Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Evolution of Art, Through Darwin

The Yale Center for British Art is previewing its February “‘Endless Forms’: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts” exhibit, which contemplates art before and after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Martin Johnson Heade, 1871

Surprisingly, this exhibit is “the first-ever examination” of the significance of visual imagery (as in paintings, drawings, and sculptures) in the public evolution of Darwin’s theories and their impact on artists, from the Victorian era and to our own.


“Endless Forms” is structured around the premise that Darwin’s ideas became embedded in “the consciousness of the great artists of the era.” His notions would go on to inspire visual representations of many of Darwin’s big ideas: struggle for survival, natural attraction and sexual selection, and the origins of man. They would move the Western world from images of Noah’s flood and Moses’ tablets to Odilo Redon’s half-man, half-monkey one-eyed creature.


The exhibit includes paintings by renowned artists such as Degas, Monet, and Cézanne. Additionally, there’s a sampling from lesser-known artists, notably Edwin Henry Landseer and Joseph Mallord William Turner. “Endless Forms” also expands the traditional definition of art to include beetles, pigeon skulls, fossils, and taxidermy.

DOG RULE: Edwin Henry Landseer

Two of my favorite artists of the moment aren’t included in the exhibit, but I do think they also capture the gist of the premise and they openly channel Darwin. Alexis Rockman actually drew the cover for Peter Ward’s book “Future Evolution.” (Here’s an NPR interview with both Ward and Rockman.) There’s also the much-less-known Casey Weldon, whose work is less about science and more about the evolution of culture.

EARTH STORM: J. M. W. Turner

According to a Bloomberg article, “Endless Forms” isn’t designed to instill a wonder of an artist’s beautiful or visually inspiring work. Rather, the exhibit strives to tap into the current debate surrounding Darwin’s theories. (As with usual reports from Britain, all of the United States is judged by the press-attracting squawks of Christian fundamentalists.)

“Without question, Darwinian thinking has been discredited,” Amy Meyers, the center's director, told reporter Bloomberg Farah Nayeri. “It’s very important for us to critique this new flaring up of fear over Darwin’s ideas, and to really question the sets of ideas that are at play within the fundamentalist community.”

IN THE GREENHOUSE & PRECIOUS: Alexis Rockman & Casey Weldon

The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, organized the exhibit in association with the Yale Center for British Art. The two groups pulled together previously unseen works from both public and private collections in the United States and Europe.

Laura Moorhead

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