Flight into Nature

Gallery 280

People have always returned to nature, no matter how far civilization has pulled them out. In trading comfort and conformity for solitude and wilderness, they renounce what they perceive to be unnatural societal conventions and embrace nature itself—an uneasy bargain surprisingly common to every time and place.

Chinese artworks celebrate scholarly recluses, touting their seclusion as a sign of intellectual rigor and Taoist dedication. Ancient Hindu texts call for men to live in the forest during their third stage of life, and to become renunciants—rejecting all earthly pleasures—in their fourth and final stage. Christian tradition similarly venerates saints, hermits, and ascetics who led solitary lives in nature. Alec Soth, the Minnesota-based photographer, has investigated contemporary hermits who go “off the grid” in a fantasy of living beyond the reach of government.

The artworks in this gallery, touching on each of these traditions, together encapsulate something ineffable—the unquenchable human thirst for enlightenment within nature.

Roberta Bartoli, John E. Andrus III Curatorial Fellow

Kenneth Krenz, Associate Registrar, Permanent Collection

Risha Lee, Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art