The birds and the bees (and the higher primates)

The Natural History Museum of Oslo University has opened an exhibition dedicated to homosexuality in the animal kingdom.

Today we know that homosexuality is a common and widespread phenomenon in the animal world. Not only short-lived sexual relationships, but even long-lasting partnerships; partnerships that may last a lifetime.

The exhibit puts on display a small selection among the more than 1500 species where homosexuality have been observed. This fascinating story of the animals’ secret life is told by means of models, photos, texts and specimens. The visitor will be confronted with all sorts of creatures from tiny insects to enormous spermwhales.

How can we know that an animal is homosexual? How can homosexual behaviour be consistent with what we have learned about evolution and Darwinism?

Sadly, most museums have no traditions for airing difficult, concealed, and possibly controversial questions. Homosexuality is certainly such a question. We feel confident that a greater understanding of how extensive and common this behaviour is among animals, will help to de-mystify homosexuality among people. At least, we hope to reject the all too well known argument that homosexual behaviour is a crime against nature.

Naturally (ahem), this has attracted the ire of the usual god-botherers who are happy to ignore inconvenient Scriptural declarations about loving your neighbour when sending the museum directors hate mail. Unfortunately for the bigots, evidence about homosexuality being very much a part of the natural world continues to mount (pardon the pun again…), as shown in an article in US science magazine, Seed, earlier this year. That won’t convince the American (and other) Talibans, of course, but then if it was up to them we’d still be burning witches and thinking that the sun orbited the earth.

The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby

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The Deluge (1840).

In the days before cinema and the likes of Roland Emmerich, people had to visit galleries or see touring exhibitions of huge paintings for their fill of artistic cataclysm. I discovered some of these works on my first visit to the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain), aged 13. I was there to see favourite pictures by the Pop artists and Surrealists and so was completely unprepared for the room of three John Martin paintings and the awesome (and enormous) The Deluge by Francis Danby (1793–1861). These were pictures that never appeared in conventional art histories although subsequent scouring of libaries revealed at least one book devoted to Martin’s scenes of Biblical destruction. Danby, on the other hand, remained obscure, and for years this single painting was the only work of his that I’d seen.

Over the years I’ve come to prefer The Deluge to many of Martin’s paintings. His figures are larger and the draughtsmanship is better, the composition is more developed and the technical qualities (despite complaints in the article below) are superb. Like many painters of this period, Danby had great skill at rendering the translucence of water and the gorgeous texture of the waves in this painting was one of the first things to strike me (something that’s impossible see in books or online reproduction). Closer examination reveals detail of a kind that Martin usually buries or ignores, from the tiny ark sailing away on the horizon, to the lion clutching desperately at a branch to escape the water. Most curious of all, in the far right the painter has stranded a pair of anomalous Biblical figures, a glowing angel and what appears to be a drowned giant. The Deluge is probably Danby’s most accomplished work so it’s good to know it remains on public display.

The following article is seventeen years old and remains the only newspaper or magazine feature I’ve seen about Danby’s work to date.

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An Attempt to illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828).

Darkness Visible

Many of the sombre, apocalyptic works by the nineteenth-century painter Francis Danby have become darker still as the paint and varnish have deteriorated over the years. But now some have been successfully restored for a retrospective of his work.

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Saturday, February 11th 1989
The Independent

FRANCIS DANBY’S The Upas, or Poison Tree in the Island of Java, the smash sensation of the annual British Institution exhibition of 1820 and one of the most ambitious narrative paintings of its time, has languished in the obscurity of the V&A’s basement for more than a century. Recently restored, it is the focal point of the Danby retrospective that has been mounted jointly by the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery and the Tate Gallery. The Upas Tree marked Francis Danby’s London debut, and in some style. Measuring 66in by 99in, Danby’s gloomy canvas was an enormous calling-card, his way of announcing that here, from provincial Bristol (via Ireland, his place of birth), was a young painter to be reckoned with.

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The music of The Wicker Man

wicker_man.jpgLeft: The scarce first edition of the Hamlyn novelisation. From the Coulthart library.

I realised some years ago that all my favourite films have great soundtracks, almost without exception. Something about the blend of drama and well-chosen music really excites me, so it’s no surprise that The Wicker Man would appeal, having as it does a wonderful folk soundtrack. Nice to see from the discussion that follows how influential this soundtrack has been although I’m surprised they didn’t mention the multiple cover versions of Willow’s Song. Once again Hollywood has seen fit to gift us with a completely redundant cover version of their own; the less said about the imminent remake, the better.

‘It was a way into a magical world’
The Wicker Man is the unlikely inspiration to a new generation of British folk musicians. So we put the film’s musical fans in a room with its director to discuss its enduring appeal. By Will Hodgkinson.

Will Hodgkinson
Friday July 21, 2006
The Guardian

ONE OF THE unlikeliest motivating factors in the current wave of new British folk music is a horror movie from three decades ago. The Wicker Man, the story of an upright Christian police officer investigating the disappearance of young girl on the Scottish island of Summerisle, and stumbling across a pagan cult, is hardly a masterpiece. But it has endured as a cult classic because it is unique, fascinating and evocative. Its folk-based soundtrack and use of ancient rituals and mythology have made it the focal point for a new generation of British musicians. So, as the gods of creation poured golden light into a sacred hall (a meeting room at the Guardian) on a summer afternoon, we assembled a handful of Wicker Man-obsessed musicians to discuss the film’s influence with its director, Robin Hardy.

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