The Wonders of Life on Earth from 1960 is a collection of materials from Life magazine articles spanning from 1957 to 1959. It includes illustrations and photography from the original articles as well as some images that are exclusive to this publication. There are seven contributing artists but I will be focusing on the illustrators Rudolf Freund, Guy Tudor, and Walter Linsenmaier, with brief mention of Joseph Sibal. I believe that I have some of Sibal’s work in another one of my books so I’d like to return to that in a later post, and I feel that the other artists Roger Tory Peterson and Rudolph F. Zallinger are more suited for separate blog entries.
Life on Earth primarily follows the personal life and scientific journey of Charles Darwin. I am not particularly interested in delving into the text of this book since I already have a large number of illustrations to cover, and I am also considering doing a future blog post addressing some of the sexism within the field of science (including science illustration) in which Darwin certainly deserves mention. I’m also disappointed to realize that I have only showcased male artists in my blog so far; my collection is heavily skewed but I do want to take time to pull some of my books by female natural science illustrators and wildlife artists for my next post including Maryjo Koch, Katrina Van Grouw, and Julie Zickefoose. It’s worth noting that these three are contemporary artists and that the field is currently mostly comprised of women while my vintage books (both in text and visuals) render women nearly invisible for most of the 20th century. Today’s book is another one of many that only features male artists.
I hope you enjoy these features, I found this book especially inspiring.
This is one of those books I would’ve been eager to take home regardless of the contents since the slipcover featuring Freund’s painting shown above is well worth the purchase in itself. This artwork is also repeated at the beginning of the chapter charting the course of the Beagle through the Galápagos islands and it depicts two species Darwin would’ve witnesses on his journey, the Vermilion Flycatcher and Galápagos Tortoise. It’s a captivating choice for the cover and chapter opening — its colors are radiant fire and emerald and the foliage and ridged carapace are exquisitely detailed. The thing that really draws me into Freund’s illustrations is their allegorical quality. There’s a strange vibe to his illustrations that sits below the surface, like a story within the story. These two creatures feel thrust together from an unnatural angle, we are simultaneously looking ahead to the bird and toward the ground for the tortoise, and both subjects seem to turn their heads to gaze at us with dark unlit eyes — these choices make the image feel oddly mystical, like they are holding secrets.
This quality is also present in his three-page biodiversity spread — one of many fantastic fold-outs in the book. Crowded habitat illustrations always have a strange feeling to them since the species are all unnaturally thrust into the same space and there is usually a lot of forced perspective used in order to cram everything in which gives them a surreal quality. They are already plenty uncanny for any artist but Freund seems to go out of his way to include a strange passage on the far right panel where the feeding behavior of the cormorant offspring is mirrored nearby in scene showing a snake devouring a Lava Lizard. Each depicts an animal’s head thrust down the throat of another — one nurturing, one predatory — reminding me of the mythic ouroboros eating its own tail, nature feeding and consuming itself in a loop. Showing the "circle of life” is nothing new for wildlife art but again Freund positions things in such a way that the animals seem to possess a heightened awareness of their condition and our presence.
The Army Ant illustration below is another wonderful piece from the book. It shimmers in gold and black with cascading limbs forming a microcosmic arabesque. The caption reads: “Within their society, each ant serves as one unit in a superorganism — one fighter in an army, one link in a living nest.”
Linsenmaier’s illustrations in this book really blew me away. The blend of soft, velvetty shading and crisp detail is beautiful — a perfect technique for capturing the gentle surface of moth wings without losing a single antenna, segment, or bristle in the chaos of the scene. I could spend hours looking at this fold-out finding more and more to admire as the subjects reveal themselves gradually just like they do in nature. We train our eyes to spot them in the field and here we must take our time teasing each species out as they enter our vision, dissolving in and out of the bark and leaves. His rendering of the Thysania agrippina against the tree trunk is particularly mesmerizing; the coloration alone is masterful but the dappled shadows take it to a whole other level. Below I’m including an example of a single moth (Sphynx Moth with Honeysuckle) for a clearer view of his style.
Linsenmaier’s background as an entymologist really shows. He has other artwork included in a chapter on symbiotic relationships which covers a wider array of animal species. His birds, mammals, and reptiles do not quite measure up to his insects but are still very appealing. I love the storybook feeling of this illustration of the Osprey nest and its various inhabitants, and the ragged dirt and gravel around the Shearwater and Tuatara peeking out of their hole. In the end it’s the insects that steal the show, I hope that at some point I will stumble upon his book Insects of the World which he wrote and illustrated in 1972.
I only grabbed one scan for Sibal since I am looking through my books for some of his other work. I wanted to get a selection of examples from the three-page fold-outs in this book to put on instagram since they were always such a treat to find in magazines. I was overjoyed to find a whole book full of them. Unfortunately the previous owner has ripped most of them (I apologize for the scan issues) but they are still a treasure for me. This spread is called “Avenue Builders and their Intricate Rituals.”
Tudor’s work is showcased in the chapter on flightless birds which he filled with dramatic portrayals of courting ostriches, hunted rheas, and dueling cassowaries. The kiwi, however, is my favorite — subtle and moody, it feels completely silent and I think it captures the species very nicely. The artist is capable of capturing action as well as calm.
Tudor is most well-known for his migration illustrations that show frenzied waves of birds traversing over simplified maps. Often the underlying maps are completely left out and you have only a vague impression of the locations implied by the clustering of the birds as they weave around and collide into each other on the blank page. The small map graphic in the top left implies a controlled, orderly journey takes place but the artwork itself has an entirely different mood — hurried, chaotic, crowded. Sometimes it feels like migrating birds simply disappear and reappear in our area each year and we don’t always have a sense of the arduous travels and obstacles they face. Through this artwork we recognize that there is a frantic quality to migration and remember that our skies are absolutely cluttered with these animals as the seasons change.
These other images in the chapter on migration stood out to me as being unintentionally beautiful. These radar scans record the paths of birds migrating through the night sky and logs their patterns as they are affected by different weather conditions. As the weather becomes more challenging the patterns of flight become altered — wind makes their flight patterns more diffused while clouds obscuring their view makes their flights scattered and disorganized. They are beautiful and compelling artworks made by anonymous animals and machines. As science communicators we are tasked with taking data and giving it a clear and recognizeable visualization — these scans could’ve been re-drawn into clean graphics but the impression from the raw material is very successful and aesthetic in itself, the marks even look like they have been scratched directly onto the page by the claws of some wild creature, the message feels like it is coming directly from the subjects. They are organic, untouched and without reinterpretation; I wanted to include them as a contrasting example to the paintings above. These images were generated by Dr. Ernst Sutter as part of his research on migration patterns in Zurich in 1954.
Thanks for reading! Sorry I am still behind on my audio recordings, I still haven’t gotten the hang of my new microphone. I will post an announcement here and on Instagram (@justine.lee.hirten) when I have the new audio posted.