Beauty and the beast: imaging human evolution at the Darwin Museum Moscow in the 1920s.

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The Darwin Museum in Moscow was, from its foundation in 1907, committed to using art works to support stories of evolution. Nationalised in 1917 as an adjunct of Moscow State University, the museum remained under the direction of its founder, Professor Aleksandr Kots, a zoologist, ornithological expert and amateur taxidermist. He directed and supervised the creation of paintings and sculptures, principally made by Vasilii Vatagin, an artist and zoologist, to support the versions of Darwinism being projected over that period. From the October Revolution to his death in 1964, Kots ensured that the displays at the Museum were always politically correct.
This paper explores the potential contextual resonances of certain works by Vatagin and others in the early Revolutionary period. The discussion starts with an examination of a pair of monumental sculptures by Vatagin entitled Age of Life (1926), depicting the variations of role, behaviour and appearance of, on the one hand Orangutans (the beast), and on the other hand, human women at different stages of their lives (beauty). The paper then goes on to consider how the modes of imaging, both in these sculptures and in other works representing human evolution in this period, connected with contemporary discourses on, and visualisations of Darwinian evolutionary theory, both in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe. What emerges, I argue, is a complex relationship between the images and the dialectic between contemporary Bolshevik anxieties about degeneration within the Soviet population, and utopian dreams of the Revolutionary production of a new, human biologic type
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPicturing Evolution and Extinction
Subtitle of host publicationRegeneration and Degeneration in Modern Visual Culture
EditorsF. Brauer, S. Keshavjee
Place of PublicationNewcastle, UK
PublisherCambridge Scholars Publishing (CSP)
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781443872539
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2015


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