Early humans in France and Spain used bumps and crevasses in limestone caves to suggest a bison's haunch or the curve of a horse's neck. Two millennia later, Leonardo da Vinci depicted precise geological formations such as fault lines, sediment layers and bedrock.
Vatche Tchakerian, Geography professor and head of the department, investigates this connection between artist and landscape in his First-Year Seminar course, Earth Art: Geosciences and the Arts. "We explore how geography, geomorphology, geology and the environment are represented in the major art movements from prehistory to today," Tchakerian says. "We look at paintings, for example, to identify what kind of geosciences information can we identify. Are they accurate? What does the information convey to the viewer?"
In one exercise students trace the major landscape features in Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert (1480–85) and identify features such as a cliff face, ravine, flood plain, weathering, sedimentary rocks, rock varnish, and other geomorphological elements.
"After taking the course, I want my students throughout their lives to go to museums, to look at paintings with a new perspective." And in turn he wants this course to train geosciences students to examine their environment with the insight of an artist's eye. "I want to help future scientists to become more perceptive, more aware of the details around them."
Geography professor Vatche Tchakerian is using examples from his own extensive collection of albums to research his next book on the influence of landscape in music. For a geoscientist, Tchakerian says, one of the highlights in art history has to be the late 18th and 19th centuries. The 'new' science of geology and Darwin's theories on the origin and evolution of life coincide in time with the landscape painters of Great Britain, he says. "Art reflected the amazing scientific discoveries at that time." The Hudson School in the United States also emerged, succeeded by the modern perspective of landscape found in the works of painters like Georgia O'Keefe and David Hockney and contemporary works like Robert Smithson's giant earthwork, Spiral Jetty.
"The link between geosciences and art constantly reflect each other," he says. Google Earth artists, for example, use satellite imagery to create landscape paintings that range from pictorial to expressionistic. "A famous example is Angry Tundra. The painting depicts the Siberian tundra melting and releasing methane gas, which is also evident in the real-time satellite image."
Replica of the painting from the Chauvet cave, in the Anthropos museum, Brno. The original art is approximately 31,000 years old.In addition to Tchakerian's enthusiasm for the geosciences and landscape art, he also explores its connection with music. He is writing a book, Landscape and Music: The Geographical Imagination in Classical Music from the Renaissance to the Present, which explores how composers portrayed landscape in music, identifying and cataloguing close to 450 compositions. "I expect the data to be of great use to orchestra managers and conductors, as well as geographers," he says.
Although trained as a geologist and physical geographer—he has joint appointments in the departments of Geography and of Geology and Geophysics—Tchakerian has always been interested in the arts. "I came from a family that valued classical music," he says of his Lebanese-Armenian roots, "and I grew up listening and studying music". For 12 years, he hosted a radio show, Musical Horizons, on the local KAMU-FM station. "In addition to playing the music, I would discuss the composer's lives, what influenced them, what they may have imagined."
And that is the ultimate goal for his freshman seminar class, he says. "I want to cultivate their sense of perception, that spark that helps them make essential connections.
"Human imagination is endless. I want students to recognize that."
Department Head and Professor, Geography
Professor Geology and Geophysics