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Representing geodiversity: Between art, sciences and geographical imagination.
An introduction

Claire Portal et François Bétard
p. 141-149
Cet article est une traduction de :
La géodiversité représentée. Entre art, sciences et imaginaires géographiques.
Une introduction

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1The place and role of images in geography and geoscience are a recurring theme of reflection, examined by the epistemologists of the discipline (e.g., Robic, 2006; Giusti, 2014; Berloulay et al., 2015) and by researchers for whom they are key to their approach (from remote sensing to electron microscopy – Robin, 2002; Sellier and Stephant, 2017 – and to iconographic analysis – Berdoulay and Saule-Sorbé, 1999) and scientists who consider it in a reflexive way (e.g., Lussault, 2003). The image is both a documentary source and a “field” of investigation: as such, it constitutes a key driver for disseminating geoscientific knowledge, constantly brought into question by the development of digital technologies (e.g., Trouillard and Robida, 2007). Its ambivalent role opposes scientific reality (“accuracy”) and the interpretation associated with pictorial representations (“illusion”). Yet, images occupy a heuristic position at the interface between art and science, crossing the scholarly or scientific view, the collective view of territories and, for the artist, the sensitive view of reality that could originate new spaces (Blanc and Regnault, 2015).

2These two approaches are often hybridized in analytical methods and associated data, in the context of a focused analysis having a heritage dimension (e.g., Cayla et al., 2012; Portal, 2014; Bétard, 2017; De Matos-Machado, 2018). The eight papers of this thematic issue aim to enable dialogue between these two aspects – scientific objectification and artistic representation – to understand and illustrate the different approaches associated with representing geodiversity. Each of the contributions falls into one of these two themes, generally by developing a dominant approach. Nevertheless, all of them are also at the interface between these two themes.

2. Geodiversity, geosciences and representations

3This first theme is part of a “realistic” approach when studying geodiversity through highly advanced instrumentation, which measures and quantifies, to “reveal reliable information about reality” (Broc and Giusti, 2007). In this thematic issue, geodiversity refers to the variability of abiotic nature, i.e. the diversity of geological (rocks, minerals, fossils), geomorphological (landforms, processes), soil and hydrological features, including their assemblages, structures, systems and contributions to landscapes (Gray, 2013; Bétard, 2017).

4This first approach mainly focuses on physical processes and landscape dynamics, with direct or indirect practical applications in the field of technological and digital developments (e.g., remote sensing, GIS, LiDAR, 3D/4D representations). The applications can also be declined in didactic form whose roots are often part of artistic representations associated with the discovery, in the 19th century, of the role of erosion in landform development (Nardy, 1982). From 1788, J. Hutton painted a situation of geological unconformity (Jedburgh, Scotland), marking the birth of structural geomorphology; cross-sections, perspective drawings and block diagrams drawn by E. De Martonne have trained graphic practices of generations of geographers; at the same time, the many photographs published as a result of the Major Powell’s explorations of the Colorado River (Powel’s diary, 1874) and the landforms drawn by G.O. de La Noë and E. de Margerie (1888) emphasize erosional processes while popularizing geoscientific knowledge; finally, the cartographic representation of topography was based on the invention of perspective drawing in the 14th century followed by the use of chiaroscuro, and is reflected by the fading effects and the contour lines used on modern topographic maps (de Dainville, 1964).

5There is no doubt that the dissemination of geoscientific information is mutually inspired by the respective discoveries of the arts and science. Thus, the photograph “constitutes a precious, strict and reliable medium which makes possible to grasp visually (and no longer graphically) the evolution of a morphogenic process by fixing its dynamics at a precise moment” (Métailié, 1997). It is also an appropriate medium for the illustration, analysis and dissemination of images of study sites, some of which become tourist attractions (postcards).

