The Art of the Natural World

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© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

When visiting the Natural History Museum in London South Kensington, visitors already have some idea of what to expect. For starters, the recently erected skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of Hintze Hall has been the talk of the public for some time. Whilst many tourists have flocked to view this giant, they are also expecting dinosaurs, fossils, extinct animals, creepy crawlies and volcanoes. People have not come with the hopes of looking at artworks.

To the casual observer, the exhibitions at the museum are exactly what they expected: bones, stuffed animals, more bones, ancient rocks, bones, fossils, dead things, and a wealth of information. On the other hand, looking past the scientific and factual details is a plethora of art waiting patiently to be acknowledged.

Before entering the museum, the original building screams out for attention, demonstrating Romanesque-style features, making it one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect who became greatly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival Style. The Liverpudlian designer was only 36, thus still in the beginning stages of his career, when he inherited the task of designing the building for the Natural History Museum.

Influenced by German Cathedrals, Waterhouse developed the first building to be decorated both inside and out with intricate designs. Using honey and pale blue terracotta, beautiful decorations were modelled from Waterhouse’s drawings, representing fossils, birds, animals and fish – many of the items in the museum’s collection. After its completion in 1881, critics from The Times exclaimed, “The walls and ceiling are decorated as befits a Palace of Nature.”

Although it has been extended in recent years, the original building looks much the same as when it was first constructed. Many visitors wonder whether it was formerly a cathedral or monastery due to its phenomenal beauty, however, it was built especially for the museum.

The Natural History Museum would not have existed at all if it were not for the proficient naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Although his initial claim to fame was introducing drinking chocolate to England, his collecting skills, which narrowly bordered on hoarding, provided scientists with the opportunity to learn the secrets of the natural world. By his death at the age of 92, Sloane had stockpiled over 80,000 objects and books from all over the world. The collection was crammed into his own home, however, his will stipulated that he wished to leave it to the nation. As a result, the British Museum in Bloomsbury was born.

The collection was rapidly added to over the following century and a decision was made to split the artefacts into sections. Thus, a new building was commissioned and by 1881, the natural history section was gradually relocated to its new home. As scientists learn more about the world, the collection continues to grow. It is estimated that the museum currently houses over 22 million items preserved in methylated spirits alone.

Looking at ancient dead things may seem like a long way from looking at art, however, there is a specific section of the museum that begs to differ. Within the blue section on the map supplied by the museum (actually, just ask someone to direct you; the map is not all that helpful) is an exhibition titled Images of Nature. Unlike the majority of the museum where reconstructed skeletons and educational models are in abundance, this long room works more like an art gallery with most items hung up on the bare walls.

Nowadays, a simple click of a button can eternally save evidence of nature, but, before the development of the camera, artists were relied upon to produce highly detailed illustrations. Although some of these artworks were produced to be enjoyed, scientists found them extremely valuable. Specimens were often collected by explorers, but after a while, colours would fade and plants would dry and shrivel up, making it impossible to demonstrate what it originally looked like. A watercolour study produced by an adept artist recorded an accurate image that visually explained the appearance of the foreign objects.

The museum has 500,000 natural history artworks within its collection, but only a handful of them are on display. Due to the fragility of many of the older drawings and paintings, the collection is rotated as curators periodically change the exhibit in order to limit any light damage.

Presently (July/August 2017), examples of illustrations can be seen by several different artists. Edward Wilson (1872-1912), for example, was a polar explorer who also enjoyed painting and drawing. In a glass cabinet alongside stuffed versions, his illustrations of the British hedgehog are on view. This is just one of the many iconic mammals he drew in the early 1900s. In cabinets nearby are more illustrations such as British birds by Phyllida Lumsden (c.1940), Nautilus by George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854) and Eggs of British birds by the Dutch artist Henrik Grönvold (1858-1940).

 

Slightly more graphic images are included in this gallery. Scientists are not only interested in what a specimen looks like on the outside, they are also intrigued by the inner workings of the plant or animal they are studying. One example is of the innards of a loggerhead turtle produced by Cesare Ferreri (1802-1859). Interestingly, developments have been made since 1833 when this image was produced. Originally it was labelled a spur-thigh tortoise, but today’s scientists, with their extensive knowledge, have identified it as the loggerhead.

Although cameras are available to most people, some scientists still prefer to capture their findings on paper. Bryan Kneale (1930-) provides a great example of modern illustration with a blue chalk drawing of a giant tortoise, which stands out amongst the other artworks surrounding it.

