From Egyptian Tombs to Toxic Corn, There’s More to Environmental Art Than What You See

A sweeping exhibition of 2,000 years of artworks at Bowdoin College in Maine challenges viewers to reconsider the relationship between art and nature.

March 05, 2019

The young man peers out intently, as if seeking the attention of a friend across the room. But his gaze is actually the focal point of a portrait placed long ago on the man’s mummified remains. Painted on a plank of wood and preserved by the arid climate of Egypt, the portrait has changed little over the past 2,000 years.

The relic—along with pre-Columbian ceramics, 13th-century Turkish medical manuscripts, and cutting-edge contemporary artworks—sits among 80 or so pieces collected for “Material Resources: Intersections of Art and the Environment,” a provocative exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. The definition of environmental art has broadened in recent years, and “Material Resources” seeks to crack it open even wider.

Fayum mummy portrait mask, AD 100–200, painted on wood with applied gold leaf by an unidentified Egyptian artist

All images courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art

“I incorporated objects in the exhibition that on the surface may not cause an immediate connection to the environment—that won’t be seen as ‘environmental art,’” says Honor Wilkinson, the museum’s curatorial assistant. Organized in three thematic sections (extraction, conservation, and development), the show, says Wilkinson, aims to disrupt the way we usually view the relationship between nature and cultural production; it’s not just about how artists depict nature but about how nature is part of the art itself.

Alongside rarely shown pieces from around the world are iconic American landscape paintings that for centuries have helped tell stories of nature and conservation in America. But there are more to those stories. For instance, Bowdoin has exhibited Marsden Hartley’s After the Storm, Vinalhaven (1938–1939) many times before, but most of the discussion has centered on the artist’s effort to infuse psychological meaning into a stark vista of sea, sky, and mountains. In contrast, the current exhibit highlights the physical contents of the painting’s foreground: the boulders of pink granite. This type of rock is a distinct geological feature of Vinalhaven, Maine, the island community of the painting’s title, and through these boulders, the Maine-born artist is able to pinpoint the geographical location of a scene that is otherwise visually anonymous. “The idea of stone being a regional identifier is something that I found interesting,” says Wilkinson. “It is an aspect of this painting that may have gone unnoticed in the past.”

“After the Storm, Vinalhaven,” 1939, by Marsden Hartley, American, 1877–1943

Even more revealing is the exhibition’s treatment of paintings and objects that outwardly seem to have nothing to do with the environment. The Egyptian man is one example of hundreds of Fayum mummy portraits, named for the region of the Nile Valley where they were discovered. The works would stand out in the antiquities departments of any major museum due to their fine renderings of facial features and expressions, which are painted in a style more typical of Greek and Roman traditions than of Egypt. But newly acquired information about the organic materials used to make these portraits reveals more about the society than the faces of some of its members.

Archaeologists at Bowdoin have been able to determine that the wood on which the portraits are painted is linden (also known as lime). “The wood was indigenous to Europe. It didn’t grow in Egypt,” says Wilkinson. Indeed, the archeologists traced the planks’ origins to forests in the more northern stretches of the Roman Empire. This European lumber was transported at great cost along trade routes to Africa, where artists sliced the precious natural resource into thin panels in order to depict the likenesses of the deceased elite for eternity.

“Dioscorides Materia Medica,” 1200, ink and gouache by an unidentified Turkish artist

The curators also emphasize the material elements of 1920s French botanical studies made by photogram, an early form of photography in which objects are mapped on light-sensitive paper, creating ghostly black-and-white images that remind viewers of long-dead beings. Since they are made of natural ingredients, living plants, paper made from wood, and sunlight, says Wilkinson, “the direct connection to the environment is present in a way that may not be as visible in, say, a watercolor of a plant specimen, which is one step removed.” Similarly, an early American needlework piece of silk thread on linen, Marking Sampler (1803–1826), by Martha Bush Cleaveland, can be seen as an example of virtuoso stitching as well as cloth made from rotted flax plants with a trophy of threads spun from the secretions of worms.

“Plant Study,” ca. 1920s, photogram by Ruttinger-Lesourd, photograph by Luc Demers

In addition to asserting the intrinsic connections between art and the environment, the exhibition also asks us to acknowledge our position of privilege in the natural world. Caged Corn (1992–2014), by contemporary artist Mel Chin, is a dried ear of corn cultivated on a Superfund site in Minnesota. The ear is suspended within a wire-mesh cylinder and mounted on the wall, with a tag attached describing the toxin—cadmium—that the crop contains. In his manipulation of the corn cob, Chin offers a silent but deft reminder of our collective responsibility for manipulating, with often devastating consequences, the whole of the planet.

“Material Resources: Intersections of Art and the Environment” is on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, through June 2.


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