Friday, 14 July 2006 - 3:30 PM

Soil and Paintings: A Way to Achieve Public Awareness.

Fiorenzo C. Ugolini, Dept Soil Science and Plant Nutrition, P.Le Cascine, 18, Florence, Italy

I would like to pose this question. How come many elements of nature have captured the imagination of modern and ancient painters, when a soil profile, that is also a natural object, has seldom inspired an artist? Yet, soil has always followed the evolution of the human specie, since the Homo erectus has walked on it. Soil pigments have been used by the Cromagnon man for burial ceremonies and for cave paintings. About 8,000 years ago when humans changed from hunters and gathers to become farmers, the soil has been the major source for food and fibers. And yet, there has not been a corresponding interest in the esthetic and artistic values of soil. The reasons for this neglect are numerous. First of all, although soils are ubiquitous at the surface of the Earth they are not readily obvious unless exposed in fresh vertical cuts. Soils were worked by farmers that in the Medieval occupied one of the lower levels of the society. Soils were associated with death, because of the corps were buried in them. In the Christian concept of the Middle Age, as described in the Divine Comedy of Dante, the world was divided into Heaven and Earth. The Heaven, often painted in gold, was the place for God, the Angels, the Saints, and the Blessed. The Earth was the place for the Devil and the Sinners. Always, in the Christian vision, the life on Earth was nothing but a brief interlude for a longer post mortem eternal life. This attitude tended to diminish the importance of nature. Furthermore, since nature is perceived through senses, nature is sinful, profane and full of temptations. The paintings from the 12th to the 14th century reflect this vision. Holy figures are at the center of the paintings while the surroundings are only sketchy emblematic forms. With the advent of the Renaissances, God, that until now had resided in Haven, descended on the Earth among the humans and became identified with the beauty of nature. The painting of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) is fundamentally a landscape composition inspired by Saint Francis love for nature. The scenery is not allegoric but real. It reproduces the calcareous cliffs of the La Verna: it shows the dissolution of the limestone and the accumulation of the insoluble residue on which plants become established. The field on the left shows clearly a soil profile. This is the first appearance of a soil profile in paintings; we have to wait about 500 years before Grant Wood reproduces an other one. In fact, it is only in 1932 that an accurate rendition of a soil, a Mollisol, appears. However, it is only in the abstract art that soil acquires a primary interest. Dubuffet, from 1950 to 1960 produced numerous paintings representing different aspects of soils: Au pied du mur, Vie exemplaire du sol, Fruits de terre, Texturologie. Dahmen (1917-1964) worked with sand, acrylic and colours to produce compositions that look like soil profiles. Lambertz (1910-1982) represented a scenario of organisms in soil. Soil, seems to have entered into the arts, more as an abstract entity than as a natural object. Shepard made the observation that abstract forms develop during time of social stress, while in times of pace and harmony, art approaches the endemic and the common place. Does the relatively recent entering of soil in the figurative arts signal the crisis of our society?

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