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Book Art Inspired by Science

Susan Lowdermilk's "Eadem Mutata Resurgo."

Rare books and contemporary art inspired by them at the downtown library

A superb new exhibit at the downtown library is about what all? Science books as art. Art books inspired by science. Art books as their own genre.

Books as we know them have been around since the early Christian era, and they have always been beautiful. It is a beautiful technology. But they have also been artistically embellished. From the beginning, in the Middle Ages, in the form of illuminated manuscripts. That is, basically, with illustrations of their stories. But also with abstract art. Think of the Book of Kells.

Books with technical illustrations also occurred, but not till the early modern era, with the invention of science as we know it, did this type of illustration come into its own. Think of Galileo’s watercolors of the moon with its pocky imperfections, as seen through his telescope, published in 1610.

The library exhibit is built around displays of four momentously key Renaissance science books, all but one exquisitely illustrated, in the fields of anatomy and physiology, astronomy, biology, and botany, each accompanied by a related scientific topic art book, or in one case just related art, by a current artist.

The term “art book” is a recent one in art history, referring to the radical re-imagining of the book—that is, basically, of the technology—as a work of art primarily—that is, not primarily as reading material, but something more like painting or sculpture. Anything is possible.

In the anatomy and physiology area, the historical book is a volume of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (“On the structure of the human body”), published in 1543, by Flemish anatomist and surgeon Andreas Vesalius, with precisely detailed drawing illustrations, based on Vesalius’s innovative investigative method at the time of actual dissection of a human corpse. Previously, knowledge of human anatomy was based on unquestioning acceptance of the descriptions of the third-century Greek physician Galen, whose understanding of the topic derived from his dissections of pigs and apes, but not humans. (Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook anatomical drawings, from around the same time, and also clearly based on human dissections, may have been intended for publication, but were not published in Leonardo’s lifetime. Leonardo died in 1564.)

The associated contemporary artist art book is by Maureen Cummins, based on archival patient records from the McLean Psychiatric Hospital, near Boston, which has been in existence since 1811. Explanatory material accompanying the work notes that the early-19th-century records suggested that whereas insanity in men was thought to derive from external causes, insanity in women was thought to derive naturally from their own bodies.

For astronomy, the historical tome is Selenographia, the first atlas of the Moon, published in 1647, by Polish astronomer and brewer Johannes Hevelius. The associated contemporary artist book is by David Horton. It is a fold book of wood-framed board pages with attached monofilament lines that stretch between adjacent pages, supporting miniature ball planetary representations, as if each planet on its orbit.

For biology—the subfield entomology—a volume of French polymath René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s six-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des insectes, published over a decade starting in 1734, with copious and painstaking drawing illustrations of bugs of every sort. The companion contemporary art book is by Linda Broadbent and is called Insecta, consisting of manipulated photographic transfers of original specimens borrowed from the Florida State University arthropods collection.

And for botany, the volume Species Plantarum, published in 1753, the major work of Swedish botanist and father of modern scientific taxonomy Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’s book lacks illustrations, but the accompanying contemporary artwork—not an art book in this case, but pages from an artist’s notebook—consists of flower sketches in pencil and ink and watercolor by SUNY Fredonia artist and teacher Tim Frerichs, the result of a travel grant to Sweden and subsequent stint as visiting artist at the University of Uppsala Botanical Gardens and Linnaeus Gardens.

Niche displays give further information on the featured scientist authors and on different types of art books, including altered/sculptural books, graphic novels, fine press books, and photographic books.

And a star of the show art book example, by Susan Lowdermilk, entitled Eadem Mutata Resurgo (“I rise the same but changed”), a motto on the tombstone of s17th-century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, who studied the mathematics of the logarithmic “miraculous spiral” observed in such natural phenomena as the nautilus seashell. The motto refers simultaneously to his Christian religious belief and hope in end of time glorified corporeal resurrection, and the self-similar infinite growth process of the spiral figure. The artist seems also to apply it to the idea of the re-made art book.

The complex artwork features a kind of camera structure focusing on a spiral figure.

The exhibit overall is entitled [Book]Art Inspired by Science [Books]. It was curated by the library’s rare books curator, Amy Pickard.

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