Melbourne University Art History Seminar

Darwinism and the Creator’s Divine Breath: The Evolutionary Landscape of the Spiritual in Symbolism

Professor Barbara Larson, University of West Florida & MacGeorge Fellow, University of Melbourne

Darwinism, with its reliance on competition and random selection in nature, has been tied to materialism and atheism and was a major point of reference in certain scientific circles that excluded religious explanations behind the existence of living beings and the earth that supported them. However, the widespread acknowledgement of deep time and rejection of the limited historical scale of biblical creation even by the devout opened the stage to other ways of understanding the intentions of the Creator or how one might reconceptualize spiritual life. Darwinism, paradoxically, mobilized religious thought; evolutionism worked its way into theosophy, reenergized pantheism, and was folded into syncretic writings by certain Catholic authors. Darwin himself closed Origin of Species with the words ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.’ This paper examines ways in which Darwinism informed the spiritual underpinnings of the Symbolist movement.

Barbara Lawson is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of West Florida. She has published extensively on science and visual culture and is author of The Dark Side of Nature: Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon (Penn State, 2005) and lead editor of The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture (with an introduction and chapter ‘Sexual Selection and the Jealous Male in Fin de Siècle Art’, UPNE, 2009) and Darwin and Theories of Aesthetics and Cultural History (with an introduction and chapter ‘Darwin, Burke, and the Biological Sublime’, Ashgate, 2012). Her recent articles ‘Through Stained Glass: Abstraction and Embodiment in Early Twentieth Century Avant-Garde Art’, (Habitus in Habitat, Peter Lang, 2010) and ‘Mapping the Brain and the Body: Rodin and Localization Theory’, (Revue de l’art canadienne, 2009) are related to her current project Sites of the Self: Brain, Soul, and Embodiment in Art of Early Third Republic France, which argues that sensory studies (generally considered a contributing factor to the materialism that undermined belief) were appropriated by key, influential French modernist artists in the period 1870 to 1912 to support ongoing engagement with Catholicism and heal the Enlightenment rift between body and spirit.

Date: Wednesday July 25th

Venue: 1-2 pm Old Physics G16 (Jim Potter room), The University of Melbourne, Parkville.

All Welcome. Enquiries to Felicity Harley-McGowan, email