Margit Zuckriegl

Beauty in Nature and Art

The discovery of nature as a topos of artistic expression in the 19th century was always linked to the idea that anything “natural” was inherently “beautiful.” Nature cannot produce anything, be it vegetation, crystal formations or mirages. Citations drawn from the vocabulary of natural beauty were implemented in art with the aim of legitimizing the intention and main thrust of aesthetically oriented art and charging it with emotional chromaticity. Thus, windswept trees represented the trembling soul, golden sunsets life and death, forest thickets the vicissitudes of human existence, and flowers our faith in the eternal flux of becoming and ending. Choreographer and sculptor Jan Fabre1 dedicated one of his most ambitious stage productions, the Requiem for a Metamorphosis, to this concept of transformation, which is championed in the context of adaptations of Romanticism. Invoking the theme of the omnipresence of mortality and extinction, he let his dancers perform in a sea of flowers freshly brought to the stage every day. In the course of the hours-long performance, the audience’s perception transitioned from the dominating visual marvel of thousands of blossoms to the smell of mountains of wilting and withering flowers, a rather unusual sensation to have in a theater.
“But the Requiem is also one for the changes of the last 30 years, for the tsunami, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, all that has changed us on a social, psychological, political, and cultural level,”2 Jan Fabre noted regarding the connotation of the piece in relation to his personal life.
Thus, in the context of art, nature’s seductive beauty is ascribed an intentional function, and we can trace the extensions of Romanticism with its focus on the sentimental aspect of natural beauty all the way down to present-day art. On the other hand, existential, social, and ethical issues are connected with the precarious and endangered beauty (i.e., intactness) of nature. When Thomas Ruff’s3 pixelated landscapes irritate and unglorify the perception of beauty that emerges from a process of growth, this can be taken as a critical statement on the manner in which humans deal with their resources of intact images.

The personal and the transpersonal

The resurrection of Jan Fabre’s personal history and experiences in a living flower still life shines a light on the nexus of one’s very own facts and the overarching ones of life. To be sure, it is one’s individual style, in which personal imagery and knowledge is conveyed that is interesting and relevant to others. In a conversation about Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction, theater director Oliver Reese noted: “I believe that in art it is a deeply personal manner of articulation that makes it possible for people to latch on with their own history. Indeed, this raises the question of what is interesting to the audience, or the reader, about things so specific to an individual person. There must be something there that has to do with their own life.”4

The images of Karin Pliem’s cycle of paintings titled Concursus naturae have to do with the artist’s very own iconic cosmos, but they also explicitly address the viewer. They are not representations of concrete natural designs or a staging of nature’s beauty. Rather, they are virtual architectures, as it were, of a paradisiacal concept. But the idylls and beautiful appearances we may believe to be immersing ourselves in at first sight will not last forever, as can be inferred from vacancies and omissions, from clandestine, hidden allusions and eerie disintegrating jellyfisch-shaped areas of color. We sense a process of deep breathing in the tapestry-style structure beneath the calmly iridescent surface — pulsating like an organism, a living substance, like vegetal tissue. The fragility of all life on the one hand and the lavish opulence of the natural world on the other have something to do with human experience, with our own personal life.

Beauty as convention

“The art scene has an ambivalent relationship to beauty, which is apparently also owed to a principle of inertia that is based on prejudices,” said Martin Seidl,5 referring to what he perceived as a lack of concern in the fields of film, theater, fashion, and advertising. Incidentally, it seems this view was also held by Umberto Eco,6 who saw contemporary art as practically devoid of beauty, aside from Rothko and Manzoni. The concept of beauty is based on convention, on an intellectual and linguistic agreement by which a society determines what is “common” to phenomena it deems “beautiful.” Perception is, thus, an act that is negotiable, respective “ideals” of beauty correlate with the taste of an era; while, at one point, the pleasant sensation of harmony and well-balanced proportions was considered “beautiful,” at another time this concept centered on the heterogeneous, disharmonious, and unadjusted, or yet on something irritating and unsettling. “With Schubert, beauty is always also the unredeemed,” thus Oliver Reese saw behind the Biedermeier-style lyrics of Franz Schubert songs the abysmal and unfathomable quality of these ostensibly beautiful compositions. In Karin Pliem’s pictures one senses a vague knowledge of the transience of life underlying the beauty of floral splendor. Her subjects are richly rendered in a painting style akin to drawing that seems to make palpable a continuum, a rapport that is directed towards centers and condensation. The sharpness of her graphical lineament and intermittent punctuation contrasts with the glaze and iridescence of the applied paint. In a certain way, Spirituoso con bravura7 sets the pace, much like the tempo markings used to guide musical performance. It is a spirited and brilliant, clever, and intrepid movement in which Karin Pliem’s tapestry of imagery unfolds. In both the foreground and background the gossamer of what we mean and what we see coalesces and vibrates beneath a dense texture. Lovis Corinth already focused on the representation of the “unreal” in painting. In his flower still lifes, too, shapes disintegrate in favor of a free structure intrinsic to the image, a mixture of bold gestures and coloristic audacity. This mental landscape between an explicitly personal style, devotion rife with allusions, and inner depths is also where the painterly intentions of Karin Pliem take shape.

1 Jan Fabre, born in Antwerp in 1958, artist, dramatist, dancer, director, and choreographer. Requiem für eine Metamorphose was developed for the Ruhrtriennale and the 2007 Salzburg Festival. 2 Interview with Jan Fabre, in: Focus, Munich, August 25, 2007.
3 Thomas Ruff, 51st Venice Biennale, 2005; Thomas Ruff, Markus Kramer, Modernism, Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag 2011.
4 Conversation held on May 28, 2015 at Theater in der Josefstadt, Vienna.
5 Martin Seidl, “Privileg und Vorurteil,” in: Kunstforum International, vol. 191, 2008, p. 87.
6 Umberto Eco, On Beauty: History of a Western Idea, London 2004.
7 Title of a painting from the series Diversity of voices, 2012, oil/canvas, 200 x 250 cm.

* Translated from German by Matthias Goldmann.

First published in: Karin Pliem: Symbiotic Unions, Hohenems–Wien–Vaduz: Bucher Verlag 2016, pp. 63-65. <
ISBN 978-3-99018-387-8.

© 2016 Margit Zuckriegl; Bucher Verlag