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Block Museum Spring/Summer Exhibition Explores Decorative Arts

April 29, 2008 | by Judy Moore
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art's spring and summer 2008 exhibition "Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright" will explore the previously unrecognized relationship between biological evolutionism and English and American decorative arts and architecture during the half-century following the publication of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" (1859).

Free and open to the public, the exhibition opens May 9 and runs through Aug. 24 in the Block Museum's Main Gallery and Ellen Philips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on the University's Evanston campus. A full-color catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

The Block Museum also has developed a series of spring programs to enrich this exhibition, including a May 17 international symposium that will be held at the museum; a six-week ceramics studio workshop for adults; a May 10 benefit dinner in Lake Bluff; and a special June 12 tour by the exhibition's curator. Free guided tours of the exhibition will be held at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from May 10 through May 25 and at 2 p.m. Saturdays only, from May 31 through Aug. 23.

Guest curated by Northwestern art history professor Stephen F. Eisenman, the exhibition contains decorative art, furniture, textiles, housewares and other original works of design by Christopher Dresser, William Morris, C.F.A. Voysey, C.R. Asbee, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. (To view works in the exhibition online, visit http://www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/exhibitions/future/darwin.html.)

During the 50 or so years following the publication of "The Origin of Species," biologists and designers wrestled with the question of whether the evolution of plants and animals, and the decorative forms derived from them, was the result of an internal dynamic presided over by a divine creator or external factors governed by mere contingency.

"The work and writings of the British and American designers and architects highlighted in the exhibition were conceived and developed to a significant degree in response to the Darwinian challenge, if not explicitly to Darwin himself," said Eisenman. "Their works and careers constitute the terms of an implicit debate concerning the question of evolution and natural selection in the practice and theory of the decorative arts."

Special features of the exhibition will include a full period room -- a bedroom modeled after designs by the English decorator and architect C.F.A. Voysey -- and an evocative period installation of works by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, including architectural ornaments, furniture, stained glass and a large ceiling fixture.

Eisenman will moderate the "Darwin and Design" symposium, which takes place from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 17, at the Block Museum. An international panel of scholars will gather to discuss the impact of the theory of evolution on British and American architecture, design and decorative arts. Caroline Arscott, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London; David Brett, University of Ulster, Belfast; Stuart Durant, independent author and scholar; Jonathan Smith, University of Michigan-Dearborn; and Northwestern's Sarah Teasley, assistant professor of art history, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will participate.

Other programs include a tour of the Darwin exhibition led by Professor Eisenman at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 12, and a six-session adult studio workshop focusing on ceramics that will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. every Saturday, from July 12 to Aug. 9. Reservations are required for the workshop, which will be held at Artica Studios, Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, Evanston campus. The cost for the workshop is $140 for Block Museum members or $150 for nonmembers and includes all materials and studio time outside of class. Call (847) 491-4852 or e-mail block-museum@northwestern.edu to register for the workshop.

Admission to the exhibition and programs, unless noted, is free of charge and reservations are not required. "Design in the Age of Darwin" and "Darwin and Design" are part of American Art American City, a citywide American art initiative sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art that promotes the awareness and enjoyment of historical American art.

Additional support for the Block Museum's spring and summer programming is provided by Alumnae of Northwestern University; American Airlines; Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation; Graduate School, Northwestern University; Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; Myers Foundations; John K. Notz Jr.; Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and Arete Swartz Warren.

The 140-page full-color exhibition catalogue, "Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright" ($36.95), may be purchased at the Block Museum bookstore, ordered online through Northwestern University Press at http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu or by phone at (847) 491-4002.
Topics: Campus Life