Bertholet’s Ted, The Green Grasshopper.
Photo: Guusje Berthdet
Essential Nature of Things
on Nature X: Natural History Illustration
York State Museum, through
Given that I am personally drawn to more conceptual art, I
had no intention of writing about or even visiting this exhibition.
I could argue that I am a purist when it comes to fine art,
but that would be a lie. I am very conscious of the arbitrary
and ambiguous boundaries that create categories such as ”craft”
and “outsider” art, and I generally disdain them. And quite
honestly, if I have little problem defending the artistic
merits of, say, Takashi Murakami’s crass commercialism, then
how can I in good conscience continue to make a distinction
between art and illustration? In truth, I can’t.
Illustration has played a crucial role in scientific discovery.
It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Darwin could have
developed his theory of natural selection without the many
illustrations, notes, and specimens gathered on expedition.
Even today, despite advances in photography and imaging, scientific
illustration plays a vital role in recording and disseminating
knowledge. This is because it often takes a human hand and
eye to accentuate certain details while diminishing or editing
others. In a sense, illustrators create an essentialist ideal
of a plant, animal, or insect in order to preserve and record
a particular species. But despite their emphasis on accuracy
and utility, medical and natural-history illustrators are
not merely draftsmen making diagrams, cutaways, and charts.
Like most artists, they tend to betray a personal style that
includes distortions, decorative effects, and even commentary.
This is what makes their work compelling.
The catalogue for the exhibition explains that the Focus
on Nature series has “reflected the standards, materials,
and skills of the contemporary natural history illustrator
community” since 1990. The materials used by the illustrators
in this particular exhibition include graphite, ink, watercolor,
gouache, oil, digital media, and carbon dust. The 83 artists
represented come from all over the world, and each uses a
different style and subject matter. Some of the images are
common flora and fauna like spinach, radishes, and peacocks,
while others are more exotic, like a Peckoltia fish found
only in the Xingu River in South America, or a digital rendering
of a Mimivirus, one of the largest viruses ever found.
There is work for every taste in this exhibition. I was personally
drawn to the work that was less technical and more interpretive.
Honey Possum, Dryanda by Suzannah Alexander depicts
a tiny marsupial clinging to a puffy flower. The image is
crowded with foliage as if to reinforce the animal’s diminutive
size, and the translucency of the gouache reflects his fragile
existence, having to subsist on nectar and pollen. Whereas
Alexander underscores her subject’s size by depicting him
within his natural environment, Guusje Bertholet’s Ted,
The Green Grasshopper, is rendered gigantic against a
black background absent of any detail. The bug is both menacing
and beautiful and commands our respect. Brian D. Cohen’s Amazonian
Umbrellabird also strikes a bold pose on a dark background.
The umbrellabird is surrounded by abstracted leaves that accent
his attributes: strong claws, decorative head crest, and wattle.
Patricia J. Latas’ colorful Mandarin Fish is enlarged
on a black background as a response to a National Geographic
report that stated the fish looked “like something drawn by
a five-year-old.” Latas wanted to celebrate the complexity
of a fairly common reef fish that she felt had been disrespected.
Another work by Latas records her personal experience sketching
a creature that is rarely sighted. Ocellated Antbird, Army
Ants, Poison Arrow Frog is a color pencil drawing that
depicts a page from a sketchbook of birds and ants that is
lying on a bed of leaves as if dropped by its maker. In one
corner of the sketch sits a tiny poison arrow frog. Latas
explains that she had to sketch the bird while suffering ant
bites, and after the ants finally departed she found the poison
arrow frog sitting on her boot. Such is the plight of the
naturalist! Similar to Latas, Tara Dalton Bensen uses an illustration
of an illustration; hers is a tribute to one of the first
female illustrators to gain recognition. In Common Medlar,
Elizabeth Blackwell, Bensen has painted the fruit and
foliage of a common medlar surrounded by pages from Blackwell’s
book A Curious Herbal. Also rendered are the tools
Blackwell would have used to make her images.
There are many interesting works on view, and there is the
added entertainment of bird noises emanating from speakers
scattered about. At the center of the exhibition is a vitrine
containing examples of books that include reproductions of
some of the work on display. The case underscores the fact
that illustrators are not alone in their creative vision.
Their work is often dictated by the needs of the project.
And because the reproductions lose some of their vitality
and texture, it is a real treat to be able to see the originals.