Editor's note: The following essays were rekeyed and reprinted on April 20, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of Carel Brest van Kempen and Dr. David J. Wagner. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, please contact Dr. Wagner at (414) 221-6878 or davidjwagnerllc@yahoo.com and contact Carel Brest van Kempen via www.cpbrestvankempen.com/


Affecting Nature

by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

Excerpted from Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding


...Los Angeles breathes its last gas

and sinks into the sea like the Titanic all lights lit

Nine minutes later Willa Cather's Nebraska

Sinks with it

The sea comes over in Utah

Mormon tabernacles washed away like barnacles

Coyotes are confounded & swim nowhere...

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Last week the iron core of an ancient star collapsed, triggering an explosion that releases more energy with each millisecond than our solar system's seen since the Middle Ages. An instantaneous expulsion of superheated plasma disintegrated all matter in the relevant vicinity: a disaster against which anything our puny planet has experienced pales pathetically. It's impossible for me to imagine an event of such magnitude, so I won't try. I don't have to; its effects will never be perceptible from this galaxy. Besides, I have cataclysms of my own to contend with.

One of them occurred at the instant of the supernova. It began with the sound of a doorbell. My friend Lars stood at the stoop with an early draft of this text I had asked him to critique. On the way over he had stopped at a pet shop to buy one of those parakeet cuttlebones with a little bell on it. Handing me my manuscript, then the cuttlebone, he said, "Here's something for you to clip onto your mirror. As long as you're spending so much time looking at yourself you might as well have some fun."

A clever literary jab, right up there with Truman Capote's summary of Kerouac: "That's not writing, that's typing." The sting of both quips lay in their accuracy. But I question the fairness of criticizing my navel-gazing; that's really the job of an artist. The old stereotype of the inconsiderate, manipulative painter rests on volumes of fact. We spend our working lives wallowing in self-obsession. Our paintings say very little about their subjects. They're all about their creators.

For me those subjects are wild animals: the oldest and best-worn artistic path of them all. The body of work contained within this book is by no means a representation of the natural world, but of the relationship between that natural world and a single somewhat peculiar little man, of his response to that natural world as an artist, an American, a human, a mammal.

It is not surprising that the first Cro-Magnon artists painted animals. The first creative reasoning that hominids engaged in was in tracking and hunting prey. To be a predator is to be a naturalist. Inferring the presence of prey through tracks, scats and other signs, then predicting its behavior and imagining one's self in time and space in various hunting situations, these activities are all within the realm of the artistic mind. It is no accident that wildlife art has always been closely associated with hunting.

For thirty thousand years artists blended human elements with the non-human. Active participants in their own ecology, they bestowed religious significance upon the creatures around them, which stood as metaphors and models for their own endeavors. The French anthropologist Claud Levi-Strauss called it totemism.

The hunter-gatherers settled. They planted crops and built cities, built walls between themselves and their ecology. A Neolithic renaissance, an explosion that sent our species careening in Diaspora across the surface of the planet, leaving in its re-engineered wake a faithful chronicle, painted and sculpted, of its changing relationship with nature.

The old totemic gods were abandoned in favor of a succession of trendier ones, but all gods are needy. Vishnu, Zeus, Jahweh, their images revealing in their portraitists an increasing separation from the rest of nature. The latest fad goddess is the hungriest of them all, the great Keynesian lamia to whose alter we wheel barrow-loads of alms. Every aspect of our lives is colored by our devotion to her, as her expanding corpulence spreads across the countryside. "It's the economy, stupid!" A sedulous anthill toils obsessively at feeding herm and the landscape crumples beneath her trembling white ass.

During the rocket sled ride of the twentieth century we clung on gleefully without looking back. Determined to increase our standard of living, while ignoring our standard of life. Like the villagers in the Tupi Indian story, visited by a sorcerer who carves magical monkeys to gather fruits for them from the jungle. The villagers ask for more monkeys to help with the hunting. Unsatisfied, they ask for more, to fetch water and repair their roofs. At the end of the story the people lie in hammocks while the monkeys run everything, but when the sun shines in their eyes they are too lazy to turn their heads, and ask for more monkeys to shade their eyes.