6Many of the articles presented in this special issue give a key place to scientific representations involving diverse image acquisition techniques (photographic, remotely sensed) and various representation methods (maps and sketch diagrams, block diagrams, stereograms, digital elevation models, etc.). The article by Bétard and Peulvast explores extraterrestrial geodiversity (or exogeodiversity), from the first lunar maps to modern satellite imagery and artists’ impressions of Mars and Titan, opening the way for virtual geotourism applications. The article by Giusti traces the scientific progress and geomorphological reasoning of Grove Karl Gilbert through his study of the Henry Mountains: the related monograph, published in 1877, offers a remarkable illustration of geodiversity, both structural and functional. In their article on the representations of endokarst, Jaillet et al. immerse the reader into the underworld of caves and cavities, from J.-M. Chauvet’s first sketch diagram of the eponymous cave to modern 3D representations (laser- and photogrammetry). Finally, the article by Le Coeur proposes a history of representations of some major geomorphosites from the United Kingdom and Ireland. The study underlines the simultaneous interactions between scientific studies and scenic tourism: in the sites analysed by the author, the approaches are complementary and are both involved in the progress of scientific knowledge and in the (over)frequentation of some of these sites.

3. Geodiversity, arts and landscapes

7The second theme mobilizes a more “relativistic” perception. It encompasses the whole of the 20th century with the development of a cultural approach of elements related to physical geography. A cultural geo-climatology was developed with, for example, the benchmark works of Le Roy Ladurie (2004, 2006, 2009), Peyrusaubes (2009), Metzger and Tabeaud (2016). A cultural geomorphology has emerged as a subdiscipline that studies the geomorphological component of a territory through its cultural features and its interactions with heritage elements and landscapes (e.g., Panizza & Piacente, 2003; Portal, 2014; Bétard, 2017; Motte, 2017). In this context, geodiversity is captured by human and social sciences and can be studied as a component of the physical environment with specific social perceptions, uses and representations (Gordon, 2012; Fort and André, 2014).

8The cultural dimension is predominant and the pictorial representation constitutes one of the major tools to understand the evolution of our perception of the abiotic environment. Starting as early as the beginning of the 19th century, the components of geodiversity became a landscape motif studied for itself, first in painting: Schama (1999) and Laneyrie-Dagen (2008) showed that the “rock”, the “earth”, the “ground” or the “architectural landforms” are essential elements in the pictorial representation of landscapes and are used for very specific purposes in the composition of paintings. The landscape approach questions the place of bedrock – natural or artificial – in the landscape project (Davodeau, 2008) such as the planning and management of parks and gardens (Portal and Kerguillec, 2018); J. Verne caves are transformed into theatre scenery for visitors (Duval, 2007). Represented by drawing and painting, the abiotic environment also exists in the cinema, on television, in literature (illustrated stories and legends, children’s literature, comics), in advertising, in travel catalogues, etc. It contributes to the creation of geographical imagination, often fictitious, sometimes utopian, but with a meaning that is specifically questioned in this thematic issue (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Geodiversity and art.
Fig. 1 – Géodiversités artialisées.

Fig. 1 – Geodiversity and art.   Fig. 1 – Géodiversités artialisées.

A: Panels of the exhibition Inhabitants of the Monts d’Arrée: Get ready (Ecomuseum of the Monts d’Arrée), Brittany, 2017. This exhibition proposes to tell the emergence of the mountain identity of the territory through the works of geographers, artists and tourist promoters throughout the 20th century. It also gives voices to the inhabitants who have drawn their “subjective map” of the Monts d'Arrée; B: Romain Rambaud, Assistes, Dolerite stone, Handle, Exhibition “Wake me up”, Nantes city Visual art prize, Chateaubriand Studio, Nantes, 2017.
A : Panneaux de l’exposition Habitants : à vos Monts d’Arrée (Écomusée de Monts d’Arrée), Bretagne, 2017. Cette exposition propose de retracer l’émergence de l’identité « montagnarde » du territoire à travers les travaux des géographes, des artistes et l’action des promoteurs touristiques au cours du XXe siècle. Elle donne aussi la parole aux habitants qui ont dessiné leur carte subjective des Monts d’Arrée ; B : Romain Rambaud, Assistes, pierres de dolérite, poignée, Exposition Réveille moi, Prix des Arts visuels de la ville de Nantes, Atelier Chateaubriand, Nantes, 2017.

