June 25, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
It is easy to assume that the way things are now is the way that they have always been. For example, visiting a museum is commonplace now, however, museums have not always been around. In fact, “curiosity closets” predate museums and offer a glimpse into human history and curiosity, wealth and prestige, and naturalists and hobbyists. These closets included objects meant to surprise, scare or otherwise cause a reaction in the viewer.
In a 2007 biography about Maria Sibylla Merian titled Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd writes, “They [curiosity cabinets] were the personal, messy, disorganized forerunners of museums. But the guiding principles behind collections were only ‘more’ and ‘stranger.’ Often they were arranged according to whim of the owner, as scientific classification was still in flux, new systems evolving all the time. Categorizing a universe that shifted every time a new ship blew into port proved both necessary and a challenge.”
Todd continues: “Some of these collections were lavishly decorated and included fine art in their holdings. Others were literally cabinets, their hinged wooden doors swinging open to reveal many tiny drawers, thin as trays, where moths and beetles lay, pinned and splay winged.”
Maria Sibylla Merian was born at the height of these curiosity cabinets. Not only did she collect her own unique insect species, but she raised them, eventually traveling to Suriname in order to find more exotic species. Trained as a painter, she collected but also painted what she saw. Rather than painting still-lifes, Merian wanted to discover the life cycle of insects. She spent countless hours raising caterpillars and butterflies in the hopes of capturing the full cycle. She was one of the first to discover that the seemingly unrelated butterflies were, in fact, a different stage of the caterpillar. Partly because of Merian, the idea of metamorphosis traveled the world during the early 1700s, an idea which gained traction over time.
Though her work was not immediately embraced, interest in Merian has undergone a recent renewal. A number of children’s books (such as Summer Birds by Margarita Engle, and The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman, just to name two) have surfaced recently. Her artwork represents the full life cycle of an insect. They can be viewed as instructions as well as art because they depict egg, larva, and adult stage of a given insect all nestled onto its food source (which can be rather hard to identify in many cases).
In Todd’s biography about Merian, she writes, “As she waited for a caterpillar to spin its casing, or saw a butterfly go its indecisive way, what did she think? How to interpret this insect that so completely changes, trading earth for air? It makes a difference if, watching a moth drawn to the light on some warm summer evening, the viewer imagines ‘there goes the soul of the dead,’ or ‘an image of Christ,’ or ‘the nuisance that ruined my only wool coat,’ or ‘a species of Lepidoptera.’ How we understand those flapping wings triggers the flight of our thoughts, whose trajectory makes up who we are.” In other words, understanding our world makes us more intelligent participants of that same world. It also enhances our love of and connection with the world, something that Merian did not take for granted.
Merian’s paintings arrived during this scientific revolution in which the world transitioned from hobbyists (a label which might apply to Merian) to scientists. However, science academies barred women from participating in academic pursuits, which left Merian’s book to the art world. Species’ classification further problematized reception of Merian’s work. There was much debate about which species belonged to which group, Todd describes in Chrysalis. She writes, “Part of the confusion concerned what, exactly, an insect was. Early natural history encyclopedists often grouped insects with snakes and serpents. Worms, spiders, crabs – these all came under the heading of insects at one time or another…” It would be another 50 years before Carl Linnaeus created his system of taxonomy.
Merian’s interest in insects has led to a number of interesting discoveries. She boldly challenged the world with unexpected notions of metamorphosis. Few of her original images survive, and even fewer of her books. However, her work enhances views of butterflies, summer, and life in general. The idea of metamorphosis completely challenged views of life, which led to the inspired works of Kafka and Mary Shelley, just to name a few.
With butterflies just beginning to emerge, summer is a wonderful time to contemplate the beauty and mystery of the natural world. To view some of Merian’s paintings, visit the Getty’s art exhibit: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/merian/
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