By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Levon Biss’s insect photography turns bugs into visual art. He uses macro lenses to get highly detailed pictures of endangered and extinct specimens. Insects appear prominently in art, film, and literature.
Renowned photographer Levon Biss has chosen insects as the subjects of his next exhibit, opening in June at the American Museum of Natural History. While many of us find insects to be annoying, creepy, or even terrifying, they play vital roles around the world—and many are disappearing forever.
Inspired to show people a brighter side of insects and hopefully save them from further extinction, Biss is profiling dozens of extinct and at-risk insects with macrophotography. Macrophotography involves using specialized camera lenses like microscopes in order to capture sharp, high-detail images of subjects.
His upcoming exhibit is just the latest example of insects appearing in art. They’ve been featured in paintings and other visual media since at least the Middle Ages. In his video series Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species, Dr. Scott Solomon, Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, analyzes the world of insects in art.
Insectoid Symbolism and Illustration in Western Art
According to Dr. Solomon, insects have been used in Western art since the Middle Ages, often symbolically. One example is that in religious art, the butterfly represented the soul.
“In some cases, the fly represents death; in other cases, a fly can represent the Devil, or evil more generally,” Dr. Solomon said. “Bees are often used in Christian art to symbolize hard work and self-sacrifice. Moreover, because worker bees are unmated, they have also been used in the Catholic tradition to represent virginity and, specifically, the Virgin Mary.
“The preference for candles made from beeswax in Catholic churches is also connected to this association.”
Roughly around the time of the Renaissance, art became more secular and often pastoral. Still life paintings and landscapes became more prominent and depicted the insects that inhabited them. Seventeenth-century still life artist Maria Sibylla Merian, who raised silkworms as a child, became known for her detailed illustrations of butterflies, moths, and caterpillars. Her illustrations contributed not only to the art world, but also to entomology and scientific illustration.
Insects and the Masters
Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting Death’s Head Moth was inspired by an insect of the same name. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh described the creature as so beautiful that he couldn’t bring himself to kill it in order to paint it more accurately. He called its coloration “astonishingly distinguished.” He wasn’t the only famous artist to be fascinated by insects.
“Salvador Dali’s work often included depictions of insects,” Dr. Solomon said. “Dali was fascinated by ants, and they appear in many of his paintings, including his 1929 piece, The Ants, as well as in one of his most famous works, The Persistence of Memory, where a group of ants are crawling over one of the many clocks. Another insect—a fly—is also depicted on one of the other clocks.”
Dr. Solomon noted that Dali’s 1929 painting The Great Masturbator features a large grasshopper, which symbolized Dali’s own fear of being consumed.
Artists’ fascination with insects continues into the 21st century, as Biss’s exhibit clearly shows.