From Jonathan Jones on Art Blog, Guardian
Art needs to update its attitude to Victorian science
Outside the tropical birdhouse at London Zoo is a clock. And on this clock, figures of archetypal 19th-century Britons – men in top hats, naturally – stand among representations of birds in cages and machinery whose surreal appearance mocks the rationality of the Victorian era. This clock is an artwork by Tim Hunkin. It would be a pleasant eccentricity if its attitude to the Victorians wasn’t so saturated with aggressive cliche. Their love of natural history is reduced to a passion for stuffed animals, their scientific curiosity to a determination to classify and control.
The same satire extends inside the tropical birdhouse, with Victorian silhouettes among the living flowers and birds. One result of the Darwin bicentenary this year is that such cod-surrealist Victoriana suddenly looks more outdated than the Victorians themselves.
Anniversaries don’t always mean much. I don’t suppose John Milton’s 400th last year brought Paradise Lost that many new readers. But this year’s Darwin bicentenary has revealed that science in 19th-century Britain was nothing like the butterfly-pinning, skull-measuring cliche of so much recent artistic and literary fantasy. Everyone from Christine Borland to AS Byatt has had fun with these macabre images. But in reality, Victorian natural history was radical, brave and touched by genius.
An exhibition that’s just opened at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, will probably be taken for granted because there have already been so many Darwin events this year. But this show, Endless Forms, explores the revolutionary impact of Darwin on art. The idea of evolution haunts Victorian painting (William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th, 1858, for instance), revealing how deeply cultured and cultural 19th-century science was, how art and knowledge intertwined in that age.
The fact that Darwin and the theory of evolution have become more popular this year should really mark a new attitude to the Victorians. The stereotype of whiskered patriarchs collecting dead animals has given us a lot of fun. But the Victorians were revolutionaries, and their culture deserves a deeper look. They made the great leap from a god-filled world to a godless universe. We seem determined to fill it up again. Is our anti-scientific glass house really any place from which to stone their crystal palaces?
Read a review of Endless Forms here.