Art and science, the eye and the hand

6 avril 2017

In October 1800, two corvettes left Le Havre towards Australia to complete the geographical, anthropological and natural knowledge of this still secret land. The expedition will then become one of the most beautiful illustrations of Art which has put itself at the service of science.

"I am leaving for my happiness"

From rugby to Sydney opera, from bush aborigines to kangaroos and crocodiles, Australia is an enormous land, queen of all special features. More than 500 national parks make up and protect its territory. Between the famous Flinders Ranges, Royal National or Bay of Fires, in the sandy plains of Geraldton, proudly stands the Lesueur National Park. Named in honor of a certain Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Australia pays tribute to one of the men whose formidable work will have enabled the European eyes of the nineteenth century to discover the hidden treasures of a secret land in the middle of the Pacific.

(Naturalism & Geographe)

"I am leaving for my happiness". When the young Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, from Le Havre, wrote this, he still does not suspect that on October 19, 1800, he is about to mark the long common history of Art and science. At 22, he embarked as a simple gunner in an extraordinary expedition to Australia, initiated by Captain Nicolas Baudin, supported by Napoleon Bonaparte, aiming at completing the geographical reconnaissance of the coasts, carrying out the inventory of species and describing populations. This incredible journey includes many sailors, but also and especially geographers, cartographers, designers, artists, naturalists or botanists. After a few months of sailing, illnesses, such as scurvy and dysentery, ravaged long-distance trips, carried off many men, such as the zoologists Levillain and Mauge, and the gardener Riedle. A stopover in the Ile-de-France (today Mauritius) in March 1801, saw a dozen scientists and illustrators desert the expedition due to illnesses, disagreement with Captain Nicolas Baudin or other reasons.

(Poisson de l'Île Maurice, Lesueur)

Among these defections were the three official artists of the expedition, Louis Lebrun, Jacques-Gérard Milbert and Michel Garnier, whom Captain Baudin replaced at short notice by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, engaged as gunners, but whose exceptional talents as draughtsmen had been recognized by the captain. If Lesueur is trained as a draftsman, it is more elementary for Petit. Their work owes much to the directives of François Péron, both zoologist and what we would call today anthropologist. We are at the end of May, 1801, when the two corvettes, the Geographer and the Naturalist, perceive the coasts of New Holland.

The perfect cross between Art and science

Gabrielle Baglione, the curator of the Museum of Natural History of Le Havre, defines Lesueur's work with precision and passion. "His drawings are a perfect cross between Art and science, one of the finest illustrations of art at the service of science. The expedition reports more than 100,000 samples and 2,500 new species described for the first time." In pencil, in charcoal, in ink and watercolor, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur sketches. A grouper, sea lions, gray kangaroos, diadem bats, sea elephants and a white-tailed wildebeest... 

Lovers of encounters and discoveries of unknown populations, the designers also studied and transcribed the faces and postures of Australian aborigines. Their valuable view for indigenous peoples is also a precious anthropological corpus. The cartography, the coastal profiles, the rivers… for nearly four years, nothing escapes the line and the pencils of Petit and Lesueur. Result of the expedition: 180 000 samples, 1 500 drawings and paintings.

The eye and the hand

400 drawings and 7 restored manuscripts from the Lesueur collection are the subject of a rather atypical exhibition entitled "The eye and the hand, Lesueur and Petit, designers of the Baudin Expedition in Australia, 1800-1804". The exhibition opened at the Australian Embassy in Paris on April 28, 2016. An event inaugurated by Sir Peter Cosgrove, Governor of Australia, and Édouard Philippe, Mayor of Le Havre. 

In Australia, six different exhibitions are scheduled until 2018, from the South Australian Museum in Adelaide to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney via Perth, Camberra, Hobart or Launceston in Tasmania. Under a common heading, this global corpus is structured into four identical themes (fifty pieces per location): geography (discovering the Pacific, mapping New Holland), traveling (four years in the southern seas), encounter and observation of nature, are part of the shared memory project between France and Australia: "Imagination, explorations, memories: the common history of France and Australia".

This unprecedented exhibition and its southern ports of call guarantee that new pages will be added to the already long and continuous life of these remarkable works and objects, having survived their creators, and even, in the case of the dwarf emu, to their missing fellows.

Eric Robin, Art and chemistry

As a child, Eric Robin was introduced to oil painting by an uncle artist-painter. He painted for his pleasure figurative works. It was only around the age of 35 that he decided to explore more personal paths towards abstraction. He then practices a mixed technique using copper foil, exploiting the luminosity and the effects of its oxidation by chemicals. He combines Art and Chemistry to magnify the properties of copper and give birth to vibrant works, all in light and transparency. In his works: gildings, materials and colors mingle. For smaller sizes, he applies the copper foils on laminates using the gilding technique. Then he metamorphoses copper by combining the action of heat, oxidizing products and inks.