While searching DeviantArt for images for the Earth Day article, I became intrigued with how trees have become not only such a central focus of our current environmental concerns, but also how they play such a central role in our art, whether as background or actual subject matter. There are so many Enchanted Forests on DeviantArt that it made me wonder if trees, so mundane and taken for granted yet at the same time so vital to life on earth and so steeped in myth, have always been the revered subjects of the world’s artists.
There was one especially intriguing piece of information that I came across during my research of the Earth Day article that seemed the perfect way to feature some of the beautiful artwork depicting trees and forests on DeviantArt. Even though most of us know the opening of Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem;
“I think that I shall never seeA poem lovely as a tree...”The tree went through a rough patch as being unsuitable as art subject for a period of nearly a thousand years, at least in Europe. This was the Medieval period from roughly 500 to 1450 A.D. The Church controlled artistic expression almost absolutely during that time and anything to do with nature or the woods was too closely linked with the “old religion” that Christianity had just superseded, Paganism, and Pagan animism (the idea of spirits being in all things, including trees) to be allowed to be fulsomely depicted in art. So it was mostly portraits of saints and kings and lots stained glass windows until Giotto kicked off the Renaissance by being rebel enough to put trees as natural backgrounds in his paintings in the 1300s.
A near-thousand year ban?
What is it so dangerous about trees that they could be suppressed for so long as art images to dream on? I suppose that climbing a tree as a kid might be our first great “victory” over the challenge and dangers of wildest nature. And the dark forests of fairy tales are well populated with evil beings and creatures intent on harming wandering children. So there’s always been that primal fear ingrained in us from birth to know the woods can be a “bad” place. But early humans lived and survived in the wild, so they embraced the trees and all the components of nature as the stuff of their religion and their art, making the forests as magical and spiritual as they were potentially lethal. It was only when humans built the cities and began razing the forests that trees became mere raw material to be exploited and the woods became less Pagan “Natural Cathedrals” and more scary backdrops to monster movies like “Dracula”.
Now it seems we’ve finally course corrected on trees and forests both out of practical concerns (our desire to survive) and our current cultural predilections (our insatiable spiritual explorations and the prevalence of fantasy in our entertainment). So whether it’s because we’ve finally acknowledged that the Earth’s forests and jungles are our planet’s “lungs” (and that there are secrets in the bark of the Amazon’s trees that might cure every disease), or if it’s because we need enchanted forests for the faeries and elves and witches of our favorite stories to inhabit, the tree has reestablished its rightful place as both necessary instrument of survival and emblematic icon of our artistic imagination.
Trees give us oxygen so we can breathe. But they also provide a sense of mystery and timelessness so we can ponder and draw and dream.
For the Reader
1As an artist, writer or photographer, do you think of trees as mostly background or backdrop to your art? Or have you actually used trees as a central subject?
2What’s your favorite work of fiction or movie that really made use of the forest as an actual “character” in the story?
3Do you find “subject-less” landscape photography or paintings generally boring or often compelling? Or does it all depend on the artist’s lens or brush?
4Can you remember a specific tree that played an important part in your own life? Or maybe that still does?
5Is a backyard without at least one tree really a “backyard” (i.e., a theater of childhood dreams of adventure) or just a soulless kid & pet pen?