Different ways of seeing the natural world

Volume 9 Number 3 March 11 - April 8 2013

Vizard Foundation Assistant Curator at the Ian Potter Museum of Art Donna Leslie previews a new exhibition that contrasts contemporary and 19th century Aboriginal and European ways of looking at the natural world.

A new exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art – ‘Seeing the natural world: birds, animals and plants of Australia’ – invites the viewer to engage with artists’ responses to nature in Australia.

The exhibition considers afresh Aboriginal and European cultural ways of seeing the natural world through bark paintings, 19th century natural history illustrations of birds and animals, and contemporary botanical illustrations.

It also includes a carved wooden parrying shield 9pictured) that communicates the changing world of 19th century Aboriginal Victoria and a selection of 19th century books, including Australia’s first illustrated book. 

Drawn from the University of Melbourne Collection and the Baillieu Library Special Collections, the exhibition features 33 lithographs and watercolour and ink works, four 19th century books on natural history, and two carefully selected groups of artists works.

Mildjingi bark painter Mick Makani Wilingarr from central Arnhem Land, and Groote Eylandt bark painters Minimini Numalkiyiya Mamarika, Quartpot Nangenkibiyanga Warramarrba and Peter Nangwurrama Wurrawilya, are presented alongside a group of natural history and botanical illustrations by John Lewin, John and Elizabeth Gould, Henry C Richter, and the Australian botanical artist Margaret Stones.

Culturally important barks from Groote Eylandt and a carved wooden parrying shield from Victoria communicate ancient traditions and the Aboriginal encounter with cross-cultural life since colonisation. Drawn from the Leonhard Adam Collection of International Indigenous Culture, which was formed from 1942 to 1960 by Dr Leonhard Adam, lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne, these works provide opportunities for reflection and investigation into Aboriginal ways of seeing and painting the natural world. 

The works of the Mildjingi bark painter Mick Makani Wilingarr from central Arnhem Land similarly provide opportunity for insight into another unique Aboriginal response to the natural world.

The works of the 19th century artists John Lewin (who arrived in Australia in 1800), John and Elizabeth Gould (who visited Australia in 1838–1839) and Henry C Richter (who worked with Gould in England from c. 1841–1881) are among the best 19th century European natural history illustrations. 

Book illustration in the form of copper-plate engravings produced by Lewin and lithographs published by Gould reflect the scientific analysis and documentation of nature at a time when European interest in science was expanding in exciting ways. 

The search for scientifically-based recordings of nature was accompanied by a particular aesthetic approach to illustration which had a profoundly important impact on the classification of the natural world over the next 100 years. 

The work of the Australian botanical artist Margaret Stones, who began her career in the mid-1940s, belongs to this tradition. Her repertoire of botanical drawings and watercolours are a remarkable and outstanding internationally recognised achievement. 

Viewers are encouraged to consider Aboriginal ways of seeing the natural world through stories and cultural meanings, and to contemplate European cultural traditions in seeing and depicting nature through observation and documentation. 

All of the works on display reflect the particular milieu in which they were made as well as the special characteristics of the individual, cultural and collective artistic vision. Viewers are also invited to consider their own engagement with the natural world in response to this thought-provoking and beautiful exhibition. 

On show 20 March until 2 June, first floor gallery, Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.