The tree as a motif has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. After the arrival of monotheistic faith, it embellished visions of paradise such as the one in the mosaics of the Great Mosque in Damascus. In the 17th century, it was used to impress upon man the power of nature, while romantic painters used it to express their inner turmoil.
These ideas underwent a massive change with the rise of industrialisation in Europe and the expansion of cities. Landscapes eventually gave way to wastelands, landfills and pollution; but this realisation of the hazardous after-effects of industrialisation was to come later.
Initially, there was euphoria and wonder as a man-made iron structure replaced the resilience and regenerative power of nature –– the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 in Paris was an important event. It was the centenary of the French Revolution and the Paris World Fair was an opportunity to showcase the industrial and cultural prowess of the French Empire. Never had such a man-made structure dominated a modern city in that manner. This was the triumph of science over nature. The Eiffel Tower could be viewed from far and near in Paris, and as hundreds swarmed the structure to view their city, they also began to contemplate the important role that science and technology was coming to play in their everyday lives.
If automobiles, buildings and skyscrapers were to dominate the landscape of the future, how and where did the modernist eye of the artist begin negotiating between the machine age and nature? Answer: it began by reimagining the picture plane so that viewers could experience light and movement in a new way. Photography with its ability to capture time could transmute light into images. This, coupled with an accelerated rate of development in science and technical discovery, prompted painters and photographers to study form, speed and structure. Paris had undergone massive urban and civil renewal under the administration of Baron Georges Haussmann. As a result, the mediaeval character of the city gave way to a capital city more adapted to the demands of modern life. Painters such as Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Auguste Renoir captured this transformation of the city on canvas and the tree was reduced to a prop, either planted on boulevards or framing a bustling city dominated by concrete and stone. Man and his city was centre stage. He had succeeded in taming nature. Today stone has given way to concrete and steel with photorealistic painters capturing clean, impersonal reflections in glass facades of shops and skyscrapers such as in the works of Richard Estes.
Over the years, artists have depicted changes in their lived environment, breaking away from their relationship with nature
But how and where do we, in the Third World, situate ourselves in this discourse about art, nature and the city? The quiet landscapes of trees and fields that Khalid Iqbal captured have been replaced by housing societies, industrial areas and unplanned urban sprawl while the painted maidens at the panghat (watering place) that Ustaad Allah Bakhsh had captured in such brilliant and vivid colours seem almost mythical to city dwellers when one is faced with a chronic water shortage and poor sanitation on a daily basis. Trees have been felled, colonial bungalows and historic sites are being buried in concrete and other ‘urban development’ projects, while the population itself is plagued by social and economic inequity.
The contradictions that such dilemmas bring out are epitomised in Nashmia Haroon’s thought-provoking photographic works. In ‘Colossal Damage I’, the focal point is a tonga (a horse-drawn two-wheeled vehicle) that trots across the dusty picture plane, oblivious to the under-construction behemoth of steel and concrete that dominates the background. The composition is framed in an oval and a collage of chaotic views of the city in the lower half bombards the viewers’ senses. It is the incomplete grid-like structure of the bridge with its size and volume that emerges the victor. There are only fading traces of trees in the corners of buildings.
In 1918, Claude Monet did a series of 12 paintings of water lilies that was meant to be viewed as a whole when placed side by side as a long horizontal band. They were meant to “create the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank”. He used the words “peaceful” and “meditation” for the series. Haroon’s ‘Closing The Unbuilt’ is a similar horizontal composition that features the recessing silhouettes of shuttering submerged in water used to prop up a building under construction. Monet’s lilies no longer envelop us as these glimmering vertical shafts of form and reflection. Our modern eye instantly recognises the resonance with structure and verticality. There is an uneasy peace, unlike that of Monet’s composition. Instead there is both sanctity and mystery where these shafts become luminous totems that are infinite in their expanse — just like man’s appetite for building higher and higher structures that touch the heavens. As once man imagined that trees could.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 7th, 2018