Our divorce from our own ecology has continued apace. We've walled out the cold winter wind and bricked up the windows of the slaughterhouse, living as zoo animals, dependent on our keepers, only vaguely aware of the structures that support us. A philosophical retreat from nature has mirrored our physical retreat. The very word "nature," describing the non-anthropoid, defines that philosophy. Demagogic behaviorist segregate human motivation from non-human, while glad-handing ethicists refute our hunter hearts and creationist phylogenists suspend us in isolation from an intelligently-designed family tree. These changes, each one of them, are reflected in the art of the day.

As our routine awareness of the natural world diminishes, our effect on it increases. Sixty-five million years ago a comet went into the Caribbean, raising a cloud of dust that blocked the sun's rays for years before settling to the earth, a coating of smut still perceptible today as the iridium-rich geological boundary between Cretaceous and Tertiary layers. This event is popularly seen as the coup de grace that killed the dinosaurs, and that is likely the case, but things were very wrong before that celestial mortar ever thought about heading this way.

The Maastrichtian Age (the final nine million years of the Cretaceous Period) was a singularly uninteresting time. The diversity that had characterized most of the previous 170 million years had suddenly degenerated. Most good fossil sites from that age are dominated by one or two extremely successful species, often a duckbill or horned dinosaur. Every sixty-five million years or so have seen similar mass-extinctions (do the math), each one preceded by a plunge in diversity and domination by a few super-successful species, each one a marker of the evolutionary model of Gould and Eldridge, Punctuated Equilibrium, where long periods of stasis are interrupted by bursts of massive change.

I worked for a while at La Selva biological station in Costa Rica. A few yards from my cabin, the corpse of a huge Hymenolobium tree sprawled across the jungle, its roots pointing skyward, higher than the tallest scrub oaks of my native Utah. A decade earlier this tree had been host to hundreds of species of epiphytic plants and animals. When it toppled it took with it this entire little ecosystem, along with a number of neighboring trees, leaving a stark gap of death. By the time of my stay, this gap was replaced with spectacular Heliconia flowers, supple Laetia saplings and Dr. Seussish Cecropia trees, light-loving pioneers exploiting the tiny catastrophe.

Such is the way of our planet. Life is its natural state, life unyielding. The Maastrichtian extinctions opened up the way for the Tertiary explosion of mammal diversity, and the current punctuation we ride today is but another geological burp. For those of us with a deep love of nature, it's hard not to feel like the world is going to hell in a jet-propelled hand basket, but earth's biota will surely be rich and spectacular two million years from now, though I can't feel the same optimism for the planet in two centuries.

Pieces of nature will always find a way to squeeze, octopus-like, through the cracks. I live in the Salt Lake Valley, where numerous creeks drain the surrounding mountains into a bowl-shaped still. As a growing metropolis confiscated the basin, these creeks have been contained in subterranean arteries. This morning I sat beside a 30-yard stretch of sun-exposed creek between culverts. For two weeks each May Utah Suckers (Catostomus ardens) swim through miles of dark concrete caverns to this spot, their spawning grounds. At the peak of the spawn the fish are stacked like sardines, all pointed upstream, more saddled backs visible than streambed. Each female is attended by two or three males, their gold and pink nuptial colors flashing through the surface as they position themselves to fertilize her eggs.

I imagine this spot seven centuries ago. The gym, the gas station and fast food joint are gone, only sage and rabbit brush claim their position. The elms on the bank are replaced by native maples and cottonwoods. I imagine Fremont Indians making a pilgrimage each spring to exploit the piscine bounty. I feel compelled to return to the site each year myself, but it's a different kind of sustenance I receive.

