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Darwin and the end of the baroque: 150 years after the publication of 'on the origin of species', Darwin's impact on religion is still hotly debated--but what about his impact on art?

Anniversaries don't come much bigger than this year's commemoration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, which by happy chance also marks 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. A handful of other scientists, such as Copernicus or Newton, are equally celebrated but none is so closely identified in the public mind with a book in the way that Darwin is. This partly reflects the fact that--unlike De revolutionibus orbium codestium or the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica--On the Origin of Species is a work that even a nonspecialist can read for pleasure today. Also, unlike the impact made by Galileo, for example, it is still easy for a layperson to grasp that Darwin completely revolutionised the way that we understand the natural world and our place in it.

To some degree that is because the explanation that Darwin provided of how species evolve is still held by some to conflict with a religious understanding of creation. This profitless debate has strengthened the misconception that Darwin's ideas led to a 19th-century crisis of faith in Europe and America. In fact, what is remarkable is how easily most people accepted Darwin's ideas while retaining their Christian beliefs. What changed irrevocably, as Darwin's loyal propagandist T.H. Huxley announced within months of the publication of On the Origin of Species, was the idea that religion could be a source of scientific knowledge.


In this anniversary year that familiar story is being amplified by an investigation of the impact of Darwin's ideas on art. An exhibition currently at the Yale Center for British Art, 'Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts' (until 3 May), examines both Darwin's debt to visual imagery and artists' responses to his theory, which ranged from evocations of the prehistoric world to depictions of nature or primitive man in terms of the struggle to survive. This is an exhibition that will change our understanding of the subject (it will be at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from 16 June to 4 October).

To what degree, I wonder, was Darwin's impact on the visual arts comparable to the way his ideas helped to drive religion and science into separate spheres? Until the mid-19th century science and art were fellows in ways that they have only very rarely been since. Was this because religion formed a link between them that Darwin helped to dissolve?

As another eagerly awaited exhibition, 'Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence' at the Victoria and Albert Museum (4 April-19 July) will surely make clear, the baroque was an age that integrated scientific ideas about the natural world into spectacular artefacts. An object such as the Badminton Cabinet (see pp. 34-42) functions as a microcosm of nature by using natural materials--semi-precious stones--to depict exotic flowers and birds. This is an idea with a very long life: when On the Origin of Species appeared architects were embellishing churches with lush foliage carving and polychromatic marbles to celebrate a natural world still seen as a manifestation of God; the style may have been Gothic but the idea was baroque.

Plenty of artists today use religious themes but I can't think of any who convincingly makes use of ideas (as opposed to occasional imagery) drawn from science. Even the scientific subjects that most appeal to the popular imagination--palaeontology and cosmology--lack serious artistic manifestations. Perhaps the only significant exception is Land Art, which often deals with important issues about man's relationship with nature. But on the whole it seems to me that--no less than religion--art after 1859, thanks in part to Darwin, became a far more self-contained endeavour, and less of a discourse shared across disciplines.
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Title Annotation:Charles Darwin
Author:Hall, Michael
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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