This is somewhat surprising, because for many societies, rivers featured (and still feature) in their mythology, religious or spiritual life, and alongside rivers were often where the most important cities were built and largely continue to stand. Not to mention the fact that so many early societies derived a large proportion of their food either directly from rivers, as fish, shellfish, crayfish, water birds and aquatic plants, or indirectly from agriculture, because of flooding and the fertility it brings.
But you have to ask yourself: why would people paint rivers in the first place? What is it about rivers that would motivate an artist to paint them? What do rivers represent to humans? This post is part of a series about the art and science of rivers, that commenced with three articles about Leonardo da Vinci. I want now, to go back, meander a little down the riverscape of time and see how humans have depicted rivers in their art.
Rivers in art
While aesthetics clearly were important for ancient peoples, landscapes rarely took centre stage in their art. Indeed, people throughout history have instead tended to be obsessed with the human form, and to a much lesser extent, animals. But while today we still like to draw other humans more than anything else, the lack of interest in landscapes – and more specifically, riverscapes – changed with the coming of one of the giants of art (and most other disciplines for that matter), Leonardo da Vinci.
The Renaissance changed everything – art, literature, music, architecture, science – and Leonardo, while not the initiator of that change, rode the wave like no-one had ridden it before, and in ways that were beyond the dreams of most people.
Leonardo paved the way for others to follow – if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphors – although, in reality, few have done so since. There are notable exceptions, and these include Bernini’s sculptures, J.M.W. Turner’s utilitarian river scenes, Claude Monet’s symphonies of water and light, Alfred Sisley’s impressionisms, William Piguenit’s political riverscapes, Brett Whiteley’s flowing landscapes and nudes, Arthur Boyd’s metallic, obsessive Shoalhaven paintings, amongst others.
Although artists from ancient societies around the world – Australian Aborigines, Bronze Age Europeans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans – did not, as a rule, paint rivers, rivers featured in their art in other ways. And it is with indigenous societies that I begin my exploration of rivers and art.
Water and creation
Water was, and is, central to the lives of indigenous peoples generally. Water is commonly the source of all creation. In many Aboriginal Australian creation stories, the land was formed by ancestral beings who came out of void and moved across the landscape, acting on it and creating the features of the land (Strang, 2010).
Stories coincide with the flow of water above and below ground. Ancestral beings follow the hydrological cycle – coming from water, rising back up into the sky, sinking into the ground. Water and water holes are important locations and concepts to Aboriginal Australians: they embody spiritual beings and are powerful entities, in many ways, determining life or death.
And because of this significance, water features in ancient Aboriginal artwork (although their art has evolved over time, of course). But not commonly as landscapes or depictions of rivers per se, but through spiritual totemic beings. For example, the corporeal manifestation of an actual rainbow, which has one arc above ground and one arc below, is the Rainbow Serpent: the all-powerful creator of this, the longest continuous culture on earth. The Rainbow Serpent is the source of all life and water, creating water-courses and other landscape features as it wriggles across the land. It is the source of birds, fish and other animals. And also of clouds and flood waters. It turns up in Australian Aboriginal rock art dating back 6000 years and is part of the longest religious tradition that we know of.
Snakes, rivers and lightning
The serpent occurs in rock art of a variety of indigenous peoples, not just Australia (Hastings et al., 1908). From Africa, the Middle East, Scandinavia, to North and South America, the serpent represents snakes as animals, but also rivers and sometimes lightning. Many societies saw the similarity between the shape and sinuous movement of the snake and the meandering form of a river or the zig-zag of lightning. Snakes or serpents were often associated with water and waterholes by ancient peoples, sometimes in a benign way and sometimes malevolently, and cults of snakes were common. Rainbows were seen as giant snakes by the Shoshone of North America, the Benins in West Africa and the ancient Persians.I don’t want to get too distracted (because it would be so easy), but myths, stories and legends involving serpents or dragons, that live beneath waters, abound in almost every culture on every continent on earth. Often the monster either is wont to destroy the land or protects something vital for the village or kingdom. There is usually a damsel involved and a sacrifice and a hero who has to save the day by slaying the slithery, sometimes fire-breathing monster.
These myths, stories and legends have been the inspiration for some of the greatest works of art known to humanity. In the next post, I will continue with this theme, and look at the art and rivers of the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks.
References: Gombrich, E. H. 1968. The Story of Art. Phaidon, New York. Hastings, J., Selbie, J. A. & Gray, L. H. 1908. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, Burns & Oates. Strang, V. 2010. Water in Aboriginal Australia. In: Tvedt, T. & Oestigaard, T. (eds.) A history of water. Series II. Volume 1: Ideas of water from ancient societies to the modern world. New York: I.B. Taurus.