitat which is melting away as a consequence of climate change created by humans and the grotesque old and new clips of humans physically slaughtering whales and polar bears. Vertigo Sea is like a modern landscape painting with big scale natural images. It overwhelms the modern spectator even in this age of constant impressions. The art piece shows human’s complex emotions facing nature and captures the feeling of being at the mercy of something bigger than ourselves.

Høstutstillingen (The Autumn Exhibition) in Oslo, 2018

Høstutstillingen is an exhibition in Oslo arranged each autumn by Norske Billedkunstnere (The Norwegian Visual Artists) and is Norway’s biggest scene for contemporary art. The art pieces exhibited are chosen anonymously from submitted artworks by artists with a huge range of backgrounds. This gives the exhibition a great variety and represents a selection of movements in our times. This years exhibition, the state’s 131st art exhibition, was as usual a selection of very different art pieces, but many of this years art works thematized the relationship between art and culture, and art in the Anthropocene. Many of them focused also on vulnerable humans, a new religiosity and meta art. There was also many artworks with humor and self-irony. Høstutstillingen is not a curated exhibition with a narrative. It is a selection of different movements in contemporary times.

Johannes Engelsen Espedal’s Hotel Occidental (2017)

For each Autumn Exhibition one of the artworks exhibited wins the Autumn Exhibition Prize (Høstutstillingsprisen — Bildende Kunstneres Hjelpefonds Kunstpris). This year Johannes Engelsen Espedal’s Hotel Occidental (2017) won the prize. Hotel Occidental is a spacious abstract installation in 400 × 400 cm. The artwork has a great variety of references and potential interpretations. It operates within an interesting duality between a two dimensional painting/relief when being viewed frontally, and a three dimensional sculpture or architectural form when being viewed from different angles. It is an ambiguous art piece, full of references, and shows also a material awareness. The installation consists of glass fiber, wood and rusted iron. The different parts are «ready made», but composed in a rhythmic and harmonic composition, and the board (which looks like a partition), is painted with a greenish blue gradually lighter towards the top. These elements added by the artist gives the installation its meanings and its aesthetic qualities. When we look at the installation from the front, it can remind us of a landscape painting with the blue board as the sea and the flat circle in wood hanging on the wall above it, as either the sun or the moon. The connection to landscape paintings is created in a abstract, Max Ernst like manner. The composition of sharp, geometric shapes has a modern, perhaps even futuristic expression, which is emphasized by the pipe-like structures raised vertically on both sides of the board. If we, however, walk around the installation, it is more like an architectonic space. Behind the board, the glass fiber pipes looks more like columns from antiquity and there is created an architectonic space between the board and the museum wall. On the museum wall bellow the wooden circle there are hung rusty old iron tools. When they are hung up in such a manner, they loose their original purpose and gain a new one. They can remind us of ancient symbols from a forgotten language. Together with the columns and the board, the sculpture creates an impression of ruins. Thereby adding the passing of time as a dimension to the sculpture. If we take another look at the wooden circle hanging on the wall, we can see it looks like a clock with blurred natural lines from the middle and outwards. This creates the impression of a clock with arms spinning so fast around we can hardly see them. This can be a comment to how time is running out for humans in our temporary residence. The installation can of course be read in many ways, but because of the relevance of us living in the age of the Anthropocene, I can’t help but make this connection with title: Hotel Occidental. The installation seems to be a philosophical comment to earth being our home by chance.

Vertigo Sea and Hotel Occidental are great modern contributions to the development of art in the context of the Anthropocene. Some of the aesthetics of modernity is carried on and updated to our contemporary context, where nature and technology are no longer in opposition. They have a modern frame of geometry (three square screens in Vertigo Sea and the geometric figures of Hotel Occidental), technology (the advanced footage of Vertigo Sea and the use of glass fiber as a material in Hotel Occidental) and the ambiguous meaning of the art pieces themselves. Both Vertigo Sea and Hotel Occidental can be seen as modern landscape paintings. Depicting the beauty of nature as well as its potential destructiveness. Humans are not superior to nature, but living on earth as guests. They portray human mortality, our cultural history and how wast and majestic nature is.

These artworks reflect a modern natural aesthetic. Artworks are cultural products which reflect the contemporary ideals of the cultural context they are produced in. The biggest challenges of our times are nature related issues. Therefore, depicting nature is highly relevant to contemporary times. We are experiencing a change in the aesthetic appreciation of our time, with for example an increasing interest for landscape paintings. This might be our reaction to living in the Anthropocene and because our surroundings are increasingly shaped by humans. We know now that if we want a good future on this planet, we need to develop technology which is built on not just our, but also nature’s premises. Nature and modernity are no longer separate.


Halland, I. (2016) Hvor er nødutgangen? Spekulativ kunsthistorie i antropocen. KUNST OG KULTUR, volume 99 (nr. 4 ), Universitetsforlaget, pp. 208–217.

Høstutstillingen (2018) Høstutstillingen 2018

Statens 131. kunstutstilling [Internett]. Available from: <https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/> [23. september 2018].


Fig. 1:

Balke, P. (1864) Stetind i tåke [oil on canvass]. Can be found at Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, inventory nr.: NG.M.03335.

Fig. 2:

Pantone. (2017) Pantone Color of the Year 2017 - Greenery 15-0343 [digitalised photograph]. Available at: <https://www.pantone.com/images/pages/20758/wallpaper/PANTONE-Color-of-the-Year-2017-Greenery-15-0343-leaves-2732x2048.jpg> [Found 22. september 2018].

Fig. 3:

Akomfrah, J. (2015) Vertigo Sea (screen shot), Courtesy of the artist / Smoking Dogs Films. [digitalised photograph]. Available at: <http://www.bildmuseet.umu.se/en/exhibition/john-akomfrah-vertigo-sea/20548> [Found 23. september 2018].

Fig. 4:

Espedal, J. E. (2017) Hotel Occidental. [digitalised photograph]. Available at: <http://www.mynewsdesk.com/no/norske-billedkunstnere-nbk/images/johannes-engelsen-espedal-1397081> [Found 23. september 2018].