[Paleopsych] NYT: The Face of Nature Changes as Art and Science Evolve
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The Face of Nature Changes as Art and Science Evolve
NYT November 23, 2004
By CARL ZIMMER
Artists and scientists, so the story goes, glare at each
other across a cultural divide. The scientist coldly hacks
nature into pieces. The artist is unwilling to do the hard
work necessary to understand how the world works.
This story is mostly fiction, as the work of the printmaker
Joseph Scheer makes abundantly clear.
For the past six years, Mr. Scheer has made pictures of
moths. He does not use paint or silk screens to make them.
Instead, he has devised a method for placing real moths on
a high-resolution digital scanner without crushing them
After correcting the colors on his computer, Mr. Scheer
makes stunning prints, 3 feet by 4 feet, on soft Chinese
Mr. Scheer exhibited a selection of his moth prints at a
conference this month by the Rhode Island School of Design
and the Providence Athenaeum. At the conference, titled
"Inspired by Nature: The Art of the Natural History Book,"
Mr. Scheer recounted how he wound up straddling art and
science. "It's the way obsessions happen," he said. "It
took over my life."
It is easy to see how Mr. Scheer could lose himself in
these images. His moths are almost hypnotic in their
details. They are covered in a coat of hair as plush as
mink fur. Their antennas look like crosses between ferns
and radar dishes. Their wings seem to be assembled from a
million dabs of a fine paint brush.
This is art inseparable from science, whether that science
is the latest development in digital reproduction or an
esoteric corner of entomology.
Mr. Scheer, the director of Alfred University's Institute
for Electronic Arts, collects moths around his home in
Allegany County, N.Y. He has also traveled to moth-dense
parts of the world, like Costa Rica and Australia.
He knows the life cycles of moths and their feeding habits.
With the help of an international team of scientists, he
has created an astonishing collection of roughly 20,000
images of moths.
He is part of a long tradition.
For centuries artists and scientists have been equally
obsessed by the dream of a perfect vision of nature,
preserved in a book of pictures.
Together, they have seized on every innovation in printing
technology, from wood blocks to digital scanners, in the
quest for that perfection. They have traveled around the
planet in search of specimens to illustrate, and have spent
years creating some of the most elaborate books ever
The notion of fixing nature to the page emerged in the 16th
and 17th centuries, as modern Western science took shape.
One image can sum up this urge. It comes from a book called
"Worm's Museum" published in 1655. The book is a 400-page
description of a museum built by the Danish physician Olaus
Worm to teach students at the University of Copenhagen.
The museum is long gone, but the frontispiece to "Worm's
Museum" reveals a room packed with items like narwhal
skulls, conch shells and stuffed lemurs. By immersing
oneself in this room, Worm believed that a person could
come to a true understanding of nature. "Let us take off
the spectacles that show us the shadows of things instead
of the things themselves," Worm wrote.
To some extent, natural history books did take off the
spectacles. Artists began to pay careful attention to
animals and plants as they really were, not as they had
been traditionally drawn. Albrecht Dürer, for example,
brought astonishing biological realism to subjects as
ordinary as a hare or a dandelion patch. But shadows still
Before the 18th century, European artists could rarely see
a species that lived beyond their own continent. Even Dürer
had to rely on third-hand stories when he drew a picture of
a rhinoceros. Its armored skin wound up looking like a heap
Better visions of nature emerged in the 1700's, as artists
began to illustrate the discoveries of scientific
expeditions. Opulent books were published, packed with
pictures of the animals and plants native to North America
and other new colonies of Europe. Exotic flowers began to
fill the greenhouses of aristocrats, who commissioned
lavishly illustrated books about their collections -
ostensibly for the benefit of science but also to
immortalize themselves. Their flowers might wilt, but their
books would last forever.