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Giant Tortoise, Bryan Kneale, 1986

The most interesting aspect of Images of Nature is the analysis of a 17th-century oil painting by the Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). The painting of a dodo may be recognisable by many and is the go to image when looking for representations of the extinct bird. Hung next to the initial painting is a modern version painted by the talented scientist, Dr Julian Pender Hume. Apart from the choice of artistic medium (oil/acrylic), there are a number of alterations to the plump, flightless bird.

When Savery painted the comical looking bird, dodos had mostly succumbed to extinction. The artist relied on limited fragments of a dodo skeleton to come up with this representation. Pender Hume, with his knowledge of avifaunal anatomy, explains in an accompanying video that, due to its inability to fly, the dodo would not have had such a bulky body; it would not have needed as much muscle as the Flemish artist gave it.

 

Images of Nature is one of the more quiet sections of the museum and may not appeal to younger children. However, there is an interactive game of sorts that allows the player to learn about the basic process of drawing a beetle specimen. The game goes through the stages an artist may look at, beginning with the initial shape of the insect and ending with a close look at adding appropriate colour. There is also the opportunity for visitors to draw their own picture based on any of the specimens seen around the museum. These can be posted in a box in the gallery for the chance of it being displayed for all to see.

 

Despite the fact that the purpose of the Natural History Museum is to store and display the collected specimens of past and present explorers and scientists, it does host an exhibition devoted to the art form photography. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the museum’s most popular exhibition that takes place once a year. Currently, the finalists and winners of the 2016 entries to the annual competition are being showcased in the East Pavillion.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most highly regarded as well as the largest photography competition in the world, often attracting over 42,000 professional and amateur artists each year. This figure also includes an exceptional number of teenagers who submit their nature photographs to the junior section.

The competition is now in its 52nd year and has expanded significantly. When it first ran in 1965, only three categories were provided. Today there are more than five times the amount of categories including animal portraits, underwater photographs, plants and fungi, and black and white images.

Set in a dimly lit display room, the finalists and winners from each category are arranged on the walls on digital screens. This enables the museum to display all the photographs without needing to print them out on sizeable photo paper or worry about light damage. On each screen are details about the photographer and the image itself.

Unlike the rest of the museum, which is full of over excited children and their parents, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is a peaceful environment. Its silence and subdued lighting allow visitors to contemplate each photograph in their own time and appreciate the splendour and variety of nature.

As well as being displayed at the museum, the exhibition goes on tour around all six continents, therefore it is only viewable in London for a limited time. The current exhibition is open until 17th September and costs £10.50 (£6.50 for under 17s) to enter. Of course, the photographs can be found online, but there is something special about being able to see them all in one place.

For whatever reasons you decide to visit the Natural History Museum, be it the blue whale or a fascination with dinosaurs, be on the look out for examples of art. The fact that a science-oriented museum can display such artistry is proof that art can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you do not believe me, go to the museum yourself and witness the beauty and ornamentation of nature.

2017: Wolfgang Tillmans

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La Palma, 2014

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ debut exhibition 2017 at the Tate Modern is a week away from closing but is still attracting the attention of many visitors. Although born in Remscheid, Germany in 1968, Tillmans has spent many years in the UK and became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in the year 2000. Most of the works displayed at the Tate today, however, are from 2003 onwards.

Although the exhibited photographs span the past 14 years, 2017 is not a compilation of Tillmans developing style and skill, but rather a focus on the present day. Most people would define a photographer essentially as someone who takes photographs, but Tillmans takes the name to new levels. Each room has been specifically arranged by the artist to help visitors engage with themes of community, politics and society.

Rather than simply hanging photographs on walls, Tillmans has experiemented with whole-room installations, publications, videos and music. As visitors walk around the gallery, they can see snapshots laid out on tables where individual pieces can be studied in detail. The majority of the works that are on the walls are printed on papers of a considerable size, often meaning they are better viewed from a distance. With these mix of approaches, Tillmans is trying to represent how culture and technology shape the way people understand the current world.

Initially, the opening rooms may not enliven onlookers, and, without the provided guide leaflet, may not make sense or mean anything. However, with thanks to the Tate’s written explanations, it becomes clearer that method is just as important for Tillmans as the final outcomes. For instance, Tillmans likes to experiment with technology to show how advanced it has become, comparing digital methods with the outdated manual. For example, Tillmans reveals how much easier it is to photograph an urban night scene from a moving vehicle without the photograph being ruined by blurring. This is a result of the faster shutter speeds the latest cameras possess.

Each room of the exhibition contains a new theme, idea or approach, often displaying photographs from a particular project. One such undertaking is a series of photographs titled Neue Welt in which Tillmans visited the different continents taking snapshots of communal spaces, food, people and still-life, recording the differences and changes that time has had on the different cultures. Some of these are quite beautiful and are a contrast to some of his more abstract works.

