The first thing you will see upon entering the “Endless Forms” exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art is a painting of the great man himself, scruffy-looking, white-bearded, boring his hawk-like eyes into you. But the exhibit isn’t just about Darwin on his 200th birthday. It ambitiously aims to explore the impact of his theories on the artists of Europe and America during his lifetime and beyond.
The exhibition, with over 200 items from all over the world, can seem as overwhelming as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is a “most amazingly complex exhibit,” according to organizing curator of the British Art Center Elisabeth Fairman. But, thanks to Fairman and exhibition curator Diana Donald, the show’s division into seven thematic spaces makes it manageable.
What sets the scene are monkeys, one seated upon “On the Origin of Species” and the Bible opened to Genesis, contemplating a skull. The monkey is humanoid, and completely relatable. He, like Hamlet, may be contemplating his future and the anonymity of death. The chasm between religion and science, jarred open after the publication of Darwin’s seminal text, persists.
Unlike most Darwin exhibits that focus on his biography and items that influenced him directly, “Endless Forms” chooses to dedicate only one small section to the naturalist’s life. It is still amazing to see first editions of Darwin’s published works alongside engraved pigeon skull samples used as models for drawings in those books. The use of different media is savvy: Darwin’s description of the color “beryl blue” in his journal of minerals in the Galapagos is brought to life with a geologic rock sample. Fossils in a glass case are mapped to prehistoric animals depicted in a nearby painting.
One of the most intriguing spaces was “The Struggle for Existence,” which featured a range of paintings, from one that portrays snakes in camouflage to “On Strike,” which depicts a family suffering from unemployment. The layout of the section works its theme: From one end one can see an eagle attacking a heron that has just captured an eel, and through its glass case see “Morning,” a painting of dying stags, at the other end.
For those preferring thematically tighter exhibitions, “Endless Forms” may not cut it.
“Art … Darwin … What’s the connection?” a fellow viewer asked me.
There is a surprisingly large range of objects on display: fossil samples, paintings, photographs, sculptures, video clips and more. Everything can be connected to Darwin, it seems. Painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church represent their different interpretations of the role of the biblical flood on geologic formations. But you can also contemplate Lewis Carroll’s photograph of a subject posing with monkey skeletons.
But you can’t help notice that “Endless Forms,” has been in the works for years. The concept was born during a 2005 symposium for art historians. In its final presentation, the relation between art and science is near-seamless. The show captures a time when everyone was reading Darwin, many in translation.
There are definitely a few artists to look out for: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, for instance, whose paintings of dogs in the “Animal Kin” section are eerily realistic. Once there, be sure to see William Henry Simmons’ “The Sick Monkey,” where the adorable primates return with a vengeance. Odilon Redon, a French lithographer and contemporary of Darwin, renders surreal images of a Cyclops, placed near drawings of centaurs.
Things may get boring in the middle of the exhibition, but not to fear. James Tissot’s “The Artists’ Wives” connects female dress and fascination with color, glitz, glamour and feathers to human mating (step back, far back, for optimal viewing). Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is clad in a tutu with feet in front, hands behind, chin up. The girl is supposed to appear bestial — according to the Social Darwinism rampant at the time of the sculpture’s creation — but it is easier to find her endearing.
Cleverly, the show leaves some of the best for last: the impressionists. The connections might have been stretched a little too far, you say? Degas’ “The Song of a Dog” is a case study in the animalistic in each of us. He studied drawings of chimpanzees, drew a female opera singer and then altered his drawing of the woman to make her appear dog-like, with her arms at mid-waist like a waiting canine, her mouth twisted into a howl.
“Endless Forms” may literally seem like an endless exhibit. But it’s worth taking a few hours (or more) to check out some of the intriguing highlights of how a man changed two centuries of thought in all its manifestations — from the scientific to the artistic.