Art Thoughts, Week 27 -- Berd & Nature

Nature Study, Morris Berd, (American, born 1914), 1947, oil on canvas, BF 2084.

Honestly, the word “nature” has lost much of its former power. It is almost never adorned anymore with its Emersonian capital, its prominence displayed like a medal. Too often now, because of our society’s general disconnect with true wildness, our images of what constitutes nature falls into one of two categories: one, either a happy, idealized place inhabited by friendly woodland creatures; or two, where we humans are always an other; ever the stranger and never the denizen; a place we visit, but always return from. This is all patently false, says Wendell Berry in his book, Citizenship Papers. We humans, he insists, have forgotten how to see ourselves as integral to, and as an intrinsic part of, “nature.” Thus we do the world a disservice, and perpetuate a twenty-first century brand of disillusionment and practical disengagement. This mindset has produced all manner of pollution, abuse and general ignorance about our natural world.

The Morris Berd painting Nature Study binds up these issues into a personal, parallel question: is it in our nature (i.e. our essential character) as humans to be concerned with nature (i.e. the rest of the physical world)? We do practically all we can, it seems, to disengage from nature, then yearn for token respites within it in the form of vacations and weekend jaunts. In this picture, Berd is both asking this question, and offering a possible answer. The picture shows three beatific figures ensconced in a stylized forest, lit by a blood-red moon. The figures seem at peace, and involved in activity with the trees. One is grasping a tree trunk, as if to observe or contemplate it more closely; a second is also observing a branch, but more admiringly. And a third figure, moon-struck and small, is in awe of both the forest and the more monumental figures beside him. The painting’s composition is a haphazard grid of overlapping trunks and branches, which creates a thicket of quadrangles and trapezoids filled with an array of colors: the polychromatic diversity of forest foliage. This pattern both envelopes and involves the figures, revealing that they are not visitors, per se, but colleagues in the dynamic relationship which all living things are involved in: the scene would be incomplete without them.

This natural setting not only gives the figures import, but also posits a second question. Is care for this place in the nature of these figures, as intimately involved with this place as they are? The careful manner of the hands; the affection and awe seen in the gazes; the panoply of background hues; all point towards the affirmative. But Berd might caution that, as art often is, this painting is more prophetic than revelatory. Meaning, it pictures what could or will be, not necessarily what already is. And even if it does picture what is current, it is not normative, which points to another form of prophecy: to show what should be. And with 20/20 hindsight, we know that harmony with the natural world was entering a season of serious ebb in late, 1940’s America. Science began masquerading as a panacea with demigod status, and stole the capitalized esteem of nature, becoming Science. We are now on the bitten tail-end of much of this, but the sting has not fully cured us of our blind faith in science. Nevertheless, Nature Study holds its ground, showing us what could – and should – be: humans turning away from simply a “harmony with” nature, which still implies a detachment, to a deeper “harmonization” – a relationship dynamic; life-changing and genuine. We are nature.

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