The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.
The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.
The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.
I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!
The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.
NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.
Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.
And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.