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PANEL BUSTING: Zoological Illustrations as Abstract Art

southern literature graphic novels

Photo illustration by Madeline Rombes.

Graphic Novels and Other Illuminated Writing

A while ago, my University’s library, in order to make space for other things, discarded hundreds of books and other items that had apparently outlived their usefulness. A friendly librarian tipped me off and invited me to sort thorough the discard cards and take whatever I wanted. Among the finds was a portfolio—Practical Zoological Illustrations: Invertebrates by W. S. Bullough—from 1948, containing thirty-two illustrations on heavy stock paper, measuring 14 ½" x 9 ½" each. Originally designed as an aid in the examination of invertebrates for students at McGill University in Montreal (where Bullough taught from 1944-46), the illustrations are remarkable for their elegant, direct simplicity.

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Some of the illustrations look so deeply into the dissected creatures that they take on characteristics of abstract art, as if the world itself, when observed so closely, breaks free from our common ways of seeing and knowing. In fact, Bullough (who was born and spent the majority of his career in England teaching and publishing on zoology) was in Montreal during the surrealist-influenced Les Automatistes art movement, whose first exhibit in Montreal in April 1946 was on Amherst Street, not far from McGill. Whether or not Bullough knew of the happenings of this radical, surrealist-influenced group, he taught at McGill during the post-war resurgence that gave rise to the convention-breaking movements that were part of the zeitgeist.

We typically don’t consider technical or scientific illustrations as art. Why is this so? Certainly arguments about “quality” don’t offer much of an explanation, since in the art world itself so-called quality has little to do with determining what is in or out of the canon at any particular moment. Art becomes art largely because of context, not judgments about its caliber. The conditions needed to be just right, for example, for Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, “Fountain,” to be considered art or, say, Warhol’s screen-printed “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” Both Duchamp and Warhol were part of self-conscious movements that relied on publicity to formulate and sustain their coherence in the public imagination. In his provocative book How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies, Robert Ray noted that, “to assume that…co-option will destroy the avant-garde ignores how much the avant-garde has, throughout its history, promoted its own acceptance.”

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But what does this have to do with W. S. Bullough, a professor of zoology? In a secret, alternate history, Bullough exists as an undiscovered artist hidden in the wings and folds of history. Approached thusly as an artist rather than a mere textbook illustrator, Bullough, during his time at McGill University during Montreal’s artistic renaissance, shared a secret connection with Les Automatistes. It’s often forgotten that the Surrealists were not interested in distorting reality, but rather in discovering what André Breton called an “absolute reality” or a “superior” reality and, in its own way, that’s exactly what Bullough’s illustrations do. Breton’s claim that “nothing but the Marvelous is beautiful” applies—in our secret history of Bullough as artist—to the invertebrate illustrations which reveal, in their hyper-detail, a level of reality that’s positively surreal. Up close, nothing looks as it appears to the naked eye. Bullough’s illustration of an Amphioxus, for example, suggests the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or the side view of an enormous flying saucer. It is so real it become fantastic, as reality often does when examined too closely.

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Bullough’s illustrations sit uneasily between reason and imagination. Products of scientific discourse and its desire for total understanding, they nonetheless verge on the fantastic, the mythic. For Les Automatistes produced not only art, but a notorious manifesto, as well, Le refus global (Total Refusal), in 1948, a tract that, in fact, questioned the very “scientific instruments” that made possible Bullough’s detailed illustrations:

The spirit of observation succeeded the spirit of transfiguration.
Method pushed our boundaries even further. Decadence became convivial and necessary: it favoured the creation of agile machines that moved at frightening speeds, enabling us to harness the power of our tumultuous rivers while we wait for the planet to blow itself up. Our scientific instruments are wonderful devices for studying and controlling things that otherwise would be too small, too fast, too vibrant, too slow or too large for us to comprehend. Our rational thinking has unlocked all the gates of the world, but at the price of our unity.
The growing chasm between spiritual and rational powers is stretched almost to the breaking point.

Viewed as art (for example, the illustration Blatta, a genus of cockroach) and not merely instrumental technical diagrams, Bullough’s zoological drawings bridge the gap between the rational (or scientific) and irrational that the Surrealists exploited in their art and writing. In this secret, untold history, Bullough was a subversive, a surrealist artist teaching invertebrate zoology at McGill in the immediate years after the war, right under the noses of the artists of Les Automatistes.

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But beyond all this, the thirty-two sheaves that make up Bullough’s Practical Zoological Illustrations are simply compelling in their own spare, oddly beautiful way. They are, of course, intended to be purely objective, non-stylized renderings of non-human creatures, and yet they are remarkably human creations that bear the mark of their creator W. S. Bullough who, in attempting depict reality close-up, created bold abstract renderings that show us how alien our so-called reality is when examined so closely. In this respect, Bullough was himself a surrealist artist, operating in the halls of the zoology department like a secret agent, unknown even to himself.

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