Friday, January 15, 2010

Figure-Ground in Nature

In Diana Donald and Jane Munro, eds., Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2009), there is a wonderful essay by Diana Donald and Jan Eric Olsen titled "Art and the 'Entangled Bank': Color and Beauty out of the 'War of Nature'" (pp. 100-117). It traces the influence on zoological illustration of a passage in Darwin's Origin of Species in which he refers to natural settings as "entangled bank[s]." As the authors point out, this gradually prompted illustrators, including the designers of museum dioramas, to represent natural entities not as "a static and detached representation of each species," but rather as "a world characterized by constant flux and completing forces," with ceaseless interactive shifts between figure and ground.

This was a great departure from the wildlife illustration styles of artists like John James Audubon and Ernest Thompson Seton, in whose work clarity and species identification were of prime importance, making explicit distinctions between the subject and its setting. In contrast, in the view of artists such as American painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer and Swedish painter Bruno Liljefors (both of whom were greatly interested in natural camouflage, called protective coloration then), animals should be portrayed as embedded in their natural setting, in which case they may not be easy to see. An especially vivid example of this second approach is the astonishing painting by Thayer's son (Gerald Handerson Thayer) of a male Ruffed Grouse in the forest, which was initially published as Colorplate 2 in the latter's influential book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909/1918).

It was this difference in approach to bird illustration that led to a painful complication in the friendship between the Abbott Thayer and one of his most devoted followers, illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes. At the time (this was near the end of Thayer's life, in the years when his theories were being attacked by Theodore Roosevelt and others), the young Fuertes was making his living as a bird illustrator for major publishers, who had found that the books were more popular when they maintained the tradition of Audubon, Seton and so on. Repeatedly, in letters, Thayer pleaded with Fuertes to acknowledge in his paintings the importance of protective coloration (of figure-ground entanglement), and when Fuertes could not do that (for reasons of livelihood presumably), Thayer began to regard it as a subversion of his own teachings. For more on Fuertes and Thayer, see Mary Fuertes Boynton [his daughter], Louis Agassiz Fuertes: His Life Briefly Told and His Correspondence (NY: Oxford University Press, 1956).