Plants and Animals. Atlases of Natural History in the Age of Linnaeus

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - Sunday, October 18, 2020

  • Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - Sunday, October 18, 2020
  • International Cultural Centre, Rynek Główny 25

We long for the natural world and admire its diversity. Yet we rarely realise that long before the emergence of thematic television channels, several hundred years before the circulation of illustrated magazines, the world of nature had been well depicted and documented not only for the sake of knowledge but also for aesthetic pleasure. The International Cultural Centre presents the exhibition Plants and Animals. Atlases of Natural History in the Age of Linnaeus – a story of artistic and scientific fascinations with the masterworks of nature. 

Why nature?
Our longing for nature grows together with our sense of how fragile and threatened by extinction it actually is. Once it seemed primeval, permanent and easily accessible, now it is associated with endangered species, shrinking resources and the vital need for protection of that which still remains. The exhibition Plants and Animals. Atlases of Natural History in the Age of Linnaeus responds to these signals and presents the “great beauty” of nature which can still be experienced directly.

„The exhibition Plants and Animals. Atlases of Natural History in the Age of Linnaeus is the eleventh joint initiative of the International Cultural Centre and the Scientific Library of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków, as well the first project in collaboration with the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Our show works as an opportunity to bring back one of the most important (yet still relatively inaccessible to the public) collections of graphic arts in Krakow, testifying to the exceptionality of the city’s cultural heritage. With this exhibition we would like to emphasise that natural heritage – much like cultural heritage – is a non-renewable resource of all of us” – explains Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik, the ICC director.

This rediscovered collection is unique both in terms of its very high artistic level, as well as because it includes numerous publications commonly considered milestones of European natural history, such as the most renowned and celebrated graphic albums of ornithology and botany from the 16th to 19th century. The condition of the albums is so immaculate that it seems we are dealing with publications unchanged since the time of their making.

From delight to knowledge
Although the basic function of atlases of natural history was to be used for scientific purposes, the craft of engravers and printmakers as well as great precision of execution and aesthetic styling suggest that they should be considered autonomous artworks. The selection of works for the ICC exhibition was driven by contemporary concerns: ecology, the return to a close interest in nature, healthy eating and diets, and general lifestyle trends.

With this show we are asking two major questions. First: why nature? Early modern prints are largely black and grey. Only small parts of editions are coloured. Often carelessly or unskilfully. Meanwhile, in the 18th century, there is a sudden boom on the market of nature illustration. No other fragment of the visible world was then recorded with equal dedication of means and talent. The second question concerns the consequences of contemplation of such works. Does curiosity fed by hundreds of images change the relationship between humans and the world of animals and plants? Does it open us to further exploration of an alien world, does it make us respect it?” – reflects the exhibition co-curator dr. Anna Olszewska.

Exceptional exhibits
The rich collection includes more than 40 atlases of flora and fauna (both open volumes as well as individual pages), close to 400 works with images of fish, over 90 original large-sized boards with images of birds and plants. On display will also be previously not exhibited amazing editions of prints and folios, such as the works of the famous botanist Maria Sybilla Merian, Georges Cuvier, Eleazar Albin, François Le Vaillant, and a famous work by Ulisses Aldrovandi.

„At some point these works set a refined standard and almost timeless style of nature illustration, which in some respects reveals its advantage over photography. A scientist, painter, draughtsman, and finally engraver and colourist jointly created a precise and bold statement. This was communication between people, an exchange of remarks that is unknown to the camera even when it is supported by artificial intelligence” – explains Krzysztof Radoszek, the exhibition curator.

For this reason artists worked on visual effects that still make plants and animals seem more real and colourful than their natural models. Hyperrealist hand-coloured drawings and coloured engravings of highest mastery of execution depict not only subtle, carefully drawn flowers, local species of animals, but also majestic portraits of exotic birds, countless shapes of fish, and unique colourful types of butterflies. Contemporary exhibition design complements the exhibits with wallpapers, prints, and furniture based on facsimiles of prints on display.

Sections of the display
To correspond to the plates used in old Larousse encyclopaedias works on display form four separate sections, while the storyline moves across borders, centuries, and library catalogues. The exhibition prologue comes with The Wilds, where the focus is on the closest, local species that can be observed and identified in our climatic zone. Another room offers a journey into exotics Overseas, full of paradise birds, butterflies and plants, discovered during travels and scientific expeditions into remote lands, found in jungles or underwater. A rich collection of several hundred images of fish will amaze not only fish lovers. The section Table provokes questions and encourages debate on issues such as farming, contemporary diets, and their global dimension. The epilogue comes with the Garden, which shows the richness of the world of decorative plants. This is a peculiar area on the verge of nature and culture, while collected images may inspire the viewers to develop their own gardening practice.

Although the exhibition of Plants and Animals is interdisciplinary in nature – moving from art history and offering both cognitive and educational aspects – it has not been developed as a call for mobilisation in the face of climatic catastrophe or as a lecture in the history of natural sciences. It is addressed to those who enjoy contact with nature, value the time dedicated to its exploration, and appreciate the mastery of great works of graphic arts. This way it is addressed to a wide audience, from art lovers, through nature enthusiasts, to professional naturalists and all those with high ecological awareness.

Opening of the exhibition on 19 May 2020.

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