Violence and moral panic in illustration

26 August, 2010

Sarah Gubby and John Kean
Conservator Sarah Gubby and John Kean examine an Audubon print.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

The Exhibition Collection Management store was a two-dimensional aviary last week for the final selection of Audubon prints for Eyeline, an upcoming touring exhibition about scientific illustration.

French-American naturalist and artist John Audubon is lauded for his master work, The Birds of America, which was published between 1927 and 1838. John Kean, Eyeline curator, describes Audubon as “the most exciting natural history artist.” It was John’s task to select ten prints for exhibition from the 100 held by Museum Victoria.

Was choosing just ten prints difficult? “Yes and no, because any choice was going to be good,” explained John. “In a way, the selection was driven by Audubon’s function in the exhibition, which is to be big and bold and magnificent. So that drove selection more towards birds of prey and moments of conflict and violence rather than works of smaller birds.”

The prints depict the birds of North America life-size in rich, velvety colours achieved by an engraving process called aquatint and intricate hand-colouring. Audubon’s unique style reflects the art of revolutionary France and his life as a woodsman and hunter. His sense of movement and drama were unparalleled and he influences scientific illustrators to this day. “He was interested in the excitement of a particular moment in nature between two creatures, like two hawks grappling for control of a freshly-killed rabbit carcass,” explained John. “So rather than what was the convention of the time – to shoot the bird, skin it, stuff it and draw it on a perch months later – he set up the images there and then, in scenarios he was familiar with.”

The final selection includes cosmopolitan and extinct species as well as those that depict a theme that John calls ‘moral panic’, where a group of birds are in danger from an intruder. An example is the illustration of a rattlesnake among a mob of mockingbirds. “You’ve got the gaping jaw of the rattlesnake and the brave mockingbirds pecking at the snake’s eye as the family is attacked and the nest violated.” John describes this particular image as “arguably the greatest ever natural history illustration.”

The Audubon prints will be displayed alongside many other examples of the art from Museum Victoria’s rare books collection and archives. Eyeline will explore the importance of scientific illustration in the discovery and description of new species during global exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its continuing relevance and technological advancement today. The exhibition's tour will begin in regional Victoria in 2011.

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