© Eckersberg: View Through Tree of the Northwestern Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum, 1815

Nature as System

The Order of Nature

Over time, humans have tried to understand nature from various assumptions about the way nature is arranged. When these fall apart and are replaced by others, this change is reflected in art. The philosopher Michel Foucault believes that there are two major breaks in the western world’s assumptions concerning the order of nature and the world. He believes that around the 1600s, when the classical age was dawning, and again in the beginning of the 19th century, which marks the start of modern society, a break occurred in our way of conceiving of the world.

With each of these ruptures in our ways of thinking, a fundamental shift took place in our way of conceiving humanity, nature and the world.


As a result of Aristotles' thinking, artists were highly interested in realistic effects (attempts to simulate the earth realistically) when depicting people and nature. In the rupture between the Renaissance perspective and the classical perspective, it becomes clear that artists were beginning to turn away from thinking in highly symbolic terms and contexts and towards a more accurate systematisation. All of mythology and much of the poetry in people’s conception of nature completely vanishes in the classical and modern worldview.


Where Aristotles played an important role in the Renaissance way of thinking, Descartes' conception of nature as a rational machine highly informed the concepts of the classical era.


In Vivares' work from 1769 after Nicholas Poussin's painting "Pyramus and Thisbe" we can clearly see the classical mindset's understanding of natural order. All parts are shown by being placed in their own small quadrant in the image. Every person, object, or animal, is placed in its own square, all placed and fully visible each in their own place.

 klassiske tankesæts opfattelse af naturens orden. Alle dele er sat ind i hver deres lille kvadrat på billedet. Hver eneste person person, genstand eller dyr, er som sat i et kvadrat eller rektangel. Alle elementer har deres plads, mens natur og civilisation kæmper om herredømmet.

© Morisot: Two Girls by the Lake at the Jardin des Tuilleries, 1885


The modern, fleeting glance gives rise to new means of finding systems in nature. in the interest shifts from mechanical and mathematical regularities to the unstable condition of physiology and the body. There is simply a desire to determine whether or not truths about nature’s order are to be found in intuitive perceptions as well. Such an example from painting is impressionism, which aimed to paint experiences and impressions rather than ideas.

The "Other" - Outside the System

Humans have always tried to understand nature – not so much for nature’s own sake as to render it predictable and subject to control. We humans have tried to create systems in order to understand, but there is always something that cannot fit and that is regarded as an anomaly. The system into which we have placed nature has varied over time, and therefore the things that have not been able to be fit into this system have also changed. The hermaphrodite and the woman as an ‘abnormal’ creature are examples of anomalies that we have historically had a different view on, and which graphic arts have therefore confronted in various ways.

Gender as a battleground for normalcy

Gender has always been a battleground for the definition of normal and abnormal. ‘Men’ and ‘women’ are two constants in history that have always been considered normal and have always figured into the various systems. This relation suddenly changes when dealing with people of other genders, such as the hermaphrodite, or the intersexed. How can one relate to a third gender in a system that is based on two genders?


© Rubens? Hermaphrodite, ca. 1600

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Updated: 26.apr.2018
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