As heartbreaking as it is to watch the current wave of devastation, its hard for me to avoid an existentialist view of it. Our only reasons for trying to postpone the inevitable are selfish, anthropocentric ones, but that makes them all the more compelling. A diverse natural world is crucial to our mental and physical welfare, although it is easy to see nothing but danger and antagonism there, and, like surly adolescents resentful of their parents, we often make that mistake. Whether or not it's visible to us, our lives are dovetailed into the vibrating matrix of nature. Each component of that matrix sends tiny ripples throughout. Those broadcast by a species as chronically successful as our own more closely resemble ruinous tidal waves, triggered by every activity, be it logging, snowmobiling, or painting wild animals. To plot our course with insight, we should strive for an ecological re-engagement, and a public dialog is imperative. This is where the artists can do a bit of good. We leave the solutions to the engineers and philosophers. Trying to present answers invariably results in bad art; our role is to pose questions.

Unfortunately, wildlife art is too popular for its own good at the moment, and most of us are too busy fumbling for that public pulse to engage in any sort of intentional discourse. The current voice too often reiterates the same evocations: the bison of Yellowstone, the elephants of Kruger, the very slices of nature that will be the last fell the wheels of the juggernaut. In a genre so thematically rich, such perseveration seems a shame. In its homogeneity, wildlife art is a poor representation of wildlife. But of course it's not the natural world that it reflects, but its own practitioners -- us, our myths and prejudices. The emergence of a rich and multifarious wildlife art canon will be an indication that a pivotal and salubrious cultural shift has begun. It will hail a new ethos that will allow us once again to embrace our own ecology, a return to Eden.



(above: Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, Biodiversity in Wildlife Art Title Panel)


(above: Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, Convoy Through the Canopy--de Brazza's Monkeys, triptych)


To view additional images of paintings by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, please click here.



By David J. Wagner, Ph. D.

Excerpted from Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding


The world is filled with artists who aspire to faithfully render nature into art. But they are either misguided or uninformed, and certainly deluded. An artist cannot transcribe what he sees in nature into art; he can only translate it through his medium. As the eminent aesthetician, E.H. Gombrich wrote, " . . . the correct portrait, like the useful map, is an end product on a long road through scheme and correction. It is not a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model."
Several other insights from Gombrich serve well to set the stage for a book about the art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen. Of conception and perception, Gombrich wrote, " . . . all art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself, and it is precisely because all art is 'conceptual' that all representations are recognizable by their style." Of style, Gombrich said, "Styles, like languages, differ in the sequence of articulation and in the number of questions they allow the artist to ask; and so complex is the information that reaches us from the visible world that no picture will ever embody it all. That is not due to the subjectivity of vision but to its richness."
Since wildlife is central to the imagery that Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen paints, he is generally thought of as a "wildlife artist." But this is not how I think of him, nor how I think he should be remembered. I think of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen as a wildlife artist with imagination. In the world of wildlife art, this is no small distinction. Because most wildlife artists aspire to faithfully render nature into art, they suffer from a corollary that is equally false: in order to render nature into art, a painter must paint every minute detail to perfection. For many wildlife artists today, this is pursued through heavy reliance on reference photography. While it is impossible, as Gombrich said, to render nature into art, it is possible to construct a relational model through whatever style an artist chooses. Like many of his colleagues, Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen chooses to paint in a detailed, representational style, but that's where the similarity ends.


Because Brest van Kempen is a thinker at heart, he begins his creative process where he should, at the beginning, by using his imagination to conceptualize a painting before he ever puts pencil to paper. To transform his concept into composition and design, he works his ideas out through preliminary sketches. After he is satisfied with his concept and design, only then does he embark on the final painting. Throughout the process, Brest van Kempen employs a rich vocabulary of principles, to arrange elements in ways that give him his own distinctive, individual style. In composition and design, elements (e.g., color, value, line, texture, shape, and space) are like building blocks, while principles (e.g., balance, dominance, economy, emphasis, variety, gradation, movement, harmony, rhythm, proportion, space, variety) are like tools that artists use to assemble elements. Whereas the number of elements and principles in art is constant, the number of ways to combine them is infinite. This is important because it permits individual painters to express themselves in their own style. Brest van Kempen typically achieves his style by emphasizing elements such as line, color, space, and point of view.

