Reading about the ongoing devastation of the wildfires in California makes “Extreme Nature!” seem all too relevant.
The exhibit, the latest to open at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, brings together artistic and scientific approaches to capturing some of the universe's most intense climes and fantastical natural disasters. It’s curated by Michael Hartman, a Williams Graduate Program student. As part of the joint program with the Clark, he has also interned at the Institute, working with the print collection for the past two years. During his time there, Hartman got to know the print collection very well, not only some of the famous pieces, but the works that didn’t get their time in the limelight.
Through “Extreme Nature!” Hartman hopes to shine a light on them, as well as on climate change, a topic that doesn’t often get the attention it deserves, Hartman said.
The topic has been in and out of the news for years, and it often pops up whenever there’s a natural disaster of any sort, like the fires in California.
When looking at a lithograph like “The Great Fire at Boston,” it reminds us that humans have been captivated by natural disasters and man-made calamities for centuries. With bright orange and yellow colors splashed across the sky, and dark red mists rising above it, the piece brings to life the horror of the catastrophic fire of 1872, which destroyed Boston Harbor’s commercial district.
As the fire rages, figures in the painting watch it all burn from their boats in the harbor. Hartman calls the piece “spectacularized,” with the drama of its colors and the voyeuristic sense of the watching figures.
“People were obsessed with looking at fires,” Hartman said. Over the years, there were commemorative plates made for disasters such as these so people could relive the drama.
But “Extreme Nature!” isn’t all about earthly fires.
It also focuses on how people were responding to scientific discoveries in the 19th century. During that time, there was a hunger for more information, not just from academics, but from the average non-specialist.
It’s evidenced in one illustration by Winslow Homer, in which crowds of people look to the skies, trying to catch a partial solar eclipse using what looked like pinhole cards. The piece echoes scenes from just last year, during The Great American Eclipse, when people went outside in droves to try to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse.
Close by hang two large lithographs that look both scientific and mythological. The first, called “Solar Protuberances,” reveals great red figures, looking vaguely like trees, ballooning up from the foreground. The second and perhaps more whimsical piece is “The November Meteors,” in which bright lines shoot out across a dark background.
Both are by amateur entomologist turned astronomer turned artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Trouvelot is often blamed for releasing the gypsy moth in North America in the mid-1860s. The invasive species destroyed millions of acres of hardwood trees. Shortly after he brought the moths to the United States and realized his mistake, he turned from entomology and took up astronomy, a field of study in which he had a much less destructive impact on the world.
As the two lithographs in the exhibition show, Trouvelot illustrated what he believed was happening on the sun’s surface and with meteor showers at a time when people were hungry for these explanations.
It was around this time that “Scientific American” was first published, focused on feeding that national interest in the natural world. However, illustrating these scientific discoveries and processes was sometimes a difficult task. Take for example, when the magazine attempted to illustrate what the moon’s craters looked like by comparing it to that of Mount Vesuvius in a photograph. However, the photographs weren’t of the surface of the moon, as it would seem from the magazine, but of plaster models that were created to give the illusion of space photography. Looking at it today and comparing it to actual photos of the moon’s craters, it doesn’t look completely inaccurate.
The exhibition also dives into how the natural realm is depicted in fiction, including illustrations from books like Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” It was from these works, among others, that gave people a more fantastical perspective of the natural realm.
“Extreme Nature!” takes us through lightning-filled skies, isolated and icy arctic climes, flooded city streets and brightly burning metropolises, to celebrate our fascination with the natural realm and to nudge us to pay closer attention to how our actions impact it.
It’s open at the Manton Research Center at the Clark Art Institute through Feb. 3. For more information, visit clarkart.edu.