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Hand of Life - The Air and Wind in Visual Art

The breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind - Kahlil Gibran

In art, invisible phenomena like time, thoughts and dreams have often been articulated through their effect or perceived form. For the biblical figure Jacob, a dream is articulated in a floating projection by Michael Willmann, while a succubus perches on the chest of a nightmaring woman in The Nightmare by John Henry Fusili. The rotting fruit in a still life indicates a coarse but often invisibly gradual passage of time. Gravity is defied through religious ascension, and music is implied through instruments or cartoonish musical notation. In the case of air and wind, a natural force that both sustains and destroys, the approach is very similar.

Laundry Drying |  1892  | Gustave Caillebotte  art history wind air iris28
Laundry Drying | 1892 | Gustave Caillebotte | Public Domain

The wind is the mass migration of air in an atmosphere. On Earth, air comprises oxygen, nitrogen, water vapour and trace elements like argon, carbon dioxide and methane. A cubic inch of air at ground level contains about one hundred quintillion molecules. One of the most significant causes of large-scale air-molecule migration is in atmospheric pressure differentials - gases cycle from high to low-pressure areas, resulting in winds.

Other reasons for wind activity rely on the Coriolis effect as well as sea/land breeze cycles, variable terrain, thunderstorm activity and the contrasting absorption of solar energy between climate zones. Gravity can also be a factor in driving high-density winds down from elevated inclines. For example, Katabatic winds rush down steep slopes with the force of a hurricane, lashing the landscape and inhabitants at locations like Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica - the windiest area on Earth. Interestingly, the calmest place on Earth in terms of wind speed is also in Antarctica, on the top of a vast, isolated plateau known simply as Ridge A. From the wind-sculpted ventifacts of White Desert in Egypt to the circulating air currents on the ocean surface (a vital means of distributing nutrients for ecosystems around the world), aeolian phenomena have unquestionably impacted both life and landform.

From anthropomorphic carvings of wind gods and demons to modern sound art, our conception of the air and wind is manifested in our own artistic and technological response to aeolian activity. The drive to comprehend our surroundings and the importance of passing down learned information has led to mutually established deities or mythologies that explain environmental phenomena. Sensitive to the wavelengths of light that pass through air molecules unhindered, air is transparent to our eyes. Therefore, many ancient artistic characterizations of the wind were inspired by sensory experience and/or personified through anthropomorphised depictions endowed with abilities that aligned with weather behaviour.

In Ancient Egypt, Shu, the god of the air, was considered to be a cooling and calming influence. His association with peace saw artistic renderings of him as the atmosphere between the earth and sky, or a bearer of the sky itself. Amun, the god of creation and the wind, is also portrayed in Ancient Egyptian art.

Headrest in the tomb of Tutankhamun with Shu on the vertical support | Photo: Jon Bodsworth
Headrest in the tomb of Tutankhamun with Shu on the vertical support | Photo: Jon Bodsworth

Another ancient depiction of the wind is found in a fourth-century example of Theban pottery. On the vessel, we see the figure of Odysseus manning a raft of amphorae. In the top right-hand corner, cheeks puffed with the force of a gale is the head of Boreas. In Greek mythology, Boreas was the winged god of the north wind, one of four seasonal Anemoi. Also the god of winter, Boreas was said to descend the mountains of Thrace, blowing icy air to chill the landscape. boreas wind art history
Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

Boreas' depiction established a visual symbol that resulted in the frequent portrayal of the anthropomorphized wind in various forms of art. Also known as the Tower of the Winds, the horologion in Roman Agora in Athens is considered the world's first meteorological station. Standing at 12 meters tall in Pentelic marble, the octagonal horologion features a wind vane, a water clock and an array of sundials.

Tower of the winds in ancient art Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes
Image by Joanbanjo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Though there is conjecture about the date of its construction - possibly 50 BCE, maybe 2nd century BCE - the Tower of the Winds stands intact today, bearing the likenesses of Boreas and seven other wind deities of Greek mythology: Kaikias, Apeliotes, Eurus, Notus, Libs, Zephyrus, and Skiron - each paired with unique items or articles tailored to their aeolian attributes. Skiron, the northwest wind, is represented with a vase held upside down - indicating the dry winds of Attica. Eurus, the southeast wind, was sculpted with a frenetic cloak open behind him. Paired with distinct characteristics and behaviours, these sculpted figures are the artistic manifestations of a means to comprehend the surrounding environmental forces.

