The art of science

The art of science: Remarkable natural history from Museum Victoria

The other day I had a day trip to Mornington, down on Port Phillip Bay. It was a glorious day, about 30 degrees, and lunch on the Mornington Pier was just perfect. However the reason we went down there was to go to this exhibition.

Mornington is lucky to have such a prestigious gallery, that curates some outstanding exhibitions. This one is no exception — but an exhibition of scientific illustration was bound to appeal to me!

It is a touring exhibition, organised by Museum Victoria. As the brochure says

Museum Victoria’s archive of artworks, working drawings and rare books traces the development of scientific art and provides a glimpse into a world of uncommon beauty.

What incredible archives they must have!

Like botanical art, scientific illustrations of animals must be accurate enough to use for identification. At the same time there needs to be the artistic component. Composition plays a vital role to make the art work as dynamic as possible, as well as to put the creature within an environmental context. John James Audubon’s bird engravings are high class examples of this, and there are about half a dozen of his works  to drool over in this exhibition.

It was fascinating to follow the development of understanding of animals. European naturalists often first encountered Australian animals in the form of dried skins, or as specimens preserved in alcohol. From these they had to recreate creatures that were very exotic.

Later, after European settlement in Australia, naturalists had the chance to observe live animals. It also coincided with the golden age of science, when life forms were being collected, classified, dissected. Here were some of my favourites in the exhibition. Ludwig Becker’s Weedy Seadragon (incidentally, Victoria’s marine emblem), Arthur Bartholomew’s sublime illustrations of frogs and John Gould’s bird lithographs.

Developments in paleontology expanded our knowledge of extinct fauna. Peter Trusler works closely with paleontologists to create fossil drawings that are mind blowingly exact and lifelike. Of course digital photos have given scientists so much more understanding of the micro level, and there are some stunning ones by Ken Walker in the exhibition.

Fortunately Museum Victoria recognises the importance of continuing the tradition of scientific art. Contemporary artists, including two of my tutors, Mali Moir and Kate Nolan, have worked with the Museum and have works of art in the exhibition.

The Museum Victoria website has digital images of quite a number of the works I have mentioned. It is worth a browse around. And have a play with the egg/butterfly display. There was a full size version of that and I was delighted with the exquisite shapes, colours and textures of the eggs.

If this has fueled your desire to see the exhibition, I am sorry to say that it will finish at Mornington in a few days. However, it is a touring exhibition and will be going to Adelaide, Ballarat, Mildura, Gippsland and Sydney. Tour dates and places here.