Another project is titled Truth Study Center, which is focused less on a photography and more on research. It is in the room that Tillmans has made the most of the scattered tables in order to present his findings. Photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so forth are laid out to express contridictory opinions and statements that have been issued by the government and politicians over the past couple of decades. This study questions what truth is and whether it is possible to trust what individuals, groups or organisations profess.

 

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Shanghai Night, 2009

It is clear from a great number of photographs that Tillmans primary topic of interest is
social life. He believes that everyone is vulnerable and is determined to prove his belief through unstaged imagery. He is particularly concerned with freedom and the interweaving spheres of personal and public life. Tillmans photographs people on the street and contrasts them with pictures of a more private nature, occassionally consisting of nudity.

 

Like many photographers, Tillmans has played around with portraiture, however his commercial outputs, and presumably his method of earning money, are a mix of posters, catalogues, magazine spreads, leaflets and books – principally items that can be mass produced. Examples of these can be found on tables in one of the exhibitions rooms. There are too many to be able to study them in detail, but the underlying theme is prominent. These lucrative formats are a means to express political opinion and contemporary interest. Although these compositions may not make his name known, Tillmans can still impress his views and beliefs over a widespread audience.

Interestingly, since he was born, lives and works in Berlin, Tellmans is passionate about the effects of Brexit, and in 2016, produced a series of posters encouraging British citizens to vote “remain”. Not many of these advertisements are amongst the selection of commercial items, however the photographs used on the designs are displayed in the final room of the exhibition. These images may look like tranquil sea-scapes, but they have an ulterior purpose. Tellmans is intrigued with the tangible lines and borders on the horizon caused by what looks like the meeting of the sea and sky, whereas, in reality, these are fluid. These photographs of the Atlantic Ocean are metaphors for opposing time zones and national frontiers, which may not be causing waves right now, but have the potential to in the future. This is why this series was suitable to illustrate the Brexit posters, because leaving the EU is a journey into the unknown. No one knows how it may affect the “tides”.

These posters were found in an article in the magazine Dezeen.

2017 is an interesting exhibition and not necessarily what you may be expecting. Seeing the processes and research that Wolfgang Tillmans undertakes makes the final outcomes far more meaningful than if viewed solely as artworks with no substantial background information. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition is finishing soon, the final day being Sunday 11th June. However, there are over 200 photographs on the Tate website for those who wish to receive a basic impression of Tillmans photography, and one series of work (Concorde Grid, 1997) is on show at the Tate Britain as part of the  Walk Through British Art display. There are, of course, books such as Books for Architects, available for purchase.

Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.

The National Gallery vs the Smartphone

Last Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in London. It is impossible to study all of the paintings in the collection, but I was able to appreciate the Van Gogh’s, Canaletto’s, Monet’s, Constable’s amongst many others. The gallery is currently exhibiting works by a contemporary artist, George Shaw, and it was fascinating to learn about the artists who have influenced him throughout his career. It was interesting to compare and contrast the techniques used by Shaw with this of renowned painters from bygone eras.

However, it was not only the magnificent painting that took my interest – I was very aware of the other visitors around me. I found myself wondering what it was that compelled people to visit the gallery. For some it was easy to determine why they were there due to their uniforms. Numerous school parties were being shown around the gallery by knowledgeable guides – a great earwigging opportunity for those wanting to know more about individual paintings.

As well as those that appeared to be taking a great interest in the artworks, there were quite a few who were not. On benches in the centre of the rooms were many bored looking people, often playing on their phones. Perhaps they had been dragged there against their will by an art enthusiast? I also spotted one person fast asleep and another reading a book.

The most common thing I saw people doing, however, was photographing the paintings with their smartphones. I had to carefully manoeuvre around crowds in order to prevent getting in the way of the many amateur photographers. It did not surprise me all that much since these days people seem to photograph their entire life in order to document it on social media.

One thing I could not help wondering was what these smartphone users were getting out of their visit to the gallery. Granted they can boast to friends that they have seen famous works of art, but they were not even taking the time to appreciate them properly. By looking at a painting through a camera lens, or phone screen, the effect of the original art work gets lost. Gone is the ability to closely look at the uneven surface of the canvas evidencing the way the artist has built up the picture. The awe at the size of the pieces are diminished when reduced to an 8×5″ photograph. If all you plan to do is take photographs, then you may as well stay at home and look them up on the internet.

It would be a shame for galleries to close because people are spending most of their time looking at phone screens rather than what is displayed on the walls around them. Next time you are at a gallery make the effort to fully appreciate the art you have the privilege of viewing. Study them closely… and then take your photographs!