9Through the study of paintings and engravings of the Chamonix valley and the Mont Blanc massif, the article by Moutard recalls the importance of pictorial representations as a tool for reconstituting geomorphic environments, especially when they tend to evolve very quickly: this is the case with the rapid transformation of glacial landscapes in relation to climate change. These artistic testimonies contribute to the reconstitution of past landscapes without which geohistorical information would be incomplete. The article by Hubert et al. mobilizes photographs via a collection of old postcards: the study shows that through the promotion of an Olympic event (Olympic Games of 1968), the representation of the regional geodiversity of Grenoble can be totally biased, with urban geodiversity rendered practically invisible and an overrepresented surrounding mountain environment. This generates a geographical gap which the authors here unveil. By focusing on the comic strip as an iconographic medium, the article by Portal proposes a typology of the drawn geodiversity and shows how it participates to the aesthetic and atmosphere of panels and plates; more than a simple scenery in comics, it can also be an agent in the construction of the narrative. Finally, the article by Guyot focuses on the links between site-specific art and geodiversity: it examines the artistic creations used in four UNESCO global geoparks, before or after their denomination. It shows that beyond their visual aspects that are integrated into the landscapes, these works are also tools for territorial marketing as well as subjects of debate between the local authorities and the inhabitants.

4. Synthesis and outlook

4.1. Accessibility: seeing, interpreting and revealing geodiversity

10The contributions of this issue, each in their own way, question the notion of accessibility: the problem of physical access (particularly in the case of underground and extraterrestrial geodiversities), but also – and more broadly – access to scientific information. This requires a scientific interpretation that explains what is seen. Who interprets – and represents – and therefore makes this information accessible? Who are these representations intended for? Scientific iconography is essential to the understanding of geodiversity and contributes to the transmission of geoscientific knowledge to a well-informed public (students, scientists). However, the existence of site-specific artworks, artistic creations in studios, illustrated literature (e.g., book illustrations, comics) or cinematographic productions, have other audiences: the artists themselves, the sponsors and institutional partners, visitors, spectators, readers… These audiences access a “stylised” geodiversity that is not necessarily scientifically interpreted. In this context, the question is how to link the represented geodiversity to these different audiences?

11Depending on the interpretation, representations of geodiversity may be viewed as a medium, i.e. a transitional object that connects the artist to their audience, and whose multiple formats allow scientific and educational exploitation. In other words, this represented geodiversity is a key link revealing something that is not necessarily perceived by the public (Cayla et al., 2012): it can be scientific information that brings to light a geodiversity physically inaccessible or just overlooked. These lesser-known spaces finally create dialogue interfaces, both between “natural” geodiversity and “cultural” geodiversity, and between artists and their audiences. Art and scientific interpretation can also relate to one another: the question of the didactic discourse is then fundamental in demonstrating the complementarity and multiplicity of approaches. The importance of the relationship between science and the arts on the one hand, and between the construction of knowledge and its transmission on the other hand, record the representations of geodiversity in a multi-faceted historic sense.

4.2. Historicity of geodiversity: from representations to heritage studies

12This thematic issue refers to the linkage of geodiversity with the history of science and the history of art, both in their related advances and in the methods and techniques of representations. The joint contribution of science and technology to the progress of knowledge in geodiversity allows better observation, a greater precision in representations, and an interpretation that may evolve towards a “scientific truth” – if it exists. All these techniques of representation in geodiversity, either iconographic or plastic, are part of disciplinary histories – e.g., in the field of space exploration, literature, arts and technologies – in their respective times. In many cases, these materials are also precious testimonies of past environmental histories: such archives, often conserved in museums and/or in private collections, allow the reconstitution of heritage and landscape trajectories with good accuracy (Portal 2014; Motte 2018).

