Art, Nature and Sustainability: the first webinar of RCE London, celebrating 10 years

By Asitha Jayawardena

Dr Hugh Atkinson delivered the webinar on Art, Nature and Sustainability on 30 September 2021.

I am not an expert on art, but I became an enthusiastic amateur, said Dr Hugh Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at London South Bank University, on the inaugural webinar on Art, Nature and Sustainability on 30 September 2021.

Celebrating 10 years of the endorsement and admission to the global RCE (Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development) network by the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), RCE London holds the webinar series and this is the first one. The others will be on:

  • 21 October on Education for Sustainable Development: past, present and future
  • 25 November on Storytelling, documenting, inspiring
  • 27 January 2022 on Biodiversity
  • 24 February 2022 on After COP 26, where to next?

Each event will start at 5 pm. To see the details of each event and to sign up, visit:

Painters teach us to see…

Always continue walking a lot and loving nature for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better, said Dr Atkinson, quoting Vincent Van Gogh speaking to Theo in London in 1874. Painters understand nature and love it, they teach us to see.

It’s an eclectic mix of paintings, Dr Atkinson said. Some of them have a message, some of them are explicit, some implicit others. It’s up to us to analyse ourselves.

But it’s good to see paintings in their values, enjoyable and beautiful, he said. Art can speak to themes that words on their own cannot address. Or perhaps only partially.

In his webinar, over 20 paintings are discussed but only 7 paintings are taken in this post.

Impression: Soleil Levant by Claude Monet, 1872

Monet was staying in a hotel. From the hotel window, he painted a view of the southeast of the fore port. There are cranes, chimneys and masts bathing in the midst of the vapour of the autumn dawns.

The orange sun and its reflection are added at the end of the painting when Monet was concluding the canvas. It seeks to render an atmosphere of an impression of nature. It coined the phrase called impressionism.

I think that the lack of detail in this painting is a success in a way you know. It encapsulates nature but in a very minimalist way. I think that it’s a success.

It’s a painting that shows how human activity impacts nature. The fumes from the chimneys and all the industrial activity change the colour of the sky.

Surprised by Henri Rousseau, 1891

Henri is a part of a Naïve school. In the painting, you have a tiger crouching low in the thick jungle foliage and his back is arched and his teeth are bad. It’s not clear what is happening.

I think this ambiguity adds an element of mystery to the work which was possibly Rousso’s intention. But this particular work actually, creates an illusion of nature.

This is one of 20 jungle paintings that Rousso did. But the jungle scenes are entirely imaginary. This particular scene, its foliage is a mixture of domestic house plants and tropical variants which he saw at the Paris botanical gardens.

Rousso never left France despite the claim he served in the French army in Mexico.

A woman and a child in a garden by Berthe Morrison in 1883-1886

This particular painting features the artist’s daughter Julie who’s on the right of the canvas and a nurse or companion on the left.

The composition appears to imitate the natural focus of the eye becoming more sketch-like and indistinct towards the periphery.

There is a central tree in the middle of the garden. The device of the central tree dividing the canvas into two distinct spheres evokes the separate worlds of nurse and child. They are sharing their garden but the young girl comes from a much more privileged bourgeois background. She is a different level of society to the woman on the left who may be a nurse or companion. So, it’s using nature and art I think as a form of social commentary.

Above the clouds by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1962 to 1963

Georgia is probably one of the most famous and well-known female artists of all time. She was a major environmental campaigner. Landscapes in the environment feature strongly in her work.

This is a painting of a view that she got from the seat of her plane above the sky. It’s a beautiful image of how you would see the clouds and the skyline. When you are on the plane, you know the little beautiful sunset in the distance and the white fluffy clouds.

The irony of this of course is that to get this special view or an aspect of nature and the environment, you are getting from a plane. You know planes are a major contributor to climate change and the pressures that the earth faces but it’s still a very interesting and quite striking piece of work.

Big summer wave by Maggie Hambling in 2010

This particular work features the North Sea in England off the coast of Suffolk on the east coast of Britain. This particular coast in the North Sea has dominated Maggie Hambling’s career since 2002.

If you look at the artist’s own words, the waves of the North Sea vicariously consume our coast. These new paintings respond to the energy of their actions as they break this sea the widest of the mouths so we can see a big mouth there, almost looks like a dragon.

I think their roaring or laughing is always seductive. Life and death mysteriously coexist in the timeless rhythm of the wave. I think it gives you a real sense of motion and movement of the sea.

It’s beauty but yet at the same time, it’s a destructive force.

They breathe out we breathe in by Luchita Hurtado in 2018

Luchita was described as an environmental worrier. It is abstract with a strong focus on the environment.

This particular work you know, it’s self-evident in many ways. You have got the human form here. It’s in animal stripes which may signify the argument that humans are one with nature so this particular character is both human but also animal at the same time.

The title says, the trees breathe out oxygen and we breathe it in. It’s symbolizing the crucial importance to the environment of trees.

Pandas on tour by Paulo Grangeon in 2008 (paper mache)

This is a representation of 1600 pandas, meant to be all the surviving pandas in the natural world, in paper mache.

This particular project, which he launched in 2008, was done in collaboration with Worldwide Fund for Nature.

A better future

Dr Atkinson concludes the webinar with three quotations.

Celebrating the role of the artists in showing us the hidden potentials of nature that we cannot yet see, says Joshua Reynolds.

Art is essential to build a better future, says Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Nature contains the elements in colour and form of all pictures as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose and group with science these elements that the result may be beautiful. As the musicians gather their notes and forms and chords until he brings forth or she brings forth glorious harmony. To say to the painter that nature is to be taken as it is, is to say to the player that he or she may sit on their piano, says James Whistler.

At the end of the presentation, the participants were joined in discussion in the breakout groups.


Art, nature and sustainability (full video)

London RCE News


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