Gabriel von Max’s “Monkey’s as Judges of Art”

In case you are wondering about the header image, it is an excerpt from Gabriel von Max’s “Monkey’s as Judges of Art” (Affen als Kunstkritiker). Max was one of several German-speaking artists to engage with Darwin’s theory of human descent from apes. Darwin’s arguments in The Origin of Species were translated and published by multiple German scientists and his arguments were generally well received. As Marsha Morton so eloquently demonstrated, many German-speaking artists were also inspired by Darwin’s work (Morton, 2009).  Zoologist Ernst Haeckel demonstrated the optimism he perceived in natural and sexual selection through his brightly colored drawings of radiolarians and jellyfish. However, many other artists, such as Max Klinger and Arnold Boecklin understood this newly presented relationship between humans and animals as a valid source for anxiety, ensuring a grim future. Max is considered to fall into this camp of pessimists, and yet the humor of this painting does not indicate anxiety.

Max was perhaps one of the few artists, including Haeckel, to so rigorously examine scientific collections to understand human origins. While Haeckel was a highly regarded zoologist and traveled widely to extend his collections of zoological specimens, Max’s collections included zoological and physical and cultural anthropological items. His attention to both nonhuman and human remains as well as material culture, (not to mention the sheer number of items he acquired – roughly 70,000) reflects an awareness of ongoing debates in the German scientific community as to the applicability of Darwin’s theory in the study of humankind. Many elements of Darwin’s explanation for the emergence of new species and the extinction of others found favor among practitioners of the life sciences and morphology, yet scholars in the newly formed human sciences were much more skeptical. Their skepticism hinged on lack of evidence of the “missing link” between anthropoid and human. Max’s numerous paintings of monkeys reflect this particular hesitance regarding Darwinian evolution.

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