Natural history illustrators could not simply paint a
single sumptuous picture that would hang on some museum
wall. Their images had to be reproduced in hundreds or
thousands of books. The first natural history books used
relatively crude woodblock prints, and later publishers
seized on every new technology that came along, like
engraving and lithography, to make their images more
The one great shortcoming of all these methods was that
none could reproduce color. Color was important not just
for aesthetics; it would also make scientific descriptions
of animals or plants far more meaningful. The hunger for
color drove publishers to all sorts of extremes, like
having artists hand paint each engraving in a book after it
A spectacular example of what this hunger for colorized
nature could produce is the 1854 book "Victoria Regia" or
"The Great Water Lily of America," which was exhibited at
the Providence Athenaeum during the conference.
In the mid-1800's, European explorers returned from the
Amazon with stories of a fantastic water lily. Its
disk-shaped leaves could support the weight of a grown man.
It produced an endless supply of pinkish-white flowers,
each reaching a foot across. Seeds were brought to Europe
and the United States, and a few gardeners figured out how
to cultivate them.
One of the titanic flowers was presented to Queen Victoria,
and botanists gave it her name. Americans were just as
excited when the flowers were cultivated on this side of
the Atlantic in 1851, and the book "Victoria Regia" was
published in 1854 to take advantage of the water lily
To look at this book is an experience on a par with looking
at Joseph Scheer's moths. It is 27 inches high and 21
inches wide, but only 17 pages long. Most of those pages
are full-page illustrations of the flower by William Sharp.
The flowers seem to be the size of the moon, surrounded by
odd bristling fruits and leaves that look like green lakes.
The startling colors of "Victoria Regia" were not painted
by hand. "Victoria Regia" was the first American book to
take advantage of a new printing method called
For each illustration, Sharp used a greasy pen to draw four
slightly different pictures on four polished slabs of
limestone. Each slab was then rolled with a different color
of ink, which was only absorbed by the pen marks. A sheet
of paper was then pressed against each slab, combining the
colors into a single image. It is staggering to imagine
printers struggling with such big plates, lining up all
four colors perfectly.
But as awkward as it might seem, chromolithography was a
huge leap forward for natural history books. They could be
printed faster, with more consistent colors, and more
cheaply than earlier books.
In some ways, little has changed in 150 years since
"Victoria Regia" was published. In 2003, Mr. Scheer put a
number of his moth prints into a book called "Night
Visions." As with "Victoria Regia" before it, "Night
Visions" is both scientifically important and coffee-table
eye candy. "Victoria Regia" took advantage of the then-new
technology of chromolithography; "Night Visions" could not
have existed before the invention of digital scanning. One
book took 19th-century Americans to the Amazon; the other
takes 21st-century Americans to the nocturnal world hidden
in their own backyards.
Yet none of these images, no matter how glorious, can
capture the fullness of nature, as recent work of another
artist makes poignantly clear.
Rosamond Purcell, who also spoke at the conference, has
spent more than 20 years exploring this gap between
obsession and achievement. In 1986 she published
"Illuminations," a grotesque bestiary of sorts that she
compiled from museum specimens.
A chameleon's skeleton glows pink with preserving fluids. A
bat in a collection bottle seems to draw its wing over its
face like a vampire. These museum specimens are supposed to
typify nature, and yet in her photographs they wind up
looking supremely unnatural.
One of Ms. Purcell's latest creations brings us full circle
back to the all-encompassing ambition of early natural
history. In the 1980's she first came across the picture of
Olaus Worm's museum, and she has spent hours gazing at
every object in the room. Her artistic obsession has now
grown to match Worm's scientific one: she has recreated the
museum in three-dimensional detail. Real walls are now
crowded with real turtle skulls, real ostrich eggs, real
snake skins, a real oak tree that has grown around a real
horse jaw. A real sturgeon and a real polar bear hang side
by side from the ceiling.
Ms. Purcell has created a perfect representation of what
was supposed to be the perfect representation of nature.
And yet, as with Mr. Scheer's moths, it can feel utterly
unnatural. Gazing at Worm's museum resurrected at last, do
we finally see things themselves, or do we remain
surrounded by shadows?
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