Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer, The Art of Evolution

Review by Sonia H. Stephens
University of Central Florida

Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer, eds. The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture. Hanover: Dartmouth, 2009. 348 pp. $50.00. (978-1584657750)

[1] In 1859, Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species struck a spark that would ultimately lead to a revolution in the way humanity views itself in relation to our world. Darwin's theories of natural selection and shared descent have left clear and striking marks upon many fields of human endeavor, including biology, the social sciences, philosophy, and religion. However, Darwin's ideas, and their transmutation by later thinkers, have also had more subtle impacts upon other fields.

[2] In The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture, Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer have assembled the research of eleven visual culture, literature, and art history scholars on the reception of Darwinian ideas in their respective fields. Two quotes from this volume neatly summarize the conceptual tie between science and visual culture. For contributor Janet Browne, "science, at its very heart, is about making visible the invisible" (20). A later quote by Paul Klee complements this: "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible" (qtd. 288).

[3] The Art of Evolution was published in concert with the sesquicentennial of the initial publication of Origin of Species, as well as the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. The authors in this volume examine the effects of ideas introduced by Darwin throughout his career, and do not focus solely upon the cultural impact of Origin of Species. The chapters are situated chronologically, with the earlier selections taking as their subject matter the immediate reception of Darwin's ideas to his contemporaries, and the later ones covering a range of reactions to Darwinian concepts and themes to the present day. Although each chapter focuses upon a particular facet of visual culture, several uniting themes run through the book and connect these selections. Barbara Larson mentions a few in the volume's introduction: change, breakdown of boundaries between human and animal, the pattern of evolution, and the struggle for existence.

[4] The first two chapters in The Art of Evolution focus upon the immediate reception of Darwin's work in contemporaneous culture. Janet Browne uses late Nineteenth-century cartoons and caricatures as a lens through which to examine the popular reception of Darwin's ideas. She identifies themes of change and transmutation, as well as the breakdown of boundaries between human and ape. Philip Prodger's chapter complements Brown's by focusing on the reception of Darwin's ideas by the artistic community. Prodger focuses on the aesthetic argument that evolution through undirected natural selection is incompatible with the human appreciation of beauty. The implication from Darwin's work that human emotions and the aesthetic sense have biological underpinnings provides another example of the breakdown of boundaries between man and animal.

[5] Ideas derived from Darwinian theory influenced early modernist art in several ways. Artists worked to reconcile Romantic artistic traditions with themes of non-moral competition, struggle, death, and oceanic origins. Marsha Morton documents different responses by artists: Ernst Haeckel, for example, favored cooperative and harmonious ideas, while other artists influenced by Schopenhauer's irrational Will explored themes of nihilism and competition. Robert Michael Brain also explores Haeckel's work, but focuses on the links between "vibratory "as a directing force for life and artistic explorations of synaesthesia.

[6] The process of selection played a key role in Darwin's work in three different forms: natural selection, the differential survival of better-adapted individuals; artificial selection, or breeding of plants and animals by humans; and sexual selection, the choosing and winning of mates. In the first of her two chapters in this book, Fae Brauer explores the ways natural selection and photographic documentation were used as theory and tool to build the eugenics movement. Offerings by James Krasner and Barbara Larson focus on sexual selection and the male gaze. Krasner explores the standardization and social policing of female beauty in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Larson explores the links between sexual selection, Schopenhauer's Will, and themes of "wife capture" in Symbolist art.

[7] Darwinian implications for community social relations have also been depicted in art. In her second chapter, Fae Brauer discusses how themes of cooperation and group formation in French art mirrored the national political climate, while images of savage primates and fierce predators both justified and masked colonial violence. In Russia, Pat Simpson traces the links between the Soviet ideal of the "New Person" and evolutionary theory. Simpson makes connections between Darwin's ambivalence to the idea of acquired characteristics- heritable changes that occur within an organism's lifetime- in the final edition Origin of Species and the dual Soviet projects of the perfectible worker body and Lysenko's tragically flawed approach to agricultural science. The juxtaposition of these two chapters provides an interesting comparison of the selective incorporation of Darwin's ideas into widely different political environments.

[8] The final two chapters in this volume discuss the use of Darwinian ideas in Surrealism and contemporary visual art movements. Gavin Parkinson presents a critique of Walter Benjamin's emphasis on urban elements in Surrealism, arguing that Benjamin's analysis overlooks natural themes in the movement. Parkinson highlights depictions of nature in the works of several Surrealist painters, and links their themes of metamorphosis, blending, and interactions with alien nature to ideas about evolution. Sara Barnes and Andrew Patrizio's chapter on contemporary art examines how prominent themes from Darwin's work in geology and biology are interpreted with reference to modern scientific theory in those fields. For example, they explore how themes of time, vectors of force, and the breakdown of human/animal distinctions inform contemporary artistic explorations of embodiment and phenomenology.

[9] The potential subject matter for inclusion in a volume about Darwinian ideas and visual culture is very wide, and it is unsurprising that several areas are only lightly touched upon in The Art of Evolution. With the exception of Prodger's chapter on beauty and sexual selection, the influence of visual culture on Darwin's own work is not heavily emphasized. Another omission is the influence of Darwinian ideas upon electronic media, particularly cinema. Themes of change, relationships between humans and the natural world, and selection are prominent in cinema, and this book might have benefitted by the inclusion of a chapter on this subject. Nevertheless, the exclusion of these areas of study is not overly detrimental to the volume as a whole. Readers with specific interests may prefer to focus on particular chapters in this book. While each chapter offers insight into the wide-reaching nature of the impacts of evolutionary thought on visual culture, some authors make more direct connections between their subject matter and Darwin's work. In summary, this volume provides a comprehensive introduction to the varied effects of Darwinian ideas on visual culture that should be useful to scholars of the history of science, art history, and visual cultural studies.