An Artist Captures the Travels of Alexander von Humboldt

“My work is inspired by stories,” says Galicia-born artist Oscar López. “It has to be a story that touches me in some way. So when I read it, I said, ‘This is it.'”

“It” was Andrea Wulf’s 2015 book The Invention of Nature about German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

Here was a tale, says López, worth capturing on the canvas.

Opening at Pallas Studios in the Liberties on 21 February, López’s show Pickled Chimp Ears draws on  Humboldt’s travels through South America at the turn of the 18th century, his contributions to the natural sciences and, López says, his approach to nature itself.

Venezuela to Peru

Humboldt was born in Prussian Berlin in 1769.

He is today credited as the first person to predict man-made climate change, and was key in laying the groundwork for biogeography.

Cyanometer on the Go.

Called “the forgotten father of environmentalism” by historian Wulf, it was Humboldt’s extensive travels through South America – where in one year he mapped over 1,700 miles of the Orinoco River – that inspired artist López to take up his paints.

Each work in López’s exhibition features characters, plants, animals and the South American landscape documented by Humboldt as he travelled from Venezuela up to Peru.

Accompanied by botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt set about studying the environment, documenting its natural properties, its flora and fauna from 1799 onward. “He was obsessed with measuring things,” says López.

Beyond the scientific, the artist found something spiritual when reading Wulf’s book about the naturalist. “He was a scientist, but to experience nature, he said, you have to feel it in your heart,” says López.

It was near the summit of the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador in 1802 – a record climb at the time – that Humboldt began to view the world as one interconnected, living organism.

“He had this realisation that everything is united,” says López. “I thought that was a beautiful way of seeing the world.”

Everything is linked, says the 38-year-old artist, who has lived in Ireland for 10 years, studying at the Dublin Institute of Technology and the National College of Art and Design.

Pickled Chimp Ears will be his first solo exhibition.

Tackling themes like nature and the effect of climate change, the characters in the works featured, López says, are drawn from both Humboldt’s travels and his own imagination.

One oil painting, Cyanometer On the Go, depicts a golden track extending from a mustachioed, top-hat-wearing character, zig-zagging up a volcano’s side and into the sky.

A cyanometer is an instrument used for measuring blueness, specifically that of the sky, and Humboldt used one throughout his South American travels.

Other paintings in López’s show, like Baumanna Tribe, depict hybrid creatures set in isolation to their surrounds.

One Living Thing

Humboldt went on to travel extensively though Mexico and the United States, where he counted among his admirers Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Baumanna Tribe.

It’s said, notes historian Wulf, that poet Walt Whitman composed Leaves of Grass with a copy of Humboldt’s scientific treatise Cosmos on his desk.

When Humboldt died in Berlin in 1859, he left behind a lifetime of scientific data, observations and discoveries.

And though his name lives on – think the Humboldt penguin or the Humboldt Current – he was somewhat forgotten about, says López, until Wulf’s book.

López is hoping his upcoming exhibition will go some small way toward continuing this renewed appreciation for the great polymath.

He is putting the final touches to the paintings at the moment. At a certain point, says López, he left Humboldt behind, and focused his own imagination.

But the naturalist’s story provides the basis. “It’s the idea that everything is connected,” says López. “Everyone is becoming isolated these days, so the idea that the world is one living thing, whether we like it or not, I think is really important.”

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Cónal Thomas: is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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