Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Crawling with Life: An exhibition of flora and fauna at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The first thing you see when you enter the small exhibition of 17th and 18th-century flower drawings, is a giant black beetle with three impressive-looking horns.

 The beetle sits in a typical old-fashioned flora and fauna display case; it's pinned to a board in the classic way of a scientific specimen.

In fact, this beetle, alongside another beetle and a butterfly, have been borrowed from the Zoology Museum in Cambridge and placed next to watercolour images of themselves.  It is as if we have the portrait and the sitter all in the same glass vitrine.

Atlas beetle (Zoology Museum, Cambridge) and Follower of Merian, Atlas Beetle, c.1700, watercolour with some white and gold
The watercolours are by an anonymous artist from around 1700; they are beautifully detailed and strangely evocative.  The atlas beetle casts a shadow onto its pristine white background.  Is it crawling across a sheet of paper?  Its legs are exquisitely fragile.  The beetle appears to be moving diagonally upwards, from left to right.  Although it's 2-D paint, it seems more alive than the dead husk next to it.

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The curatorial decision to include some real biological specimens is genius.  Seeing them transports you back into the world of early modern science, the world before photography and X-rays, the world when artists were scientists and where the only pictures we had of flowers and insects were the pictures painted, etched and drawn by people.

Is it art?  Is it science?  These distinctions blur in your mind as you peer at the displays.

Jan van Kessel, detail from Butterflies and Other Insects, 1661, oil on copper

This Flemish artist, Jan van Kessel, got so carried away by the ecstasy of meticulous naturalism that he included transparent drops of water alongside his blossoms, shells and creepy crawlies.  Look at the drops practically quivering on the leaves and on the pale blue-grey ground.

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Another nice thing about the exhibition is the presence of two women painters.  In the world of botanical and zoological art, women were leading.  Indeed, practically the inventor of the entire genre was the Frankfurt-born Maria Sibylla Merian whose strangely hypnotic renderings of creatures and plants became the benchmark for all who followed.

Look at her weird depiction of snails and a beetle cavorting under a fleshy plant, all in front of the ubiquitous white background.  Merian did a cut-away to show a snail laying eggs.  Centuries later, nature photographers and David Attenborough's camera team are still vying to capture similar intimacies.

Maria Sibylla Merian, detail from Hyporicum baxiforum, with several snails and a beetle, 1695, watercolour

 The white background is not entirely ubiquitous, though.  Here is another woman, Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch, who, along with her brother, liked to use a black ground. 

Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch, detail from Common Dandelion with a Garden Tiger Moth, watercolour, bodycolour and gum Arabic, 18th C.

A strange nocturnal world unfolds.  It's almost a still life, almost a flower painting (like those in Gallery 17; see my blog post), but without the allegory, without the wilting leaves and the mementi mori.  Yes, a quarter of the dandelion clock is blown away but the caterpillar climbs determinedly on.  And everything is ripe with growth and bursting with life.  These are not melancholy pictures.  This is part science, part art, and 100% rhopography:  the depiction of the trivial, the love of the humble.

Visit the exhibition Crawling with Life: Flower Drawings from the Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Gallery 14.
Ends Sun, 8 May 2016.

It is totally worth seeing!  It's small, too, so you won't exhaust yourself. And free!

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