- Reframing Darwin: Evolution and Art in Australia
A cursory glance at the contributors page of Reframing Darwin reveals the interdisciplinary depth of this beautiful, unique, and engaging collection, which combines the expertise of an architect, an evolutionary ecologist, a novelist, and professors of cinema, archaeology, and visual cultures, as well as experts in literature, science, colonial and contemporary art, and botany. The text was published as a companion to the identically named exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. The museum's director, Dr. Chris McAuliffe, writes in his foreword that both text and exhibition formed "part of the global celebrations for the two-hundredth anniversary of the year of Charles Darwin's birth" (vii) and argues that these essays together indicate the impact of Darwin's ideas upon Australian visual culture from the colonial period through to today.
The focus on subjects ranging from gorilla statues to debates surrounding religion and slavery succeeds in proving that Darwin's ideas about evolution and natural and sexual selection have influenced Australian art and culture since the nineteenth century. The collection fuses the luscious artwork of a book such as Christopher Allen's Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism with the scientific and historical focus of a text like Tom Frame's Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia. The artwork included in the pages of Reframing Darwin offers readers a visual and intellectual feast: images include detailed sketches of newly discovered plant and animal species in Australia, rich watercolours of cityscapes and landscapes, portraits of Aboriginal peoples, and contemporary art that imagines the futuristic, post-Darwinian body. Although a few chapters maintain only a tenuous connection to either Australia or visual culture (Sarah Thomas's essay in chapter 1, for instance, focuses on Darwin's and artist Augustus Earle's beliefs about slavery and missionaries as well as Earle's artistic renderings of slaves in Rio), the sheer breadth and variety of the collection renders it fascinating. Most chapters succeed in forging strong links among the volume's central concerns of art, Darwin's theories, and the nation of Australia.
Some chapters focus on Darwin himself, including chapter 4 by Danielle Clode, which explores Australia's role in shaping and supporting Darwin's theories in On the Origin of Species (1859) and other works. But most chapters discuss the influence of Darwinian thought on scientific and artistic thinkers, both amateur and professional; one notable chapter in this vein is Richard Aitken's essay in chapter 6, which explores and illustrates how the botanic garden was utilized in Australia to attack Darwin's theory of natural selection. The editor of this collection, Jeanette Hoorn, writes persuasively in chapter 7 about a nineteenth-century portrait of an Aboriginal man named Charlie Turner; she demonstrates how the emotion conveyed by the portrait connects [End Page 217] with Darwin's ideas in Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals and analyzes whether this portrait represents a common "type" of Aborigine. Amelia Scurry's essay (chapter 9) advances a strong argument that the nature-based writings and illustrations of Englishwoman-turned-Tasmanian Louisa Anne Meredith indicated her "familiarity with both the language of and ideas behind systems of natural history" (172) such as those promulgated by Darwin; this argument in turn highlights the important role that women played in "providing vital infrastructure for the collection and study of natural history" (165) within the British imperial project.
This imperial project, however, resulted in drastic and deadly repercussions for the Australian Aboriginal peoples, a facet of Darwinian theory and its influence within Australia that this volume falls short in fully exploring. Although Reframing Darwin does broach this topic at several points, there are various missed opportunities where the issue could have been analyzed through a lens such as post-colonial or critical race theory to provide a more balanced perspective. For instance, John Mulvaney's essay (chapter 5) offers a strong argument for the important and influential pro-Darwinian research and teaching of...