The Natural History Museum in London is making a great attempt at blending an artistic perspective with their main focus of activity – science education. A previously mounted conceptual art exhibit was reviewed in this blog. The museum has now opened a new gallery entitled Images of Nature focused on showcasing the over half-a-million drawings, illustrations and images of plants and animals in the museum’s collection.
The introductory text states that nature has inspired, and continues to inspire, many artists and describes the long tradition of natural history illustration. The point is made that “for a picture to be useful to a scientist, it must be true to life.” The best natural history illustrators are described as having superb attention to detail and an ability to reproduce what they see – ie. to reproduce faithfully the physical characteristics of the animal, plant or “specimen” they are illustrating.
It is this very attention to reproduction of the physical object that ultimately distinguishes art from science.
The museum’s gallery contains some recent work by Guyanan artist Aubrey Williams. The artist is quoted as saying: “I hope these bird paintings can be viewed as an artist’s visual rendition of how he feels about birds and not as an ornithological treatment as one would have with a field guide.” And here lies the fundamental difference between art and science. Science is concerned with a description of how things are in a physical and material sense. Art, on the other hand, is largely concerned with what we make of things in an emotional, cultural or social sense. Images that stop at being true to a physical reality are artistic illustration. Art goes much further.