Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 31, 2009
Diana Donald and Jane Munro, eds. Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 346 pp.; 150 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300148268)
Exhibition schedule: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, February 12, 2009–May 3, 2009; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, June 16, 2009–October 4, 2009
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Early on in John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, protagonist and Victorian scientist Charles Smithson spends a solitary morning hunting fossils along the coast of southwest England. An avowed follower of Charles Darwin, Smithson extracts an exquisite fossil-specimen from the flinty rock, aiming to gift it to his fiancée. Yet, as Fowles’s narrator wryly suggests, what our scientist is unable to perceive in this small, attractive object is the menace it portends to the conditions of his own existence. In this beautiful relic of extinguished life, Smithson is incapable of discerning any connection to the revolutionary implosions that will soon liquidate and erase the form of leisured, imperial life he occupies.

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts aims to position the relations between Darwinian science and the aesthetic in no less fateful terms. Like the exhibition upon which it is based, the volume Diana Donald and Jane Munro have edited is big and beautiful, packed with fascinating images and intriguing suggestions for ways in which relations between evolutionary science and nineteenth-century visual culture might be apprehended. Corresponding roughly to the organizational model of the exhibition (at least in its incarnation at the Fitzwilliam Museum), the volume is divided into three sections that lead the reader from the formation (and defacement) of Darwin’s own “eye,” through the visual practices and ideas deployed in his mature publications, and into the manifold visual fields where Darwinian science would be engaged, critiqued, and interpreted in the later nineteenth century. Nine of the volume’s twelve historically sensitive, well-researched essays have been contributed by historians and curators of art, but perspectives from the history of science and literary studies are also included.

If several volumes and events in this sesquicentennial year of the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) have also engaged connections between Darwin and the arts, a strength of Endless Forms is that it presses upon the obstacles to such an enterprise. As these essays note, scant encouragement supporting the linkage of science and visual art is to be found with Darwin himself. Admirer of art and avid reader of Enlightenment aesthetics in his youth (as the introductory essays by Donald and Julius Bryant recount), the mature Darwin came to look upon visual art as something of a confidence game. Unusually amongst his scientific cohort—and highly detrimentally, according to John Ruskin—Darwin was unable to draw. Worse, Darwin positively courted, even advertised, his aesthetic philistinism. As Jonathan Smith’s contribution contends, Darwin not only dispensed with the evidence of visual art in his scientific publications, but he supported his audacious claims through extensive use of then-controversial photographic techniques. Perhaps most tellingly, On the Origin of Species, the text by which Endless Forms is nominally motivated, deploys exactly one image.

Neither maker, intellectual ally, nor even begrudging borrower of visual art as then understood, Darwin’s difficulty is significant because it eliminates recourse to many of the familiar strategies by which humanities-based scholarship has come to plot relations between science and art. Thankfully, necessity can still be the mother of invention, and these essays signal an exciting moment wherein the nexus between art and evolutionary sciences invites heterogeneous, diverging interpretations. According to Rebecca Bedell’s contribution, for example, evolutionary theory and art meet in the shaping of nineteenth-century painters’ eyes and minds by innovative geological thought: “Geological theory informed and thereby transformed artists’ vision. . . . [It] provided a conceptual framework that made visible previously invisible features of the earth’s topography” (49–52). Empowered with this scientific vision, Bedell agues, landscape painters of the “realist” persuasion elevated natural history as a subject worthy of the highest echelon of academic painting, a rank traditionally occupied by depictions of human history. David Bindman, meanwhile, positions the visual legacy of Darwin among the Symbolists and others “who repudiated the direct observation of contemporary nature or social life” (144). Darwin’s displacement of the human from the center of creation and his erasure of the need for a god to do the creating, Bindman argues, prompted cerebral artists like Odilon Redon, Arnold Böcklin, and Max Klinger to visualize the origins of life in primordial, pre-human struggle. Further, in one of the most satisfying essays in the collection, Smith examines how the embrace of photography figured in the broader controversies surrounding Darwin’s account of beauty through natural and sexual selection. Smith convincingly argues that the contentious theoretical claims and visual strategies of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) can be read as a culmination of Darwin’s protracted critical exchanges with leading aesthetic theorists like Ruskin. By turns, then, Darwin appears in these essays as an avatar of realism, a progenitor of metaphysical existentialism, and a technophilic iconoclast—or some combination thereof.

