The Face of Nature Changes as Art and Science Evolve

The New York Times
November 23, 2004
The Face of Nature Changes as Art and Science Evolve

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 flat.

After correcting the colors on his computer, Mr. Scheer makes stunning prints, 3 feet by 4 feet, on soft Chinese paper.

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 published.

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 remained.

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 of shields.

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 realistic.

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 was printed.

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 craze.

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 chromolithography.

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?

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company