Nature and Art (Part I)

In today’s post, Fang from the Visitor Team takes a look at the complex relationship between art and the natural world, and how the two interact on our galleries at Manchester Museum.

For more on our natural history collections please visit the Curator’s blog.

Back to Nature

Manchester Museum is undergoing an exciting transformation with our hello future redevelopment. Due to the construction work, this means that currently our local and ancient history galleries are closed, with only the natural history galleries open for public viewing – the museum, quite literally, has gone Back to Nature!

In the Museum Shop, I found a book called Mindfulness & the Natural World: Bringing our Awareness Back to Nature. The author, Claire Thompson, starts a paragraph on ‘Nature in Art’ with a question:

Visual art has taken inspiration from nature ever since those first prehistorical cave paintings. Have you ever walked through an art gallery without seeing any paintings depicting nature?

Do you have an answer?

Inspired by Nature

Here I have another question for you: can you find the artistic treasures behind our natural history exhibitions here at the Manchester Museum?

This Nature and Art series will reveal some of the art behind our nature, appreciating the harmony between the natural history specimens and art works on display in the museum. To begin, let’s start with ‘Understanding Evolution’.

Part 1 – Understanding Evolution

Understanding Evolution in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum

Whenever I look at the Understanding Evolution case, the three unusual exhibits always catch my eye first, but the background image draws my attention as well – do I know it from somewhere?

Firstly, please allow me to introduce these species, all very important to our understanding of evolution.

Archaeopteryx  – “old wing”

The archaeopteryx is an extinct prehistoric animal with the skeleton and teeth of a dinosaur, but the feathers of a bird. This strange animal was discovered just two years after Charles Darwin published the seminal ‘On the Origin of Species’. Archaeopteryx seemed to confirm Darwin’s theories, and has become a key piece of evidence for the evolutionary relationship between reptiles and birds (transitional fossils) and the origin of birds, a confirmation of evolution.

Left: A cast of the original Archaeopteryx fossil in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum. Right: an artistic depiction of what a living archaeopteryx may have looked like (Source).

Tuatara – “living fossils”

The two species of tuatara are only found in New Zealand. They are the only surviving members of a group of reptiles that flourished around the world 200 million years ago. Some evolved over time giving rise to lizards and snakes. Studying tuataras helps scientists understand how the ancestors of snakes and lizards might have lived.

Left: A preserved tuatara specimen from New Zealand. Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum. Top Right: Tuatara reptile, photographed at the Nga Manu Reserve, New Zealand (source). Bottom Right: A tuatara as seen on the New Zealand 5 cent coin (1967-2006).

Platypus – “missing links”

The duck-billed Platypus is a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal endemic to Australia. Platypuses have hair and females feed their young with milk like other mammals, but unusually they lay eggs like reptiles. Platypus DNA shows both mammalian and reptilian characteristics.

Top Left: wild platypus swimming in a Tasmanian creek (source). Top Right: colour print of platypuses from The mammals of Australia by John Gould, 1863 (source). Bottom: preserved specimen of duck-billed platypus from Australia, Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Life on Earth has evolved over thousands of millions of years, with new species continually developing from existing species. Scientists classify animals and plants into groups. The relationships between these groups are complicated and often obscure, but on rare occasions, an unusual species is discovered that reveals these relationships. Preserved specimens of these unusual species help scientists to understand how living things evolve over time. All living things are related to one another, like a huge family tree.

Yes, déjà vu, the background image is The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt.

Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life

Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter, and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. One of his best known works is ‘The Kiss’.

Left: A 1914 photograph of Gustav Klimt by Josef Anton Trčka (source). Right: ‘The Kiss’ (Lovers), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

Klimt’s The Tree of Life, a symbolic painting in the Art Nouveau style, was completed in 1909 and is now housed at the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria. The painting is part of a series of three mosaics, created by Klimt in his ‘Golden Era’ for a frieze commissioned for the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, Belgium. These mosaics also depict a standing female figure entitled Expectation or The Dancer, and a cuddling couple called Fulfilment or The Embrace. The Tree of Life is the centrepiece, but also forms the background for the other two figures, as its swirling branches extend across the whole Frieze.

