Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

  • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
  • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
  • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
  • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
Schenley Park Entrance 1922

Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

 

Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, about the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

I also had learned from the work of Peter Clericuzio (Currently Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) on the architecture of Forbes Field about how in the early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together, while at the same time, the funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment, via philanthropic activities.

At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in a culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks, which as Lulu explained, can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the linkage of art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

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Categories: 
  • Visual Knowledge
  • Dioramas in Context
  • Graduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh