June 19, 2009 / 6:11 PM / 10 years ago

Darwin's evolutionary effect on art in new UK show

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.

The show deftly relates Darwin’s own works: “The Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man” and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” to some of the unusual objects on display, such as a video of the mating dance of Malaysia’s Great Argus pheasant and an 1864-65 painting by John William Inchbold comparing the head of a girl with the plumage of a Bird of Paradise.

Plenty of evidence of Darwin’s own interest in the theories of natural selection, including his copy of Thomas Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population” alongside a wealth of scientific material from taxidermy, fossils minerals and skulls are also on display in the show, which ends October 4.

A giant painting of prehistoric beasts attacking each other on land, in the sea and in the air commands the eye on one wall of the exhibition nearby to Hubert von Herkomer’s painting “On Strike,” linking man to nature’s struggle for survival.

Herkomer’s painting shows a man with no work staring off from a doorway, his wife’s arm draped around his shoulder and in the other a baby, with another child in the background. It is a comment on the dark underside of the industrial Victorian world.

“Every work in this exhibition has a link to Darwin,” Munro said. “These ideas were current...why wouldn’t the artists respond,” Munro said.

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