Evolution makes for inspired art

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

How do you picture evolution? The images that come to mind are probably not works by any of Darwin's great artistic contemporaries. No, they're a couple of 20th-century cartoons. There's Rudy Zallinger's illustration, The March of Progress, which first appeared in the Time-Life book Early Man (1970). It shows a line of primates walking, from left to right, evolving step by step from a knuckle-dragging ape to an upright, modern, Caucasian man. You know it well. It's an image that's become proverbial, much quoted or adapted, familiar to multitudes that have never seen its original version.

The other cartoon is Walt Disney's animation, Fantasia (1940). In the prehistoric sequence that accompanies a drastically edited version of The Rite of Spring, there's an evolutionary episode. It starts with a ballet of undersea primal blobs. One of the blobs takes shape, and embarks on a journey, left to right and upwards, during which it mutates into more complex life forms – tadpole, fish, amphibian – finally surfacing as a primitive terrestrial quadruped.

These cartoons are certainly vivid and also (as it happens) highly misleading images of Darwin's theory. But they're not exactly art. And if 150 years after the On the Origin of Species there aren't any obvious examples of Darwinian art, you might suppose that there simply aren't any at all. So go to the new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and think completely again.

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts is the most important and interesting of this year's anniversary exhibitions. It makes its revisionist case forcefully and sweepingly. From now on, Darwinian art will be a field of research and gradually a cliché. True, it would be odd if one of the intellectual revolutions of the 19th century had had no visible impact in its visual art, especially since it concerned things – nature, the human body – in which art had a long interest. But you weren't expecting to find, I guess, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, even Gauguin in this story?

The show takes a good look around. It begins by showing how British visual culture was already hospitable to the Origins. There were intense geology paintings (by Turner and Ruskin, among others). There were entertaining dinosaur scenes, including Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's clumpy, cuddly Extinct Animals, and Robert Farren's An Earlier Dorset (great title) displaying a battle of lake-monsters, laid out with a Look and Learn clarity. The empiricist vein in British art leads to frequent near-overlaps with scientific observation. And even Darwin himself, a self-confessed philistine, can do you quite a pretty diagram.

And then we're on to the wide repertoire of Darwinian themes, and the ways they feature in visual art. The struggle for existence, the adaptation of forms, mutation of species, links between animals and humans, facial expression, the lives of monkeys and apes, cavemen and tribesmen, sexual attraction and selection...

The argument proceeds quite straightforwardly, even though the pictures sometimes still anticipate the texts. We meet the struggle for existence in Edwin Landseer's paintings of mortal combat among stags. We see it at a social level in human destitution as pictured by Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer. And it's very striking to see these dark images of the victims of Victorian competitive capitalism, just across from Bruno Liljefors's Four Bird Studies, an image of nature's competitiveness in all its loveliness.

We then meet human-animal links, spelt out in Landseer's anthropomorphic portraits of dogs. (There's a bit too much Landseer.) And there is a clearly symbolic if clearly unhappy depiction of the whole business, in George Frederick Watts's Evolution. Humanity, a big mum, looks doomily ahead, as her babies squabble around her feet.

The missing links between Darwinism and art are sometimes a little tenuous...

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