Darwin's evolutionary effect on art in new UK show

Fri Jun 19, 2009 2:07pm EDT
 
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By Paul Casciato

CAMBRIDGE (Reuters Life!) - What do Thomas Malthus, a Degas sculpture and the elaborate mating dance of a Malaysian pheasant have in common?

The answer is Charles Darwin, according to a new exhibition at the University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, where high art, the sketches of naturalists, contemporary books and stuffed animals paint a picture of the 19th century world that shaped and was shaped by Darwin's theories on evolution.

"Endless Forms, Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts" started on Tuesday at the Fitzwilliam, but has been in the making for the last five years, curator Jane Munro told Reuters.

"What you do with a subject as big as Darwin and art takes a bit of thinking," Munro said as visitors wandered among related paintings by Tissot, Cezannes and a display case stuffed with hummingbirds collected by a contemporary of Darwin's and displayed at London's Great Exhibition in 1851.

The show's widely varied range of nearly 200 exhibits is broken down into seven parts: Darwin's Eye, The History of the Earth, The Struggle for Existence, Animal Kin, The Descent of Humankind, Darwin, Beauty & Sexual Selection and Darwin & The Impressionists.

The narrative leaps from the straightforward concept of the visual influences that paintings, sketches and the detailed botanical drawings of his Cambridge university mentor, John Stevens Henslow, would have had on Darwin to the effects that Darwin's theories later had on cartoonists, postcards and artists such as Cezanne, Monet and Degas.

Munro said visitors to the exhibition -- which includes the sculpture "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen" by Edgar Degas, rare pieces normally hidden from public view and a number of other famous works on loan from museums around the world -- need to have an open mind to follow the sometimes complicated narrative.

"If they come with that, they might be rewarded," she said.   Continued...