Right: The Tree of Life, Stoclet Frieze (source). Left: Stoclet Palace, dining room decorated with Klimt’s mural including the Tree of Life (source)

Klimt’s ‘Tree of Life’ struck architects as belonging to another world, with one exclaiming “I think I’m on the planet Mars!” This iconic painting later inspired the facade of the Tree House, a colourful, 21-story, student residence hall at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, USA.

Tree House Residence Hall, Boston (source)

Visual & Decorative Arts experts on Klimt’s work have a detailed interpretation of The Tree of Life.

“That the tree’s branches stretch out in and beyond the frieze while firmly rooted down in the centre of the image gives added weight to its symbolic appeal … the tree of life to encompass the underworld, earth and the heavens all in one. The black bird, so often in cultures a symbol of death … All bursting out from the same ‘root’, an abundance of spiralling branches twist and turn, and the arrangement of swirls in different shapes and sizes creates the pattern – the varied fruits springing forth only add to the impression of a revitalizing, opulent rebirth …”


A metagenomic representation of the tree of life (source)

All life is connected

Not surprisingly, here it recalls the ‘Tree of Life’ in Biology. The latter is a metaphor to express the concept that all life is related by common descent; a research tool to explore the evolution of life and to describe the relationships among various biological groups, both living and extinct.

Quietly sitting in front of Klimt’s ‘Tree of Life’, the Archaeopteryx, the Tuatara, and the Platypus all seem to tell the story of evolution: common ancestors, DNA divergence and life itself… Using Klimt’s ‘Tree of Life’ to enhance the presentation of the ‘Understanding Evolution’ exhibition, is one of the fantastic examples where the Museum’s Curators have, creatively and professionally, combined both nature and art to design a Natural History exhibition.

Life on Earth keeps changing over time, evolution is continuing…

Fang Zong

Our exploration of Nature and Art will continue with Part II – British Wildlife.

With special thanks to Henry McGhie (Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology) for his advice, support, and insights into the gallery design.

Thanks also to Dr David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections. For more about our fossils collection, have a look at his blog, Palaeo Manchester.

And thanks to my former colleague Lasma Poisa for her inspiring tour, ‘Art Treasures at the Manchester Museum’.

Find Out More:

Archaeopteryx lithographica

Finding a Home for New Zealand’s Living Dinosaurs

Not a lizard nor a dinosaur, tuatara is the sole survivor of a once-widespread reptile group

Klimt’s Tree of Life and the Stoclet Frieze

The Platypus (National Gergraphic)

What you need to know about Gustav Klimt


4 thoughts on “Nature and Art (Part I)

  1. Interesting article, but please correct the spelling of Archaeopteryx in the opening title, and also uppercase the ‘a’ in Archaeopteryx in the article (ideally italicise when used, as it is a genus). I would also suggest that many of the skeletal characters are avian and not just dinosaurian, you might want to adjust the text to state that, Archaeopteryx displays both dinosaur and avian characters. Lest we not forget that feather-like structures have now also been observed in multiple dinosaur species, including those not on the direct line to birds. However, it is fair to say that this remarkable fossil represents a transitional from in the endless forms most beautiful that Darwinian ‘decent with modification’ has refined through the process of natural selection.

    1. Hi Phil,

      Thank you for your comment and for your interest in our blog.

      As a Visitor Team blog, the primary objective for our contributors is to produce accessible and engaging writing to inspire our audiences to find new ways of looking at and thinking about collections, which I think this post certainly does.

      Nevertheless, although we are not curators, we take care to make sure that the information we include is current and accurate, and we appreciate your notes here.

      With all the best for 2019,

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