REVIEW "Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration" at the American Museum of Natural History
By Raphael Rosen, contributor SciArt has a deep provenance. Some of the best examples aren’t found in fashionable Chelsea galleries or eclectic websites but in manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. And one of the best places to see these is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, in an exhibition called “Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library.”
On view through October 12th, 2014, the show is a pared-down walk-through version of a book with the same title edited by Tom Baione, the Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services at the Museum. The 50 works in the show represent a span of scientific inquiry reaching from 1550 to the 1920s, a period that saw the rise of modern science.
It’s no accident that the exhibition begins at science’s birth. “The big message,” says Baione, “is that science could not have grown at the rate it did without art. It’s what enabled science to really take off at the end of the 1500s.” Combined with the development of the printing press, art allowed explorers and naturalists to communicate visually with people around the world. And easy visual communication is crucial. Previously, if an explorer found himself face-to-face with an animal that no one in his circle had ever seen, how would he tell other people about his discovery? “If you’re trying to describe a walrus to someone who has never seen one,” says Baione, “how would you do it?” Using words, you would have to construct awkward analogies that in the end might not evoke the proper image in another person’s mind. For instance, to help people in London envision a walrus, you might compare it to a seal with a bulldog’s face and downward-pointing boar’s tusks, but the mental picture doesn’t come close to a real walrus’s magnificent mug.
If you create an image showing the animal’s likeness, however - using lithography, woodcuts, or engraving - and insert it into a book, you can send copies to your colleagues all over the world. You won’t have to rely on vague language; instead, you can create a visual punch that leads to instant understanding. And without this kind of communication, scientists would have had a harder time collaborating and building on each other’s efforts. Like the Internet, illustrated books let people separated by great distances share knowledge and spark conversation.
And judging from the images on display, the conversations would have been lively. Take, for instance, the Cancer reticulatus crab drawn by artist and author Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst in the 1780s, for his book called Versucheiner Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse... (Attempt at a natural history of crabs and cray fish...) The crab’s carapace looks like it is inlaid with mother-of-pearl, or shards of stained glass. Or examine the flying gurnard (Trigla volitans) in Marcus Elieser Bloch’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische (General Natural History of Fish), published in Berlin in the late 1800s. Bloch had very little education and in fact was still almost illiterate when he began studying anatomy at age 19. He got his medical degree at age 42, and then, after establishing a successful career, began collecting fish specimens. The gurnard that he depicted has green, wing-like fins, which resemble a peacock’s tail, and looks like it’s speeding across the page. Or, for a poignant peak back in time, gaze upon an image of a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, found in the pages of John Gould’s The mammals of Australia. This once world’s-largest meat-eating marsupial now exists only in books like these.
“Natural Histories” is, all in all, a testament to the power of art to further inquiry. The exhibition argues convincingly that the growth of science as we know it would have been hampered if scientists had not had the ability to communicate visually, and that a common visual language can stimulate discovery. Illustrations, it seems, are much more than just pretty pictures.