13In this context, iconographic representations belong to the scientific heritage. They can be integrated in a geohistorical approach with the aim of “showing the permanence, inertia or trajectories imposed by spatial configurations in order to reconstruct a history up to the present day” (Jacob, 2009, p. 211). In the context of dynamic environments, the various iconographies are documents that make possible to identify the marks of missing elements, in a general attempt to reconstruct a landscape geohistory (i.e., glacier fluctuation, fluvial and coastal landform evolution). The challenge is the same when using artistic works whose creations are more or less ephemeral. In both cases, the main issue is to preserve the marks of what existed, both for the reconstruction of past environments and for the future transmission of these images endowed with a heritage dimension. However, art, science and geodiversity have not always been bedfellows: “in the years 1850-1860, the scientific self was perceived as diametrically opposed to the artistic self, and the scientific images were opposed to the artistic ones” (Daston and Galison 2012, p. 49). The history of geodiversity is not only based on material or tangible facts: it also has a symbolic dimension, belonging to the imagination and emotion by people who watch, interpret and feel their physical environment.

4.3. Raising the question of objectivity

14Geodiversity does not have only one material meaning: it also has a represented meaning that tells a story, either symbolic or aesthetic, relevant to imagination. To this end, it is classically opposed to scientific objectivity, the meaning of which has been constructed according to undeniable facts whose interpretation contributes to the mechanics or fabrication of images (Daston and Galison 2012, p. 422). Scientific ways of seeing are the meeting point between body and mind, pedagogy and research (ibid., p. 423). The question of realism in relation to what is seen, both for the scientist and for the phenomenological dimension, is reconsidered in terms of interpretation. On one hand, the produced images do not change but their interpretation may vary over time according to scientific and technological advances and the evolution of aesthetic patterns. On the other hand, this interpretation also depends on who decrypts the image: the conceptual framework and the scales of analysis are different for the images and artworks, when carried out by scientists or by artists.

15As Regnault and Lefort (2015, p.8) pointed out, “the issue is to know and to feel, with a notion of pleasure linked to the image as a graphic object and not just to the revelation of the Idea”. The iconography is finally composed of graphic models close to the representation of a scientific reality, which “internalizes the scientific attitude in the mind, the body, the field practice of [geoscientists]” (ibid.). In any case, the “symbolic twofold” is neither objective, nor are the scientific productions (see the “subobjectivity” of Daston and Galison, 2012). Considering the different views and perceptions on an abiotic element, an infinite possibility of interpretations is offered and it potentially concerns a large number of audiences. The dialogue of art towards science (scientisation) – just as science can turn to artistic interpretation – questions the boundaries of geodiversity in an epistemic way.

4.4. Exploring the boundaries of geodiversity

16In the huge artistic corpus of represented geodiversity, where do we stop? In other words, where are the boundaries delimiting the epistemic field of geodiversity? This questioning raises a debate on whether or not geodiversity is an exclusively academic object of study in the field of geosciences. The interweaving of the two aspects – art and science – introduces moving boundaries, which are not always the same for everyone. A switchover then takes place: more than a divergence of interpretations, it questions the origins of geodiversity:

  • Geodiversity is “natural”, i.e. it exists without human intervention (see the conventional definition of geodiversity by Gray, 2013).

  • Geodiversity is artificial, i.e. it depends on human activities. Societies – then and now – act as erosional agents: excavation landforms (mines, quarries), constructed landforms (polders), landscaping (parks and gardens), artistic creations (land art, site-specific artworks) and archaeological remains (feudal mounds, shell craters, etc.) structure and modify areas, creating new or original landscapes (Goudie and Viles, 2016). Materials from artificial deposits (i.e. embankments) constitute anthropogenic geological layers, placing artificial geodiversity in the debates on the Anthropocene (Portal, 2018).

  • Geodiversity is artialized (Roger, 1997) when it is represented (drawn, photographed, painted, etc.), whether it results from a scientific study or a process of artistic creation (i.e., theatre or movie sets). It can also be the work itself. The artist can use “natural” materials (from Palaeolithic parietal art to contemporary site-specific art) or mobilize other resources (artificial materials, digital resources).

