Friday, July 17, 2009

Concerning Evolution

The Fitzwilliam no doubt thought that, as Cambridge's main museum, they really ought to do something to mark the Darwin bicentenary. However, they're not a museum of science, and anyway, that side of the man's life was already likely to be covered by larger institutions. So they hit on the idea of doing something on "Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts". The exhibition (entitled "Endless Forms") proves that it was a pretty good idea.

It starts with a small room of scientific sketches and illustrations, largely tied up to the Beagle voyage and Darwin's early education, which is mostly just a palette-cleanser - although it told me that Darwin got to attend a lecture by John Audubon in Edinburgh, which I hadn't heard before - and then one enters a bigger room and the fine arts stuff cuts loose, not least with a rather good portrait of the man that I again hadn't seen before. The main theme at this point, though, is basically art in relation to deep time and nature; Victorian painters looking at landscapes through eyes educated by new (though sometimes pre-Darwinian) insights of geology and paleontology. Seen in this light, the paintings here, mostly seemingly innocuous if often romantic landscapes, reflect a time of transformation - a fact only emphasised by the presence of a couple of attempts to paint scenes from just before or just after the biblical Noah's flood.

Other themes follow: "Struggle for Existence" (artists' responses to the whole Victorian social-pseudo-Darwinian "life is tough" idea, complete with a Landseer fighting stags painting), "Animal Kin" (mostly about Darwin's studies of emotional expression in humans and animals, and making the interesting point that Landseer's emotion-laden paintings of animals, which seem so drippy to modern eyes, may actually have embodied the then-radical Darwinian idea that humans and animal had more in common than people liked to think), "The Descent of Humankind" (illustrations of past-Darwinian Victorian anthropology, sometimes veering into uncomfortable areas of racial stereotyping, but also including one fabulous, quite modern-looking 19th century bust of a beautiful African woman that must surely have seemed downright shocking in its day), "Darwin, Beauty, and Sexual Selection" (a slightly tentative and uncertain look at the ideas about beauty and feminine influence which arrived in art from Darwin's work on sexual selection, but hey, you get a rather strikingly odd Tissot to look at), and "Darwin and the Impressionists" (yes, it seems that some of the Impressionists read Darwin; I can't see that his direct influence was huge, but there was evidently some). There's also a small display of photos of portraits of Darwin himself at different ages, showing that (a) he looked grumpy sometimes in his early middle age, and he knew it, and (b) he matured into the downright Leonardo-esque image of the bald sage.

And boy, the curators have been busy with this show, presumably calling in some favours as they went. There are paintings and sculptures from all over, chosen to illustrate the themes but often fascinating in themselves. For a free exhibition, it's stunning. Highly recommended.

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