Science and the Artist's Book

An exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts


Herald of Science

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Christian Konrad Sprengel
Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen [The secret of nature in the form and fertilization of flowers discovered]
Berlin, 1793

    Christian Sprengel's 1793 treatise on floral structure examines the ways that flower colors, scents, shapes, and markings work harmoniously to attract insects for pollination. A clergyman and botanist, he spent his life researching the role played by the wind and insects in the fertilization of flowers. Although Sprengel's work was neglected by his contemporaries, Charles Darwin later praised Sprengel's studies.

Artist's Book

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Frances Butler
The Taxonomy of Desire
Berkeley, California, 1994
[wood, porcelain, paint, paper]

    Even scientific theories are subject to cycles of popularity. For Frances Butler, Sprengel's system of visually grouping plants by color, scent, and shape is returning to fashion after half a century of disfavor. To celebrate taxonomy (the science of classification), she presents a catalog of pasta, with all its appeal to the appetites, organized by color, taste, and shape.

Herald of Science

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Francesco Redi
Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl'insetti [Experiments on the generation of insects]
Florence, 1688; first published 1668

    Francesco Redi, a 17th-century Italian physician, challenged the widespread belief that flies were spontaneously generated from decaying animal and vegetable matter. He designed an experiment using two flasks containing meat, one tightly closed, the other open to the air (and to flies). Only the meat in the open flask became infested, demonstrating that the generation of insects was not spontaneous, but caused by the laying of eggs.

Artist's Book

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John Carrera and Sam Walker
Putrefatti [Decayed]
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995
[embossing, intaglio and letterpress printing on laid paper]

    As the pages are turned, the text seems gradually to deteriorate while bug-like forms appear to grow in size. In this way, John Carrera and Sam Walker visually document the natural processes that Redi observed in testing the idea of spontaneous generation. The closed flask image represents the "constant" in the experiment, while the open flask represents the "variable" that is engulfed by flies at the book's conclusion.

Herald of Science
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Marcello Malpighi
Anatome Plantarum [On the anatomy of plants]
London, 1675

    Malpighi launched the microscopic analysis of plant anatomy as a scientific field of study. He also cataloged the similarities between the growth stages of plant and animal embryos. In Anatome Plantarum, he presented many images of plant cells drawn from seeds, stalks, and cross-sections of wood. Malpighi taught at the University of Bologna and was physician to Pope Innocent XII.

Artist's Book
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Steven C. Daiber
Williamsburg, Massachusetts, 1994
[woodcuts, watercolor, photocopies]

    Steven C. Daiber, the son of two biologists, investigates forms of nature through his drawings. He responds to Malpighi's pioneering book in a very personal way, relating images of plant growth to vegetation found near his Massachusetts home, and comparing chicken embryo stages to the pre-natal sonograms of his daughter.

Herald of Science

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Charles Robert Darwin
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
London, 1859

    Charles Darwin, a naturalist on board H.M.S. Beagle during its surveying voyage around the world (1831-1836), collected many plant and animal specimens. Back in England, Darwin studied these specimens and accounted for their variations by theorizing that species continued to evolve over time. Later, experimenting with the cross-pollination of flowers in his garden, he noted that human intervention in the cultivation of plants worked much like natural selection, helping to perpetuate the most desirable or vigorous traits in each species.

Artist's Book
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George Gessert
Natural Selection
Eugene, Oregon, 1994
[computer-printed handwriting, paper, inks, Cibachrome prints]

    In his artist's book, George Gessert takes inspiration from his experiments hybridizing irises. He selects his plants based on their aesthetic qualities and contends that Darwin also recognized aesthetics as an evolutionary factor. Gessert's view is based on the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin discusses the breeding of pigeons for their ornamental characteristics.

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