17As written by Blanc and Regnault (2015), “the geographer and the visual artist are a bit like manual workers who refine their skills as they work, who increase their dexterity with experience in the field” (p. 101). Their creations are part of a system of exchange between scientific works and public knowledge, where iconographic and artistic representations can be a medium of fiction such as, for example, sensitive maps. Geodiversity is thus a combination of scientifically objectified reality and fictitious elements whose representations have a value, whether they are produced from reality or partially/totally invented or created. In any case, this abiotic nature is diverse and in its multiple forms, each geodiversity is two-sided, it is represented and perceived.

5. Conclusion

18Most of the articles collected in this special issue are presented by their authors as exploratory studies. “Represented geodiversity” is a new field of research at the interface between scientific investigations and artistic practices. The four lines of investigation evoked by the eight articles (accessibility, historicity, objectivity, limits: fig. 2) are not exclusive and deserve further development that the reader will discover through the different contributions. This thematic issue deals with art and geodiversity: to the triptych of Berdoulay et al. (2015) “to show, to sketch, to contemplate”, each article adds the component “to imagine”. They go beyond the image and open the way to geographical imagination. As suggested by Ingold (2017), a work of art should be considered as the result of research rather than a subject of study. The research developed here shows that both seem possible: geodiversity is both a subject and a plural, polymorphic research object, in its real entities as well as in its various representations.

Fig. 2 – Representing geodiversity: synthesis and research perspectives.
Fig. 2 – La géodiversité représentée : synthèse et perspectives de recherche.

Fig. 2 – Representing geodiversity: synthesis and research perspectives. Fig. 2 – La géodiversité représentée : synthèse et perspectives de recherche.
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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Geodiversity and art. Fig. 1 – Géodiversités artialisées.
Légende A: Panels of the exhibition Inhabitants of the Monts d’Arrée: Get ready (Ecomuseum of the Monts d’Arrée), Brittany, 2017. This exhibition proposes to tell the emergence of the mountain identity of the territory through the works of geographers, artists and tourist promoters throughout the 20th century. It also gives voices to the inhabitants who have drawn their “subjective map” of the Monts d'Arrée; B: Romain Rambaud, Assistes, Dolerite stone, Handle, Exhibition “Wake me up”, Nantes city Visual art prize, Chateaubriand Studio, Nantes, 2017. A : Panneaux de l’exposition Habitants : à vos Monts d’Arrée (Écomusée de Monts d’Arrée), Bretagne, 2017. Cette exposition propose de retracer l’émergence de l’identité « montagnarde » du territoire à travers les travaux des géographes, des artistes et l’action des promoteurs touristiques au cours du XXe siècle. Elle donne aussi la parole aux habitants qui ont dessiné leur carte subjective des Monts d’Arrée ; B : Romain Rambaud, Assistes, pierres de dolérite, poignée, Exposition Réveille moi, Prix des Arts visuels de la ville de Nantes, Atelier Chateaubriand, Nantes, 2017.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Fig. 2 – Representing geodiversity: synthesis and research perspectives. Fig. 2 – La géodiversité représentée : synthèse et perspectives de recherche.
Fichier image/jpeg, 194k
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Claire Portal et François Bétard, « Representing geodiversity: Between art, sciences and geographical imagination.
An introduction », Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement, vol. 25 - n° 3 | 2019, 141-149.

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Claire Portal et François Bétard, « Representing geodiversity: Between art, sciences and geographical imagination.
An introduction », Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement [En ligne], vol. 25 - n° 3 | 2019, mis en ligne le 06 décembre 2019, consulté le 26 janvier 2020. URL :

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Claire Portal

Université de Poitiers, Laboratoire Ruralités, EA 2252 – MSHS bât A5, 5 rue Théodore Lefebvre - TSA 81118, 86073 Poitiers Cedex 9, France ( Tél : +33 (0)5 49 45 46 72.

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François Bétard

Université de Paris, UMR 8586 PRODIG – case courrier 7001, 75013 Paris, France (

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