Artistic Motifs And The Natural World

The word “seed” interests me. In this increasingly industrialized world the word might be used metaphorically more often than literally. Plants have seeds, but so do ideas and essays.

The seed of this photo-essay was an e-mail exchange I had recently with Bev, who is at her house in Nova Scotia for the summer. Both of us belong to a Facebook group which features photos of moths and requests for moth IDs. Most of the photos posted to the group are of North American moth species, many of them familiar to us. Lately one of the members of the group has been posting spectacular photos of Malaysian moths, and another member has been posting photos of Chinese species.

Bev and I agreed that these moth images were strange-looking, unlike our local species in shape and color. These moths had evolved in another hemisphere, and evolution always has an element of randomness which could explain the differences we observed.

Pondering this, I began to wonder about the early years of any culture. This brought to mind the clichéd term “Golden Age”. We inherited this term from our Mediterranean cultural forbearers, the Greeks and Romans. The Chinese have an analogous term. The general idea is that everything was better in the “old days”, that people lived closer to nature and lacked the societal ills which plague the present. An attenuated personal version of this concept is quite noticeable in every old person’s view that, in general, things were better when they were younger. Dammit, they just were!

In general, every human society wishes to expand its population. The traditional view towards competing neighbor societies has always been, except for brief interludes, “assimilate ’em or obliterate ’em!”. This attitude goes hand in hand with the urge to subjugate and make maximum use of the natural environment. Every civilization has a childhood period, though, when the population was low, neighbors were distant, and the natural world intermingled with the human world.

During these “Golden Ages” many of the artistic design motifs which help give a culture its individual character arose. Typically leaves and flowers of the local vegetation were abstracted and conventionalized. One example from Roman culture is the use of the acanthus leaf. Acanthus mollis is a spiny-leaved plant of the Mediterranean region. This design motif was eagerly embraced by the Victorians in England during the 19th Century; the designers of that era used it in everything from textiles to cast iron. The acanthus leaf became so stylized that the resemblance to the original plant was almost lost. Here are two photos of the acanthus plant, followed by a Victorian acanthus-inspired design:




I had been familiar with the acanthus-leaf motif from an early age, and I still recall how surprised I was to learn that Acanthus is a real plant genus! People in Britain grow the plant as an ornamental in gardens.

A common decorative motif in England since the middle Ages is the leaf of Quercus robur, the English Oak:


Before the British Navy began consuming oaks voraciously in order to make sailing ships there were many oak forests in England; they were the backdrops of rural and village life. The leafs became stylized by wood- and stone-carvers, as in these examples from Winchester Cathedral:



What originally inspired this post were some thoughts about the shapes of moths in different parts of the world. Here is a photo of a Geometrid moth. It was taken by John Horstman in Yunnan Province, China


Now look at a leaf from Ginkgo biloba, a Chinese tree with a leaf shape and structure unlike those of any Occidental tree:


Of course you are familiar with the use of fans as a decorative motif in Oriental art. Art imitating nature? It seems to be a universal human trait.


4 comments on “Artistic Motifs And The Natural World

  1. bev says:

    Excellent essay illustrating what may well be an artistic aesthetic and choice of motifs based on the geographically distinct flora and fauna native to each part of the world. Wonderful choice of examples to illustrate your observations.

  2. Larry Ayers says:

    Thanks, Bev!

  3. Leslie says:

    I can’t state it as eloquently as Bev, but i enjoyed this article, Larry. I love the stately oak tree and it’s elegant leaves, but had never thought about the stylization of them. Only you could smoothly segue between moths and leaves! 🙂

  4. Larry Ayers says:

    Glad you liked it, Leslie!

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