This is not a pipe, this is a cassowary

«From the natural», «contrafactum», «ad vivum»: whenever I have trouble with these or similar expressions I think of Rene Magritte’s painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) and its famous statement: «Ceci n’est pas une pipe» («This is not a pipe»). Sophisticated interpretations aside, the painting plays with the notion that a representation cannot be equal to the thing that is being represented: this is not a pipe, this is a representation of a pipe.

In this regard, Magritte’s composition appears to be the exact opposite of any early modern illustration with the «from the natural» motto attached to it. There is something about these images –because they have been produced «from the natural»– that blurs the distinction between object and representation. The image is no longer the image of a representation, but of the thing itself: this is not a representation of a cassowary, this is a cassowary.

With all its irony, Magritte’s painting serves as an excellent reminder of the non-obvious association between an object and its image, and in particular is very effective in unveiling the negotiated character of such expressions as «from the life». And just as the «this is not» part of Magritte’s statement continues puzzling the observer, it seems like a good sign that the «from the natural/ad vivum/contrafactum» elements in early modern imagery remain a source of puzzlement for us historians.

Indeed, the problematic nature of the «from the natural» mode of representation was one among the many questions that were raised during and after Nathan Flis’ paper, entitled Barlow’s Pursuits: pictures of birds and beasts before the era of modern scientific illustration, presented at the Curiously Drawn conference last week. Centred around the work of Francis Barlow (c.1626-1704) as a designer of pictures of animals and birds, this rich paper offered a compelling account on the interconnections between Barlow’s interests as an illustrator and the contemporary preoccupation, shared by many early members of the Royal Society, concerning the quality of images intended to portray the natural world.

Quality, in which sense? On the one hand, as Nathan made clear in his talk, the demand for a higher standard in natural illustrations could be linked to such practices as the production of emblematic treatises and fable compilations –a genre at which Barlow excelled- or, more generally, the use of illustrated books as educational tools, as in the case of copybooks. On the other hand –and this was a key theme throughout the talk–, the interest in good natural illustrations should be seen as part of the wider program of natural investigation advocated by the Royal Society, a program based on direct access and first-hand observation but also highly dependent on the ability to convey information by visual means as a critical tool for the generation and exchange of natural knowledge.

In this regard, by exploring an ample selection of printed works and paintings, Nathan was able to connect several features in Barlow’s style with this desire for a knowledge-making visual culture: the ability to depict his subjects (birds, animals) in different poses, and its associations with the artist’s inventio and the «ad vivum» type of representation; the interest in illustrating not just the external features of a creature, but also its behaviour -the idea of the natural world being «caught in action»; the depiction of exotic subjects as a form of experimentation, and its associations, again, with the artist’s inventio and curiosity. Ultimately, the aim was to examine the emergence of natural history both as a visual pursuit and a science, and to study the role of Barlow’s illustrations within that narrative.

During the discussion Paula Findlen commented on the importance of considering Barlow’s work in connection to earlier or contemporary image-making, image-collecting projects such as the ones associated with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and Cassiano dal Pozzo in Italy, France and Spain. I would add that even if there were some references made to the early seventeenth-century Flemish tradition of animal painting –Jan Brueghel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders– a brief comparison (in another paper) of Barlow’s work with the Netherlandish emblematic tradition could be highly illuminating. Isabelle Charmantier wondered about Barlow’s interests in hunting and Nick Jardine asked about the contrast between the portrayal of individual subjects in natural settings and the portrayal of ideal types in profile.

One particular image attracted a lot of attention both during the talk and the discussion: an engraved plate depicting an ostrich and a cassowary, taken from Francis Willughby and John Ray’s Ornithology –on display in the book exhibition at the hall. In connection to this plate, Sachiko Kusukawa asked whether it is possible to discern when an image was produced «from the life» or from a model. Which brings us back to our original question: what does «from the life» mean? What was at stake behind this claim? How did artists and naturalists respond to it? Paraphrasing Diderot, «this is not a (trivial) story».

José Ramón Marcaida

About Jose Ramon Marcaida

I’m a historian of science interested in the history of early modern Iberian science and its connection with Renaissance and Baroque visual culture. More generally, I’m interested in the relation between texts, images and things across the Humanities.
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1 Response to This is not a pipe, this is a cassowary

  1. drmafleming says:

    How wonderful to see Rene Magritte cited in a network about early modern
    scientific illustration! The project of an analysis of representation’s
    complexity and the ideological implications of this complexity is among the
    greatest contributions to intellectual history made by artists in the 20th
    century or any other.

    It is lessons from this recent period which also led me to interject, in our
    first meeting in April at HPS Cambridge, that we need to be aware that
    realism is not the only form of accuracy. We need to know what was meant,
    by different early modern artists and publishers, at different times and in
    different contexts, when the imprimatur of the phrase Œ’from the life’ was
    deployed. We do, however, also need to be careful not to apply a present-day
    analysis of representation to 17th century images ­ as in so doing we may
    inadvertently trample over the mentalité of the period of study and erase
    its trace forever.

    Perhaps we can take 21st century awareness of representation’s complexity,
    and a sense of artists as highly advanced intellectual interlocutors, into
    our project. This awareness would recognise, as Jose Ramon correctly
    suggests, that the early modern project of representing animals, and of
    deploying representation as a scientific pursuit, was something evolving,
    and that it will take some time and considerable effort to feel our way

    It was precisely this which I found exhilarating in Nathan Flis’
    presentation: a sense, particularly from an early section in the paper which
    outlined the huge variety of imaging projects in which Barlow was involved,
    from playing cards to Aesop’s Fables, of the Œstrangeness to me of his
    world. This was later also exemplified in the conference when Matthew Hunter
    evoked the relationship between Reynolds and his pigment merchant as an
    encounter over a fire laid by a fever-doctor. This Œmaking strange that
    both papers gave us is a first and important step.

    Nathan’s well constructed paper showed us the evolving relationship between
    two emerging practices of paramount importance to us ­that of
    representation and of morphological speciation. As chair of that session, I
    wish that we had had time to hear him out ­ I was sorry to have to cut him
    off just as he showed Grew’s image of the digestive system of an ostrich. It
    is with this move from the outside to the inside of an animal that we also
    move from realism to the diagrammatic, and from the species identification
    issues brought up by Nick Jardine to ones more related to both affect and
    comparative anatomy.

    What might help us is to hear from Nathan about the stomach of Barlow’s
    ostrich and from Jose Ramon about the feet of birds of paradise in the same
    afternoon. Another lesson from 20th century art: the tighter the focus, the
    greater the depth of field.

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