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art and the Earth sciences

The Oxford Companion to the Earth

Andrew C. Scott

art and the Earth sciences 

The links between art and the Earth sciences—geology in particular—have not been widely recognized, yet both areas have impinged on each other in a variety of ways. Four main interactions are considered here: Earth sciences phenomena as a source of artistic inspiration; geological illustrations as art; the use of geological materials in art; and the use of geology in the investigation of art objects.

The Earth sciences as a source of artistic inspiration

Many artists have been influenced by phenomena relating to the solid Earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans. Their subjects have been highly varied, ranging from volcanoes, mountain ranges, storms, and other dramatic features to the subtleties of atmospheric effects. China and Japan have a long history of landscape painting, dating in China from the ninth century. The Chinese word for landscape is, significantly, shanshui, literally a ‘mountain-water’ picture; the karst scenery of southern China has been a favourite subject for Chinese water-colourists over the centuries. In Western Europe, landscape painting emerged much later, in the Renaissance, and it was not until the rise of the Romantic movement that a taste for nature in the wild became general. As the western tradition diffused to America and other parts of the world, vast tracts of novel and as yet unspoiled landscape were opened up for a new generation of artists.

Volcanoes have been depicted by many artists, some of whom have approached their subjects geologically as well as pictorially. One such was the German artist Jakob Philip Hackert (1737–1807), who had a close association with the volcanologist Sir William Hamilton; his painting of an eruption of Vesuvius in 1774 is a study of a lava eruption on the flanks of the volcano. At the same period, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97), another artist with a keen interest in natural phenomena (although working in a different style from Hackert), painted Vesuvius in eruption while he was in Italy from 1773 to 1775. Mt. Fuji in Japan was the subject of 36 paintings by the celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). The New Zealand artist Charles Blomfield (1848–1929) similarly became fascinated by the volcanic area of Rotomahana. His atmospheric paintings, made in the late nineteenth century, of the pink and white terraces formed by hot-spring activity are not only important in their own right but are also a unique record of a landscape that was to be destroyed by an eruption only a few years later.

Mountains have equally—and predictably—been popular subjects for artists. An early example from China is Summer Mountains by Ch'ü Ting (active 1023–56). The earliest European paintings in which mountains are primary features (as distinct from merely part of the background) date from the sixteenth century. Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538) is generally regarded as the first artist to produce pure landscape paintings without figures, although Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) had earlier made watercolour sketches of Alpine scenery. Ice is a conspicuous feature of much mountain scenery. Paintings and drawings from earlier times have been used to chart the growth and retreat of glaciers (for example, the Grindelwald glaciers in Switzerland) in the past.

In the great flowering of landscape painting that took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, painters such as Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) made contributions of geological interest. In America, Thomas Cole (1801–48), who was born in England, became an influential figure as the leader of the Hudson River School, setting out to portray ‘the wild and great features of nature: mountainous forests that know not man’. His pupil Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) followed him in striving to depict the grandeur of the American landscape. These American artists enjoyed great popularity, and some were influential. Thomas Moran was a member of a government expedition to the Yellowstone Valley in the early 1870s, and the paintings he made in the course of the expedition helped to persuade Congress to make the area a national park—the first in the United States.

In Europe, the Impressionists, with their emphasis on painting en plein air, brought a new approach to landscape. In painting the rocks of Belle Isle (1886) Claude Monet (1840–1926) was more concerned with the effects of light than with geological structure. By contrast, the series of paintings that Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) made of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire were as much concerned with structure as with the effects of light. Cézanne's subjects also included the stone quarries in the area. He was not, of course, the first to recognize applied geology as a subject for art. Canaletto had, for example, painted a stonemason's yard in the eighteenth century.

Although some of the leading artists of the twentieth century turned away from landscape, geological subjects were not neglected by others. Two examples may be quoted. Before moving on to abstraction, Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) painted the sand dunes of the Dutch coast. Paul Klee (1879–1940) offered an elemental vision in his Mountain in winter. Klee's mountains, pyramidal in form, might suggest to some the tetrahedral silicate structures of rock-forming minerals, but this connection may not have been in the mind of the artist.

The sheer scale of some natural features such as the Grand Canyon presents an artistic challenge that continues to evoke fresh responses. David Hockney (best known as a figure painter) attracted great interest in 1999 with a series of six massive paintings of the Grand Canyon. Large-scale paintings of geological features are not a modern development: James Ward's Gordale Scar, with an area of some 14 square metres, dates from 1811–25. A limestone escarpment is here portrayed on a scale more generally associated with historical subjects. On an even larger scale, environmental art modifies the landscape itself. The Bulgarian artist Christo (b. 1935) has, for example, ‘packaged’ a section of the Australian coast with the object of revealing its basic forms by concealing the details. In another large-scale project, the American artist James Turrell has set out to modify an extinct volcano, the Roden Crater, by excavating chambers and a tunnel to provide a visual experience of varying spatial relationships, the effects of light, and the perception of the sky.

Geological endeavours can also be captured by artists. The work of Thomas Moran has been mentioned above. Another American artist, Peter Hurd (1904–84) travelled with an exploration crew of geologists from Standard Oil through Utah and Wyoming in the 1940s, recording what he saw on canvas. A collection of his paintings has been exhibited at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahama.

It is not only painters who have been inspired by geological subjects. Photography is also an accepted form of fine art, and geological subjects have been popular with many photographers. In America, for example, Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) photographed mountains, waterfalls, and mining activities. (Many of these photographs were stereoscopic views.) The work of a later generation of photographers, including Ansel Adams, Michael Freeman, and the mountaineer–photographer Chris Bonington, has become well known. Photographs of geological subjects have been used to bring conservation issues to wider notice, as, for example, by the Malvern International Task Force.