Because Brest van Kempen works from nature, and nature is a miracle of infinite proportion, another important part of Brest van Kempen's process is a constant push for new knowledge. About the ecology of his paintings, Brest van Kempen has said, "I'm really interested in what animals look like, but I'm much more fascinated by the way that appearance functions as those animals interact with one another and with their environment. Ecology is the motivating force not only of evolution, but of my artwork." Brest van Kempen's reaction to the world around him, rather than a desire to faithfully render nature into art, and his ability to embody his imaginative concepts through well-honed technique, are hallmarks of his paintings.

Whereas these hallmarks are a giveaway for personality characteristics such as an unquenchable imagination and an insatiable need to know and understand nature, the degree to which Brest van Kempen relies on sheer talent versus tenacious hard work, is less clear. His art seems so effortless, but its richness and depth makes one wonder just how effortless it is.

In addition to imagination, there is something else about his paintings that elevates them a cut above the rest. What could that be? I think it is the pure and simple joy that comes from relishing the work that he does as an imaginative wildlife artist. In each of his paintings, there is an undercurrent of joy. Often this can be seen in the subjects he selects. Brest van Kempen's subjects do not often include cliché glamour species like those painted ad infinitum by other artists; rather, they comprise under-represented species which give real meaning to the term, biodiversity. To make my point, here are but a few titles from the Brest van Kempen one-man show that I had the privilege to curate at The Wildlife Experience in Denver: Bat Falcon & Golden Free-tailed Bat, Meller's Chameleon & Leaf-toed Gecko, Gripping Tail - Yellow Baboon & White-Throated Monitor, Hippopotamus & Nile Softshell Turtles, Manned Wolves & Three-banded Armadillo, Reticulated Python and Masked Finfoot, and his masterful triptych, Convoy Through the Canopy - de Brazza's Monkeys. Such titles would make any wildlife art aficionado smile. They also underscore my point, which is, no other wildlife artist that I know, consistently takes the kinds of creative risks that Brest van Kempen takes in his selection of subjects and activities.

Unfortunately, Brest van Kempen's creative decisions generate a symbiotic, challenging economic quid pro quo. While his selection of subjects enable him to stay true to his ideals, they definitely run counter to popular demand. To compete and make money in the art business, the vast majority of wildlife painters paint in-demand subjects, which, with repetition, become clichés. Fortunately, there are still some collectors who understand and value true creativity.

Another manifestation of joy in the paintings of Brest van Kempen is the relationship in which he places the viewer to his subjects, or, in other words, perspective. I can think of no wildlife artist who has produced a body of work that consistently affords viewers with richer perspectives than Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen. His creative and engaging perspective is yet another hallmark of his unique style.

Brest van Kempen's perspective, combined with his virtuosic technique and tantalizing imagination, give his paintings a richness and depth that is rare in the world of wildlife art. For aestheticians or art historians like me, these characteristics are critical for assessing art. Depth, after all, is what keeps viewers coming back and interested in more. Richness and depth are the secrets to great art. They are what makes art endure.


REFERENCE: E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Princeton University Press, 1960.


About David J. Wagner, Ph.D.

Dr. David J. Wagner is a leading American wildlife art scholar and museum professional. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on wildlife art history, taught museum studies at several colleges and universities, and served as a museum director for twenty years. Today he works independently as Tour Director for the Society of Animal Artists, a world-wide organization headquartered in New York, and regularly features paintings by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen in its traveling exhibition, ART AND THE ANIMAL. Also a free-lance curator, Wagner curated and premiered WILDLIFE ART BIO-DIVERSITY: THE ART OF CAREL PIETER BREST van KEMPEN, at The Wildlife Experience in Denver. In addition, David Wagner has organized and conducted seminars featuring Brest van Kempen at Lawrence University's Björklunden Campus in Wisconsin, The West Valley Art Museum in Phoenix, and the Utah Museum of Natural History at The University of Utah.


About Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding is available from Eagle Mountain Publishing, L.L.C.; 304 pages. See www.rigorvitae.net/ for more information on the book.


About the exhibition Biodiversity in Wildlife Art: Paintings by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

Biodiversity in Wildlife Art: Paintings by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen is a traveling exhibition produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C. Dr. Wagner is the Curator and Tour Director for the exhibition.

Tour venues include:

A painter of Dutch descent, Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen is widely acclaimed as a painter of extraordinarily detail who explores the rich diversity of the natural world from exceptionally unique perspectives. The artist's self-stated goal is to say as much as he can about how organisms live and interact with other organisms and their environments. Brest van Kempen paints from first-hand experience and knowledge. He has traveled across Africa and Central and South America, and studied both threatened and extinct species and their ecosystems in detail.

Brest van Kempen's paintings are driven by an insatiable need to create, and to know and understand nature. They reveal an imagination of limitless proportion. In addition, there is something else about his paintings that elevates them a cut above the rest ­ that is, the pure and simple joy that comes from a truly imaginative creative process. In every Brest van Kempen painting, there is an undercurrent of joy. Often this can be seen in the subjects he selects. Brest van Kempen's subjects do not include clichés like those painted ad infinitum by ordinary wildlife artists; rather, Brest van Kempen's paintings are populated by under-represented species which give real meaning to the phrase, biodiversity. To underscore and appreciate this point, consider if you will just a handful of titles of paintings previously include-ed in this exhibition: Bat Falcon & Golden Free-Tailed Bat, Meller's Chameleon & Leaf-Toed Gecko, Gripping Tail - Yellow Baboon & White-Throated Monitor, Hippopotamus & Nile Softshell Turtles, Maned Wolves & Three-Banded Armadillo, Reticulated Python and Masked Finfoot, Convoy Through the Canopy - de Brazza's Monkeys. The point is, no other wildlife artist consistently takes the creative risks that Brest van Kempen takes in his selection of subjects. Another manifestation of joy in the paintings of Brest van Kempen is the relationship in which he places the viewer to his subjects, or, in other words, perspective. There is simply no other wildlife artist who has produced a body of work that consistently affords viewers with richer perspectives than Brest van Kempen. This aspect of his unique style, combined with virtuosic technique and, most importantly, vivid imagination, imbue paintings by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen with a richness and a depth that is rare in the world of natural history art.

Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen has been a student of nature since he was a child. He spent his youth exploring untracked back country along the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, drawing, studying, and collecting native flora and fauna. As a boy, Brest van Kempen practiced falconry and bred lizards. He began drawing wildlife when he was only three years old and created his first painting at the age of twelve. At the University of Utah, his studies focused on biology, which he hoped to teach, and field work. By 1988, his interests in art and nature matured to the point where he could pursue a full-time career painting. Though Brest van Kempen is among the most highly accomplished technicians in the entire art world, and among the most creative, he is essentially self-taught. Brest van Kempen paints in a highly realistic manner. Unique in the world of wildlife art, Brest van Kempen's approach is reminiscent of the art of Salvador Dali, which has always fascinated him. Thus, it bears repeating that there is no other wildlife artist quite like Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen; his approach and style are truly unique.

- David J. Wagner, Ph.D., Curator/Tour Director

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essays were rekeyed and reprinted on April 20, 2009 in Resource Library. Permissions of Carel Brest van Kempen and Dr. David J. Wagner to reprint the essays were granted to Resource Library on April 12, 2009. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, please contact Dr. Wagner at (414) 221-6878 or davidjwagnerllc@yahoo.com and contact Carel Brest van Kempen via www.cpbrestvankempen.com/

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. David J. Wagner, for his help concerning permission for reprinting the above essay by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen.

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