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OLD INTO NEW: A 'NATURAL' HISTORY OF ARTISTS


18th-century curiosity cabinet of Joseph Bonnier de La Mosson (1702 -1744), Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris


For the 2021 national symposium 'Preservation Meets Innovation', hosted by the Canadian Society of Decorative Arts/Cercle canadien des arts décoratifs, I chose the lecture: 'Fashioning Old into New: A 'Natural' History of Artist-Collectors'.


I am enticed by the subject of natural specimens artists collect(ed) in the past and present. In my lecture. I argue these 'dead' specimens constitute 'the old' / a memory reinvented into 'the new' by artists on canvas. This is a rich topic, considering the first museums artists visited were full of natural specimens. As for contemporary art, there are no shortage of artists today, whose works consciously reference these early museums, or cabinets of curiosities, appropriately called Wunderkammern.



Dragonfly Detail of “Vase with Flowers”, Rachel Ruysch, 1689, San Diego Museum of Art


Among the historic artists I examined was the celebrated 17th-century Dutch painter, Rachel Ruysch (1664 - 1750), who specialised in floral still lifes. Although most painters of this genre were men with more support of their craft, Ruysch created some of the most masterful examples we know today (and she did this while being a mother of ten children). Ruysch depicted flowers from different seasons and regions, striving to render the highest level of detail. She had unique access to preserved botanical specimens kept by her father, Frederick Ruysch (1638-1731), a professor of anatomy and botany, whose private cabinet of natural wonders, including flowers, plants, and insects, was admired across Europe. On close inspection of Ruysch’s paintings one finds creatures like the dragonfly, whose wings are so transparent, they seem to float from the canvas. She would sometimes use actual wings of butterflies or insects, perhaps remnants from her father’s collection, to imprint the canvas. In my lecture, I surveyed several natural collections of artists, followed by a discussion with contemporary Canadian artists about their collections of the same. My guests included the artists Christine Davis and T.M. Glass (the latter of which I highlight in a previous post).



Detail, Morphochromes, Christine Davis, 2019


Davis' work includes an installation of a cabinet of curiosities housed in her studio, along with a large work/canvas covered with actual butterfly wings. Like Rachel Ruysch, Davis grew up in a science household, which entailed a life of travel and study of the natural world. The work I illustrate here is a detail of her Morphochromes (2019). If you missed our talk, you can learn more about Davis here, who characterises this work as: 'Inspired by a Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius, re-interpreting a work from 2003 where a dissolve sequence of astronomy slides shows the universe at different wave lengths, projected onto a suspended screen of Morpho butterflies. Pinned into a grid and animated by the shifting light, documentation of the heavens and classification of wildlife are overlaid in a system of ordering and symmetry that is at once mystical and sadistic, absurd and universal.' The dark psychology at work in Davis' imagery, spun into the mystical and beautiful, is no doubt just as 'curious' as those fashioned centuries ago.



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