Geological photography has not been confined to terrestrial subjects. Images of the Moon, published in 1874 by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, provides an illustration of the problem of representing relief on a two-dimensional surface. Radar images of Venus from the 1991 Magellan mission were described in an article in Nature by Martin Kemp as ‘masterpieces by largely anonymous masters of extraterrestrial landscape painting’ that enabled the general public to become ‘electronic proxy armchair tourists and aesthetic voyeurs in extraordinary voyages’.

Since the introduction of postage stamps in the mid-nineteenth century stamp designers have on many occasions used geological scenes or objects. Some of these illustrations may be considered as works of art in their own right. The subjects range from volcanoes to minerals and dinosaurs and other fossils.

The sea and the sky have long been of intense interest to artists. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) produced a series of Deluge drawings in which the movement of water is dramatically portrayed. These drawings have been compared to Chinese and Japanese art in their dynamism and convolution. Storms and tempests have continued to be favoured subjects for art: Van Ruisdael (1628–82), Francesco Guardi (1712–93), J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), Hokusai (1760–1849), and Hiroshige (1797–1888) provide notable examples. The elements are represented in gentler mood in many paintings of all periods, but John Constable (1776–1837) may perhaps be singled out for his cloud studies, in which the sky is the sole subject.

Geological illustrations as art

Geological field drawings were first extensively used by members of the Accademia dei Lincei in Italy in the early seventeenth century. These drawings, collected by Cassiano dal Pozzo for his Paper Museum, which are now in the Royal Collection at Windsor, are important, not only for the history of science, but also as art objects. Many early geological treatises have been broken up in order to remove the prints, which have then been sold individually. Not only geological drawings and paintings have been treated in this way, but also geological maps.

There has been an increasing interest in geological reconstructions, whether of individual animals or plants or of past time. The fascination with old reconstructions of the past is widespread (a topic that has been discussed by Martin Rudwick). These images often gain a wider circulation and can shape public perception of worlds of the past. This can have both positive and negative effects. For the scientist, a reconstruction is at best a working hypothesis, which in some instances may be based upon scant data. This implies that mistakes may be made that will later need to be rectified. The transient nature of reconstructions is not often recognized by those ‘not in the know’. This is well illustrated by Brachiosaurus, which was shown in the often reproduced illustration by Burian as living in lakes with its head just above the water. Although this interpretation has long since been shown to be incorrect, the illustration continues to be reproduced, so evocative is the original painting. Today a new generation of artists, such as Mark Hallett and John Sibbick, are shaping the public consciousness and their paintings are widely reproduced, even on postage stamps. The visual effect of these reconstructions is illustrated by films such as Jurassic Park (in which most of the dinosaurs were in fact of Cretaceous age). More scientific, and no less spectacular, was the 1999 BBC television series Walking with dinosaurs, which used animation of a high order to achieve a degree of realism hardly achieved before. Although scientists were closely involved, a large element of conjecture was inevitable. The value of the series in bringing palaeontology to life for a general audience was nevertheless unquestionable. The first episode was watched by an estimated 18.9 million people. Plans for a sequel were being made while showings of the first series were still in progress.

The use of geological materials in art

Geological materials, especially minerals and metals, have been used in art since Prehistoric times. Gold and silver have been widely used in many cultures in the production of art objects. Minerals and gemstones have similarly been used to adorn objects and people in many cultures for many thousands of years. The search for these materials has often gone hand in hand with geological exploration, and the trade in some of them has been of major importance. Amber, for example, is a prized material widely used in jewellery. Amber, a polymerized resin from certain trees, commonly encloses animals and plants. Much of our knowledge of several insect groups comes entirely from amber inclusions, which might not have come to light if it were not for the artistic use of the material. Some pigments, used by the Egyptians and other cultures, were derived from crushed minerals: blue (ultramarine) from lapis lazuli is a well-known example. Fossils are also featured in art as in the use of petrified wood for ornaments or the more general inspiration provided by fossils in painting and sculpture.

The more practical use of stone in architecture is discussed in a separate entry (see building stones).

A wide variety of rocks have been used for sculpture. White marble has been classically used but other more unusual materials, such as bitumen have been used. The physical and chemical properties of geological materials, such as clays, also influence their use. The production of fine porcelain might be considered as an interaction of geology and art. The use of marbles, agates, and other rocks to produce mosaic images that might be confused with paintings is exemplified by the technique of pietre dure. A factory set up in the Uffizi in 1588 produced table-tops and panels until the nineteenth century.

The application of geology in the investigation of art

Geology has much to offer art historians in the investigation of a wide variety of artistic objects.

Some clays used in pottery have a distinctive chemical signal. Chemical analysis of a pot may thus reveal where it was made. Techniques such as inductively coupled plasma (ICP) have been widely used in this regard. Other techniques, such as atomic absorption (AA), are widely used in the study of metal objects. Geology can similarly help in establishing the provenance of minerals and gemstones. Gemstones of particular regions may, for example, differ in their trace-element composition.

Geology can also help to answer questions about the origin of sculptures. Artefacts such as bitumen carvings from the Middle East have been shown by J. Connan of Elf Petroleum and O. Deschesne of the Louvre Museum to have a distinctive geographical distribution. Organic geochemical analysis, including gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS), Rock-Eval, and isotope analysis, has made it possible to identify the sources of the bitumen as well as the relevant trade routes. Geo-detective work of this kind has also been applied to objects such as flint tools. Knowledge of the geology of a region can help archaeologists to identify sources of material and postulate trade between cultures.

Andrew C. Scott


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