Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Should wildlife art look like photography?

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It's easy to forget, when we think about art, that the first subjects for painting were animals: stags, wild horses, wild bulls and other creatures delineated in charcoal and ochre on the walls of caves such as Lascaux in southern France, or Altamira in northern Spain. What, we wonder, looking at these arresting images painted by flickering torchlight 17,000 years ago, was in the minds of the painters? Some sort of awe, or some sort of reverence for the great beasts, undoubtedly.

But to go further, what the cave paintings perhaps suggest is that there is some kind of primal link between nature and the human imagination: that maybe the scale of our imaginations is in some way defined by the natural world. It's in the genes, even if we largely ignore the nature around us now. We've been nine-to-five, neon-lit, coffee-break-taking, desk-bound office workers for four generations, remember; but we were farmers for 400, and before that, we were hunter-gatherers for 20,000.

Yet conscious knowledge of any fundamental link between nature and the human imagination has more or less been lost, and we can see this immediately in the way we represent animals in painting now, which of course is largely decorative. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The horse paintings of the Georgian artist George Stubbs, for example, might be categorised as decoration, in that they would grace the walls of any elegant sitting room, but they are so lustrously lifelike as to provoke excitement: Stubbs is doing something always electrifying, which is capturing an essence.

Similarly, in modern wildlife painting you can find images which instantly excite, and more than once I have been in front of a canvas and despaired of my spendthrift life which left me unable to possess it. However, there is an enormous amount of modern animal representation which is decorative in an uninspiring way, which descends to the level of cliché, and gives us the cute painting of tiger cubs or the panorama of stampeding elephants, scenes which the artist probably has not witnessed personally and does not enlighten us by creating.

In this context I was fascinated to learn that the next exhibition of Britain's Society of Wildlife Artists in September has been renamed. Located at the London's Mall Galleries, that haven of figurative painting, it is to be called The Living Eye (instead of "The 47th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists") and the person who has done the renaming is the society's new president, Harriet Mead. The sixth president since the SWA's founding in 1964, Harriet breaks new ground in several ways: she is the youngest (at 40), the first woman, and the first sculptor.

Her sculptures have won wide renown, and it's not hard to see why. They are creatures made of "found objects", bits of metal picked up here and there, but whereas the found-objects genre can be somewhat hit and miss – you look at the thing for half a minute and eventually make out the badger it is meant to be – with Harriet's pieces there is no hesitation. Her eye is unerring: she captures unfailingly, in these random metallic bits and bobs, what birdwatchers call the "jizz" of a creature, its essence – look at the hare picture on this page – and so she, too, goes beyond the decorative.

I asked Harriet why she had renamed the exhibition, and she said she wanted to encourage a wider audience who perhaps had misconceptions about "wildlife art" – people, she said, "who think that the gallery will be full of clichéd photo-realist paintings of the Big Five". (Africa's tourist attractions: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo). She said she had nothing against photo-realism as such – she instanced the English bird artist Chris Rose, who might be described as a photo-realist, as "an amazing painter" – but, she said, "It's just that a certain audience measures the work of art by its relationship to reality and photography, and the closer it is, the better it is. There's a certain kind of audience that rates work by how much time they think the artist has spent on it." What Harriet wanted to see, she said, was "stunning work that just happens to have the natural world as its inspiration."

The natural world may do more than inspire us: it may form the very base for our imaginative faculties, and that is a reason for us as people to cherish it more than ever. Yet recovering consciousness of that link is not possible when the way we represent it ends up as a superior form of wallpaper.

The animals on the walls of Lascaux were not there for domestic decoration; they were saying something profound about the situation we find ourselves in as humans, occupying the Earth. But even today, with our lives tied to offices, wildlife art can do that for us perhaps, as long as – like Harriet with her hare or George Stubbs with his horses – it goes beyond the decorative, into the electrifying essence.

Absent friends

As we disclosed two days ago, Natural England, the Government's wildlife agency, is preparing to shed 800 jobs, a third of its staff, in anticipation of the coming Budget cuts, and official support for wildlife and the countryside is about to be slashed as never before. But where are the cries of alarm and the protests from our biggest green campaign groups, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF? The silence is deafening. One would hate to think they have grown so obsessed with climate change that immediate threats to the natural world are passing them by completely. But that's what it very much looks like.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading

Society of Wildlife Artists: www.swla.co.uk

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