Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pictures At An Exhibition 3

Today I’m returning to my Pictures At An Exhibition. In case you haven’t read part 1, here’s the link

The mural discussed this time is off-exhibit, as the space in both the Paleozoic and Cenozoic sections of the Evolving Planet exhibits is limited. It’s not a very spectacular mural, but it’s a big one that requires a lot of space. The corresponding gallery is relatively small, forming up part of a larger room transitioning to another gallery. This is too bad-there’s not much in the mural itself, but it’s still a haunting piece by a master artist. 

This painting’s label is currently unknown, but it depicts the shore of the Ordovician sea, 460 million years ago. You see, before dinosaurs became the stars of the main fossil exhibit, the Field Museum used to have a separate gallery of Paleozoic life, complete with dioramas showing life under the sea. Two of Knight’s paintings may have either been featured here or in the main gallery, but were meant to correspond to the gallery of marine fossils. The University of Michigan museum still has their dioramas.  At any rate, it was the age of marine invertebrates, and Knight was depicting examples of them.

The setting is the shore around a bay, with large boulders and rock pillars forming the sides and background. You see, in all of these Knight murals, every scene is out of the water. Even those dealing with expanses of oceans show the animals breaching the surface. This isn’t due to an artistic failing-many of Knight’s murals show underwater activity; indeed, many cover this exact subject. I think it was to create a kind of continuity across the murals.

The foreground is dedicated to beached sea life. The context may be of a storm or a tidal wave that stranded this sea life on the shore. This is reminiscent of many old drawings of sea life; a lot of what we know is from beached specimens; many species of deep sea fish, whales and squid were/are known only from beached specimens. It took centuries for scientists to see the giant squid in its natural habitat. In this way, the mural is a clever invocation of past natural history art while illustrating new material. It’s a tantalizing hint at the creatures of the ocean.

The creatures in question are fairly typical of the period. In the foreground pile of seaweed are a pile of ammonites. They are shown as closed or empty shells; it’s possible ammonites had an operculum like a snail, but that’s still under debate. An operculum, in a mollusk context, is a hard covering that slips over the opening of the animal when it withdraws entirely into the shell to prevent dehydration and predation. It’s also possible they could have been washed on shore already eaten by scavengers, as the land lacked anything but bacteria to act as scavengers. 

The biggest animals of the period are featured as stranded, this time with their squishy bits intact; two giant nautiloids. As part of the Ordovician diversity, there was a flourishing in the basal cephalopods, the nautiloids. One branch was the aforementioned ammonoids, which lasted until the great Cretaceous extinction. One that emerged after the Ordovician extinction was the Coleoids, containing today’s squid and octopus. Of the basal nautiloids, only the Nautilus itself survives. The biggest invertebrates until the Mesozoic were Endocerids, very successful in the Ordovician before the whole order was wiped out in the mass extinction to come. The largest genera were Camaroceras and Endoceras, reach 20-30 and 12 feet long respectively. Of course, it is these leviathans that are at the center of the mural.

Filling out the trio are the ubiquitous trilobites. Not being a trilobite expert, I can only guess that they depict the largest and most spectacular genus Isotelus, which is found in Ordovcian rocks. Their order, the Asaphids, were among the casualties of the Ordovician extinction. The Ordovician was a boom-bust period, where the revolution in diversity was suddenly hit by a catastrophe. It says something about the success of these clades that they recovered in the Silurian and Devonian-the ammonites thrived, the Orthocones hung on until fish drove them out in the Carboniferous, and the Trilobites made it even to the Permian. 

So, with the two cephalopods and the trilobites, you get a small but dramatic sample of Ordovician sea life. Of course, if the setting was underneath the waves, it would show the first coral reefs, sponges, mollusks, echinoderms, trilobites etc. The dioramas would have filled in that lack, as the painting would connect that gallery with the main fossil hall. Still, it’s Knight’s best effort to feature the marine life of the period without breaking his motif. 

The composition of the piece is good-the shore’s marine life and the water’s edge are centered between the rocks, and there’s a nice counterpoint between the water and land with neither dominating the scale. The trilobites, Endocerids and ammonites each have a distinct look and color, although the brown ammonites do blend in with the brown seaweed washed on top of them.  Knight loves to show animals in different positions by showing multiple individuals, and this is the first time we see this in the series. This is an excellent way to show three dimensions in terms of the subjects, although this does lead to visual redundancy. It’s more successful when it comes to herds and gregarious animals. 

The mural is limited by having the animals out of their context, but it’s certainly unique in this. It works to transition from the previous murals of landscapes to subsequent ones of fauna. Once we reach the Permian, we’ll go to animal life in full swing, but this is the first show of animal life in the series of murals. It’s not going to be anyone’s favorite mural, but it’s a fine Charles Knight piece.

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