Towards an Ecocritical Art History

Ecocriticism is founded on a desire to seek out non-hierarchical modes of thinking, which makes it a close cousin to feminist, queer, Marxist, and postcolonial theories. All of these theoretical frameworks have grown out of social movements, binding their intellectual projects to wider societal changes. As political activist and academic Angela Davis explains, “We need intellectuals […] because if we’re not in a position to reflect on what we’re doing, then we will forever be stuck in one place. The future depends on our ability to think and to imagine.” As an early career academic dedicated to exploring ecocriticism in art history (still a relatively overlooked area in comparison to ecocriticism in literary studies and social sciences), I believe that it is not enough to engage with environmental questions only within the confines of academia. Unless we get involved in wider social movements, we will remain hidden behind the safe walls of the academy. Indeed, it was climate activism that sparked my interest in ecocriticism (or the lack thereof) in art history. Today I would like to share that story with you.

In the same month that I was due to start my MA in Art History at The Courtauld, I spent the best part of two weeks at Extinction Rebellion protests in London, mainly around Parliament Square. It was in September 2020, when Covid-19 was still very much in the wings, ready to emerge again in full force by the time the academic term started. Although there was next to no media attention, and lots of my friends were surprised to learn that anything had been going on, I was totally absorbed by the speeches I heard and the dedication of others that I had witnessed (including up to 600 arrests in the first five days). I remember grappling with questions of why I was embarking on a study of Italian Renaissance art, the whitest, most stuffy, most traditional period of art history I could imagine, when there were clearly far more urgent matters at hand. To pursue art history was, in my eyes, a selfish—and self-indulgent—pursuit.

These thoughts were floating around, but I was also very excited about starting to study art history in a formal setting; I wanted to get back to academic study, having graduated in modern languages over a year beforehand. During the introductory seminar (on Zoom, as every meeting through the year would be), I told my course mates and tutors that I was interested in finding ways of linking the Italian Renaissance to the climate in some way. I mentioned the Extinction Rebellion protests. One of the tutors said encouragingly: “I’m sure we can find a way to link that to our study here.” Looking back, I think I wanted to find that connection because it helped to justify my choice to study art history. I wanted my intellectual pursuit to help make the world a better place. I wanted to believe in the role and contribution of academic study for social and climate justice movements. Academic writers I had first learned about during my undergraduate degree like James Baldwin, Davis, Adrienne Rich, and Hélène Cixous told me that radical social changes happened both on the streets and on the page; that movements need thinkers.

And so I began my MA program. Alongside my studies, I started writing a column for the student newspaper “Art in the Age of Extinction.” In my first-ever published piece, I wrote an impassioned call to my peers: “As art historians, we cannot allow ourselves to be so absorbed in our academic interests and passions that we end up ignoring present crises. I want future generations to be able to visit museums and to look at artworks as a way of exploring other worlds and eras. But for now, there is simply too little time: we must use everything we can to help us re-frame and re-imagine our place in the natural world, and art will help us do that.”

With each column, and each new focus on a different era of art history, I got used to thinking, and saying: “yes, there is a link here.” It is interesting for me to look back on that first column piece also because of what I deem to be the responsibility of art historians: “Climate change conjures up intense emotional reactions, and so our academic responsibility to be as objective as feasibly possible risks being abandoned. Where should the balance lie?” I can’t say I agree with this now. Art is emotional; academic work is never objective, nor exempt from positionality—and I’m sure that pretty much all academics working in the humanities would agree, in theory. But clearly, even at that early stage of writing about ecocritical art history (although I was not calling it that at the time), I was aware of the need to couch my assertions with the reassurance that I would maintain, first and foremost, historical integrity. This was, in part, looming large—and rightly so—because I was learning very quickly that art historians were historians (something which, during my undergraduate degree in modern languages, I had often overlooked). My defensiveness was useful, to an extent. I found ways of explaining my ecocritical concerns which would not alarm art historians or immediately raise suspicion. Rather than saying that I studied “the Italian Renaissance and its connection to the climate crisis,” I would say that I am interested in “what Italian Renaissance art can tell us about the history of human relationships with the natural world.” 

The curricula on most art history courses in higher education will today rightly include feminist and postcolonial perspectives, regardless of the period of study. At The Courtauld, my peers and I learned about the histories of women and people of colour during the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries in Italy, and how this was reflected in art at the time. This was never considered to be projecting modern values onto the past; it was approached as a necessary re-balancing (and enrichment) of Italian Renaissance art history. And even when explicit links were made between the treatment of historically marginalised groups of people then and now, it was accepted as historically legitimate. For example, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) is now rarely commented upon by art historians without at least a reference to the ways in which it is symptomatic of historical idealisation of white female bodies.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1534, oil on canvas, Uffizi, Florence.
[Image description: Venus is nude, full-length, reclining to the left on cushions. She clutches the white sheet to her loin and holds foliage in her right hand. Beyond, to the right, are two maids in a room, one kneeling at an open cassone.]

When this is put in the context of non-human perspectives, however, there is often a level of suspicion; it seems overly sentimental to emphasise the lives and agency of animals and plants. For example, the still life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age frequently include depictions of dead animals, but these are generally interpreted by art historians as visual signifiers of a patron’s wealth and an artist’s technical ability. In one still life by Pieter Claesz in 1627, a dead turkey is stiffly propped up with a flower in its beak; it mirrors the animal-headed spout of the silver wine jug. What happens when we acknowledge that this turkey was once a living being? We start to recognise the layers of its objectification (from its origin in North America, to its captivity, death, and consumption) and how we, as viewers, may also play a part in this objectifying process. Furthermore, we begin to ask why we are so accustomed to overlooking lifeless animals in art; we interrogate the assumption—historically bound to colonialism—that the earth is an inanimate resource for human consumption. Amitav Ghosh, in his wonderful book The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021), explains how colonialism was a “process of subjugating, and reducing to muteness, an entire universe of beings that was once thought of as having agency, powers of communication, and the ability to make meaning—animals, trees, volcanoes, nutmegs.”

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627, oil on panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
[Image description: There’s a variety of delicacies displayed on the table. On the right, there’s a pie with a stuffed turkey.]

In many ways, an ecocritical art history is about developing this dose of cynicism when looking at art. A painting can still be beautiful while offering uncomfortable narratives about human and nonhuman power dynamics. I owe a huge amount of this to my involvement with climate action groups. It has allowed me to face the feelings of panic, grief and tragedy surrounding the current climate and ecological crises; and I am motivated by people from all walks of life who believe it is possible—through collective nonviolent action—to mitigate the worst effects and build a better, fairer, safer world for all. My experiences in the climate movement have given me energy—and determination—to bring art history into the climate conversation, and the climate conversation into art history. As ecocritical studies continue to grow across the humanities, I hope to see more academics joining the climate justice movement, and helping to bridge the gap between the streets and the page. I truly believe that the impact and longevity of our academic work depend on it.

*Cover Image: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555, Pieter Bruegel.

[*Cover image description: an oil painting showing the Greek mythological figure, Icarus, plunging into the sea in the lower right-hand corner and there is a ploughman and a horse in the foreground of the painting.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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