In the red mist of early 20th century Russia a museum is born, Terry Grimley explains.


Three exhibitions have just opened at Wolverhampton Art Gallery which, different though they are from each other, are linked by an awareness of, and concern for, the natural world.

The strangest of them is Dream of Science: The Life of Charles Darwin in the Russian Imagination, which introduces something of which I was previously unaware: the State Darwin Museum in Moscow.

This was set up in 1907 by Prof Alexander Kohts (1880-1964), a distinguished naturalist who was a member of the Zoological Society of London and the London Linnaen Society and corresponded with various distinguished international figures. Despite this, he managed to keep both himself and his museum staff on the right side of Stalin.

As well as building up one of the world’s great natural history collections, Kohts sought to make Darwin’s achievements more accessible to the wider public by commissioning artists to illustrate his life and work.

This exhibition. which anticipates Darwin’s bicentenary next year, features work by two artists employed by Kohts, though they were from different generations and never met each other.

The more gifted of them was Mikhail Yezuchevskii (1880-1928), a painter and historian who studied at the Academy of Arts in Paris in 1902. His works, mostly pastel drawings, reflect the forward-looking styles of circa 1900.

Yezuchevskii, who was from a military family, returned from service in the First World War to face desperate times in post-revolutionary Moscow. The patronage by Kohts may actually have saved his life.His illustrations show Darwin with a sea turtle, on HMS Beagle, and discovering a fossil skull.

He also drew a series of illustrations of pioneers whose work helped prepare the way for Darwin’s theories, including Goethe, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier and Buffon.

Victor Yevstafiev (1916-1989) was a company commander in the Red Army during the Second World War, after which he trained quite late in life as an artist. His pictures, very much in the idiom of book illustrations, were commissioned by Kohts in anticipation of the 150th anniversary celebrations of Darwin’s birth in 1959, and Kohts later gave some of them to Darwin’s house, Down House in Kent.

Yevstafiev’s delicate but somewhat gauche drawings have a touching innocence. It seems that he never set foot outside Russia, so that these images of Darwin’s travels may reflect a wanderlust which was impossible to satisfy during the Soviet era.

His numerous illustrations, dating from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, begin with Darwin as a child, collecting beetles and going fishing with his sister. He imagines the young adult Darwin riding in North Wales and spending evenings with his extended family at Maer Hall, Staffordshire. Later illustrations show Darwin’s adventures in South America, spending a night on the pampas or hunting ostriches on horseback. It is difficult to believe the latter was not influenced by the famous “Wild West” artist Frederick Remington or some similar source which Yevstafiev may have seen.

Downstairs in the contemporary gallery, it’s fossil fuels rather than animal fossils which concern artist duo Cornford & Cross. Their installation The Lion & the Unicorn is basically a large pile of coal which almost fills the entire gallery. Its dimensions have been determined by the maximum safe loading for the floor (14,000 kg), and the minimum legal width for safety access (1,500 mm).

Borrowing its title from a wartime essay by George Orwell, its purpose is evidently to be an object of contemplation, and it stirred some thoughts for me. I am old enough to remember when men with blackened faces delivered coal on lorries, but nowadays coal is largely out of sight and out of mind.

Yet it continues to fuel many of our power stations nut, mindful of the harmful effects of carbon, the artists have switched off the lights in the gallery. So, like the miners who dug it, you are required to view this coal by torchlight.

A welcome adjunct to Cornford & Croft’s installation is the small exhibition they have selected from Wolverhampton’s collection – the largest in a museum – of paintings by Edward Butler Bayliss.

Bayliss (1874-1950), the son of a wealthy Tettenhall foundry owner, is unique in having devoted most of his career to documenting the industrial Black Country. His paintings are unfortunately undated, but apart from their considerable artistic merits they are an extraordinary record of just why the Black Country was so called during the first half of the 20th century.

An art consultant brought in to advise Wolverhampton on its collection after the Second World War described Bayliss’s work as worthless. It shows so-called expert advice should always be treated with caution.

The video installation Antarctica by the Irish artist Dorothy Cross (unrelated, as far as I’m aware, to the David Cross of Cornford & Cross), could rival Bayliss’s landscapes for sootiness, since her black and white images are projected in reverse.

Lasting 15-20 minutes, Antarctica is a seemingly random sequence of images of icescapes seen from a moving boat with wildlife including penguins, seals and whales, and a central section in which the camera follows divers beneath the ice.

We are used nowadays to seeing TV documentaries which take us to remote corners of the natural world with crisp colour photography and factual commentaries. Cross’s silent video takes us back to the random pioneering footage shot by early cinematographers like Herbert Ponting on Scott’s expeditions.

To what purpose, exactly? Maybe the art lies in the decision to show the video in negative, which might justify itself if the effect was really arresting in an abstract way. But it isn’t, and the result seems to slip between evolutionary stools, being neither fish nor fowl.

* Dream of Science: The Life of Charles

Darwin in the Russian Imagination and Antarctica are on view until Jan 16, The Lion & the Unicorn until Jan 31, at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, admission free).