Book Review: Beetles and Other Insects
– Diana Marques
On the introduction to Beetles and Other Insects, Gerhard Scherer writes “There is (…) something mysterious about these objects, these small organisms with many hidden secrets. This aura of mystery and the fascination exerted by insects’ physical appearance are no doubt what has repeatedly induced artists to depict them.” Indeed it was only at thirty-two years of age that artist Bernard Durin (1940-1988) stumbled upon insects for the first time, during a walk in his native region of Provence. But the experience was so transformative that it set him on a journey to illustrate these animals with a passion and precision that are unparalleled in the representation of insects.
Beetles and Other Insects includes all known and currently available images produced by Bernard Durin. It is the fourth expanded edition of the book published in 1980 with the same title. About half of the sixty watercolor plates in it portray a variety of beetles, from the widespread seven-spotted ladybug and the expected hercules and rhinoceros beetles, to the rare alpine borer and exotic flower scarabs. The remaining plates put the spotlight on a few species from the wasp, bees and ants group, cicadas, tree and jewel bugs, grasshoppers, a crane fly, butterfly and praying mantis. There are also one spider and two scorpion illustrations, which, by being outside of the insect group, should have called for a different book title. Each plate is complemented by an historical and anatomical text, the majority of them crafted by the head of the beetle section of the Zoologische Staatssammlung in Munich at the time of the first edition.
The assortment is marked by a prevalence of European species, with animals such as the cockchafer and pine chafer that Durin predictably encountered, given their abundance in his corner of the world. Nonetheless, the presence in the book of plates of other insects from a wide geographical range — some only found in Southeast Asia, Madagascar or Australia — reveals his repeated visits to the collection at the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Besides exhibiting his work at one-man shows in galleries in Munich and at the museum in Paris, and publishing the book with Schirmer/Mosel, Durin’s images do not seem to have been used elsewhere. This might indicate he was simultaneously pursuing the career he got formal training for: being a commercial artist, producing illustration for books and magazines.
One glimpse at the plates and we immediately recognize the remarkable technical skills they involved. Bernard Durin painted in watercolor with the use of white gouache on cardboard or sometimes on vellum. The original illustrations are in a large format, mostly 65 x 50 cm, which allowed for the rich amount of details and their meticulous definition. Hair by hair, punctation by punctation, we can imagine the painstaking attention and time each illustration took. The vividness of the watercolors, masterful representation of iridescence and transparency, set these pieces apart from most insect artwork done before and after Durin’s career.
As the New York Times review of Beetles and Other Insects puts it, “each insect here is a marvel of evolutionary architecture and engineering, but also a wonder of color, texture and detail.” It is, in fact, and as scientific illustrators we find this is a book to be in awe with.