What unifies this collection and truly wins the reader’s admiration, though, are the four fascinating contributions by co-editor Donald. Her scintillating essays (including a collaboration with historian of medicine Jan Eric Olsén) display not only a broad fluency with scientific writings in Darwin’s ambit and their enmeshment in a range of cultural discourses, but a capacious knowledge of visual practices prompted by evolutionary science itself. By my reading, the volume’s standout essay is “Art and the ‘Entangled Bank’: Colour and Beauty out of the ‘War of Nature.’” Therein, Donald and Olsén demonstrate how a new conception of visual practice emerged at the juncture of Darwinian science and advanced art: a conception that privileged the ability to perceive interrelations between those symbiotic, competing systems now understood to govern all life. Integrating a broad array of visual artifacts, the authors focus upon two painters, the Swede Bruno Liljefors and American Abbott Thayer, who each engaged with Darwin’s theories to develop an aesthetics of camouflage—close to what Lawrence Weschler has described in a different context as “an art of things not looked at (indeed, invisible when looked at directly) yet still somehow perceived” (Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982, 111). Liljefors and Thayer made images that would knowingly play in strange shadow-grounds between science and art, seductively courting and resisting classification as either. Consequently, as Donald and Olsén argue, we need to struggle to see work like Thayer’s masterful Peacock in the Woods (1907) literally, as it coyly conceals its target of representation; yet, we must also struggle to see it historically, free from the tractor-beam of modernist art. For Thayer too eliminates one-point perspective, advertises the facture of his images, problematizes figure-ground relations, and even selects subject-matter in keeping with favored fin-de-siècle artistic tropes. But to compress this work into the modernist art we know is to collapse the nesting, the flux, and the interplay of systems that Liljefors and Thayer had come to position at the core of a weird, hybrid variety of visual practice. What is most exciting and valuable about Endless Forms (book and exhibition alike) are moments like these where new concepts and ideas can be glimpsed wriggling through the visual thicket, struggling into intelligibility.

If anywhere, then, the essays in this volume are less convincing when they attempt to fix relations between science and canonical artworks too forcibly. With advanced artists and theorists in Britain and France, so Munro’s contribution claims, Darwin shared not only a fascination with the vibrant beauty of orchids, peacocks, and other dazzling creatures, but a physiological aesthetics emphasizing the primacy of the sensual. As does Richard Kendall in his contribution on the Impressionists’ Darwinism, Munro then uses evidence of popularized evolutionary ideas to disclose hidden facets of modernist art, particularly Paul Gauguin’s seminal Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (ca. 1897–98) But exactly how far can connections like these be taken? Munro is notably equivocal; she describes the shared aesthetic interests between Darwin and artists as “parallels” or coincidences, while granting that evolutionary theory is but one of numerous thematic threads identifiable in Gauguin’s masterpiece. The reader is left wondering whether, instead of modernist painting, a more instructive visual field for the exposition of Darwin’s radical theories of beauty might be the history of nineteenth-century costume, a topic Munro touches upon only briefly. Would not the dazzlingly brilliant, synthetically dyed urban fashions of Darwin’s own High Victorian moment be a most telling context in which to explore what motivated and sustained the conception of beauty as a variation-hungry, adaptive mechanism of conspicuous display by which to allure sexual mates? Bryant’s opening essay on the colorful, patterned interior décor of the Darwin family home—and his tantalizing speculations on the meanings of Darwin’s ubiquitous beard—suggest the potential richness of interpreting Victorian bodily ornament in just such a manner.

Conversely, an occasion where the evidence of science does deserve to be pushed further into the interpretation of visual art might be identified in Elizabeth Edwards’s contribution. Given its evocative title, “Evolving Images,” the essay says surprisingly little about the possible reciprocity between Darwin’s models of life and period conceptions of photographic images themselves. Narrating interactions between Darwinism and racial/ethnographic ideas, the essay leaves the reader wondering: if we follow Bindman in recognizing how nineteenth-century artists used Darwin’s theories as a pretext for exploring themes of flux and transformation, can we find evidence of their contemporaries making connections between the biological evolution of life and the chemical evolutions necessary for the production of photographic images? The entanglement of Darwinian ideas with a range of existing schemata and new visualizations evinced by Edwards (as with Nicola Gauld and Julia Voss) is compelling. But how, when, and to whom might the creator-less evolution of Darwinian nature have suggested a model for apprehending the strange temporality and susceptibility to chance of those novel photographic images not made by human hand?

Difficulties and lingering questions like these only serve to underscore the exciting nature of the enterprise. Like the Yale Center for British Art and the Fitzwilliam Museum where Endless Forms was staged, editors Donald and Munro should be highly commended for assembling such a stimulating, challenging volume. Indeed, as Darwin’s theories shattered the Enlightenment desire to concretize nature’s endless flux (to paraphrase the narrator of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), so projects like this instructively rupture the confidence with which we would impose our own patterns of intelligibility upon the nineteenth century’s darkly weird visual forms.

Matthew C. Hunter
Weisman Postdoctoral Instructor in Art History, California Institute of Technology

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.