Although many historical depictions characterize the wind and air as gods, some cultures saw atmospheric unrest as a phenomenon caused by demons like Jinn, supernatural creatures of early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology. In ancient Mesopotamian religion, Pazuzu, the king of wind demons, is represented as the southwestern wind and the bringer of famine, drought and locusts. However, although Pazuzu was considered a demon, the figure was also believed to drive away other evil spirits, therefore providing protection. This dichotomy caused Pazuzu's likeness to be worked frequently into bronze statuettes and apotropaic amulets.

Bronze statuette of Pazuzu, circa eighth century BC, Louvre
PHGCOM remade with F Lamiot (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the early stages of Christian art, the winds were also articulated as winged figures. Circling the concentrically structured motif of the Creation Tapestry - a Romanesque panel of needlework depicting scenes related to Christian Creation myths - four winged figures blow wind instruments, a representation of the four winds. However, in other examples, the winds are portrayed as more nefarious. In the 11th-century Bamberg Apocalypse illuminated manuscripts the four winds are illustrated as horned creatures driven back by angelic beings. A similar motif can be seen later in Albrecht Dürer's chaotic 15th-century woodcut, Angels Restraining the Four Winds.

 Albrecht Dürer wind in art history iris28
Albrecht Dürer | Wikimedia Commons

Botticelli's iconic The Birth of Venus has become ubiquitous with the Renaissance. Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex and victory, has just been birthed and we witness her arrival to the shores of Cyprus in a giant scallop shell propelled by the vigorous gusts of the west wind, Zephyr and a female figure - the personification of a lighter breeze.

The Birth of Venus (1485-86) is rich with depictions of and allusions to the wind. The wind deities' emanate pointed grey exhalations, their clothing flagging around them in loose, cloud-like corrugations. Tumultuous air tangles and tugs at Venus' hair as she covers her nakedness. The botanically patterned garments of the woman to the right are bunched and ruffled in the exposed landscape as she moves to clothe the newly birthed goddess. Wind wrinkles the sea with scaly crests. Flowers, whipped from their bushels, are flung in a seasonal hail of meteorological rapture and allegorical whimsy. The gorgeous upheaval of The Birth is both mystifying and a masterful artistic study of weather behaviour and its physical/psychological manifestations.

the birth of venus by Botticelli wind in art iris28
Public Domain

Borne from a keen analysis of weather patterns, Leonardo da Vinci revisited the subject of overwhelming storms many times. Sometimes interpreted as an expression of the polymath's reflections on mortality, da Vinci's renderings demonstrate a highly detailed manifestation of the weather possible only through the careful analytical study of the natural world itself. In black chalk and ink, da Vinci's nebulous hurricane in A Tempest (c. 1513-18) is an evocative insight into the observable machinations of wind and weather.

While there is no escape from the destruction wrought by da Vinci's hurricanes, other artists have used depictions of the wind to juxtapose nature with shelter. In Husband and Wife (1523) by Lorenzo Lotto, an aristocratic couple are sequestered indoors with a dog and a shadowy squirrel. Through a window positioned over the shoulder of the male figure, a howling gale bends sparse trees.

husband and wife lorenzo lotto 1523 wind in art iris28
Public Domain

Records indicate that Husband and Wife was painted several years after the patron’s wife had died. The symbology in the painting points to the widower's continued faithfulness to his wife, even after her death. In this case, the wind outside may represent the battering of grief, whereas the sheltered interior might suggest the consolation of memory.

A national treasure of Japan, Wind God and Thunder God are a pair of folded screens made from ink and colour on gold-foiled paper. Made in the Edo Period by Tawaraya Sotatsu, the artwork features Raijin (left), the god of lightning, thunder and storms in the Shinto religion and in Japanese mythology, and Fūjin, the god of wind (right). Both Raijin and Fūjin appear in many of Japan's most ancient documents. The Fujin in this artwork may have been based on a sculpture by Tankei - a sculptor in the Kamakura period. The screens were later replicated by Ogata Korin and again by Sakai Hoitsu.

Wind God Fujin (right) and Thunder God Raijin (left) wind in art history iris28
Public Domain

Over the course of the 17th century, the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) were popular artistic subjects. Air, a painting by Flemish painter Jan van Kessel, was painted around 1647 and is based on a prototype painted by van Kessel's grandfather, Jan Brueghel I. Representing the air through mythology and a variety of Earthly creatures of flight, the painting is brimming with ascension. Urania, the Greek muse of Astronomy is seated on a cloud holding an armillary sphere. In the distance, Apollo drives a chariot across the overcast sky.

Jan Van Kessel Air wind in art history iris28
Public Domain

At the end of the 18th century and into the 19th, Romanticism spread across Europe and America. Challenging the ideals held during the Enlightenment, artists argued that the senses and emotions were equally as important as order and reason in experiencing and understanding the world. The Romantic emphasis on individual perception allowed for greater freedom in conveying the experience of experience itself.

Englishman J.M.W. Turner painted with a tenacity that revelled in the beautiful and terrifying cataclysm of weather events. Viewed through a twisting corridor of wind, brine and snow, the paddle steamer depicted in Turner's Snow Storm (1842) is rendered in a hazy frenzy that makes depth hard to reconcile with definitive precision. In the moment, we can see a distress flare fired into the sky, and a naked mast bowing with the gale-force conditions.

When Snow Storm was first exhibited at the British Royal Academy in 1842, it was met with a public baffled by what they saw. Maritime artists before J.M.W. Turner had established a long and standardized approach to the genre. Yet the evocative gesticulations used to demarcate the wind and weather signalled an explosive departure from past historical trends.

JMW Turner Snoe Storm wind in art history iris28
Public Domain

A precursor to Impressionism, Charles-François Daubigny was a painter of the Barbizon School, an artistic movement that rejected the dominance of the Romantic movement through Realism. Daubigny's painting October (1850 - 1878), pictures a campestral scene through the evidence of aeolian activity. The depiction of birds approaching in-flight and leaning smoke columns paired with rigorous brushwork builds on a sense of tactility.

october Charles-François Daubigny air wind in at history iris28
Public Domain

John William Waterhouse painted Boreas in 1903. Titled after the Greek god of the northern wind, Boreas sees a young woman clutching her billowy blue draperies in an effort to anchor them against her body. Standing in profile, with a daffodil behind her ear, the woman faces her back to the wind. Though the surrounding landscape suggests springtime, Boreas, the harbinger of winter, is still with the land. Although Boreas is usually depicted as a winged old man with tousled hair and a beard bedraggled by the wind, the woman in this image may be a modern personification of the northern wind herself.

Boreas John William Waterhouse wind in art history iris28
Public Domain

As seen in Waterhouses' Boreas, textiles have long been a pictorial indicator of wind movements. In Laundry Drying (1982) Gustave Caillebotte depicts a washing line populated with wind-blown laundry. In Charles Courtney Curran's A Breezy Day (1887), a pair of women lay sheets out on a grassy hill, the dimples and creases in the fabric mirroring the body of the wind. Jean Béraud, renowned for his depictions of life in Paris, made several studies of windy days on the Pont des Arts, accomplished with an emphasis on women's billowing dresses and scarfs. Flags depicted in paintings have also taken on a righteous or perilous life of their own as winds animate the messaged fabrics, as seen in Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.

A breezy Day Charles Courtney Curran wind in art history iris28
Public Domain

In 1826, the first photograph made in a camera was made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. By the 1880s, photographers were venturing into often-dangerous circumstances to seize life through the lens of the camera. This is the case for the first tornado photograph. On Saturday, the 26th of April 1884, a relatively slow-moving tornado of moderate intensity touched down near Garnett, Anderson County, Kansas, USA. Towards the end of the tornado's life cycle, an amateur photographer named A.A. Adams made a photograph of the weather event, the first person to have done so. The photograph not only rewarded daring and opportunistic photography, but it also paved the way for the documentation of high-wind weather events for scientific study.

first tornado to be photographed history art wind weather photography
Kansas Historical Society

Katsushika Hokusai made numerous prints depicting manifestations of the wind. Within the artist's well-known series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (which includes The Great Wave), Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri (c.1832) captures the chaotic unfolding of a wind-blown scene. Set before the unwavering gaze of Mt Fuji, trees bend and shed while a collection of papers are snatched and swept away from the arms of an unsuspecting figure. Other individuals hold their hats (or lose them), attempting to brace against the wild gust with their bodies.

Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri
Public Domain

In 1993, Canadian artist Jeff Wall made a photographic rendering of Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri. In Wall's restaging, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) depicted actors in an open Vancouver landscape. Made up of over 100 photographs taken over a year, Wall's take crafts a cinematic seamlessness that generates the impression of a singular moment in time.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space wind in art history
Public Domain

Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni's sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, cast in 1931) has been the subject of considerable commentary. Viewed as a dynamic expression of fluid motion, a human figure plunges forward, suspending the effect of movement and the air/wind. According to MOMA, the sculpture is defined as a figure that:

...does not depict a particular person at a specific moment, but rather synthesizes the process of walking into a single body. For Boccioni, one of the key figures in the Italian Futurist movement, this was an ideal form: a figure in constant motion, immersed in space, engaged with the forces acting upon it

By the 20th century, a growing number of photographers were using the camera as a device to document and explore the world. At the age of 18, Imogen Cunningham took up photography after buying a 4x5-inch view camera from a mail-order catalogue. Inspired by pictorialist photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Cunningham learned to use the camera via correspondence school. After graduating with a degree in chemistry at the University of Washington in 1907, Cunningham travelled to Dresden to study fine art at the Technische Hochschule. It was around this time that Cunningham turned the lens on the invisible, her pictorialist-style photograph titled The Wind (1910) captures the moment a delicate breeze brushes through the transparent fabrics worn by Cunningham's friend, Clare Shephard.

Over the course of the 20th century, trees continued (as they do today) to represent wind activity. A pioneer in Australian Modernist painting, Grace Cossington Smith was instrumental in the introduction of Post-Impressionism to her home country. Trees in the Wind (1926) is a vigorous yet familiar portrait of weather in an urbanized landscape. From 1936 to 1939, Emily Carr painted Wind in the Treetops in which a precarious grove of trees. As one of the first artists to attempt to capture the spirit of Canada through a modern style, Carr often painted trees in the throws of violent winds - her brushwork sculpting a viciously beautiful rendering of the land and the influence of the wind.

Often considered to be the first American abstract painter, Authur Dove used a wide range of media, often in idiosyncratic combinations, to produce abstract renderings of his surroundings and imaginings. Landscape with Weather Vane (1935) is a painting that both alludes to wind through object association, and renders a landscape in reactionary wobbled lines and shifted washes of colour.

Landscape with Weather Vane abstract art weather wind Authur Dove
Public Domain

At the dawn of the 1960s, new ways to create art began to manifest outside the confines of the gallery. Site-specific outdoor installations (also known as land art, public art or art intervention) were designed to transform the perception and context of an environment. Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, in Sydney, Australia was an installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Executed in 1969, the project involved wrapping Little Bay, (located 14.5 km southeast of Sydney CBD) in 90,000 square metres of synthetic loose-woven fabric usually utilized for erosion control. Once complete, the uniformity of the white fabric emphasised the topographical qualities of the location. As coastal winds rippled the wrapping, the surreal landscape billowed to life, a ghostly expression of the environment.

With every conscious or unconscious drawing of breath, we deliver oxygen to every cell in the body, expelling carbon dioxide in exchange for fresh oxygen. Breathing is a sign of life, an indication of vitality and physicality. In Ice Bag - Scale B (1971), Claes Oldenburg gives life to a yellow, scaled-up ice bag, installing measured motions reminiscent of organic breathing via a hidden steel hydraulic mechanism.

The Singing Ringing Tree iris28 art history
CC BY 3.0

The 21st Century has seen brand-new mediums and processes that have broadened the creative possibilities of artistic practice. Set in the landscape of the Pennine Hill Range in Lancashire, England, The Singing Ringing Tree is a sound sculpture activated by the wind. The three 3-metre tall structure of galvanised steel pipes was designed by architects Anna Liu and Mike Tokin of Tonkin Liu. When the wind passes through the architecture, a penetrating choral sound elicits from the grey steel pipes and dissipates into the surrounding landscape.

Designed by Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford and erected in Central Park in Sydney, Australia, Halo is a kinetic sculpture inspired by the brewery heritage of the site. Opened in 2012, the sculpture seemingly consists of only three key components - atop a 13-meter-tall angled silver mast is a round gold ring held by a silver, 6-metre-long arm pivoting off-centre. The silver arm allows the golden ring to turn and tilt in the wind. In line with the designer's aim to collaborate with nature, the minimalist design of the sculpture and its responsivity to wind behaviour is intended as a calming influence against the background activity of the urban landscape.

Making extensive use of natural materials Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who creates ephemeral artworks that are often dismantled by the wind. In this way, the wind is a major contributing device in the conceptuality of Goldsworthy's work. On the wind and weather, Goldsworthy says:

...sometimes a work is at its best when most threatened by the weather. A balanced rock is given enormous tension and force by a wind that might cause its collapse

Camila Botero also looks at the impact of the wind and our innate reactions to nature. Botero's project Closed Captions (2019) was made by extracting closed captions that describe sounds made during natural disaster movies. With closed captioned texts like "[wind blowing]", Botero appeals to our own experiences and associations in the face of the natural environment.




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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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