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On Art and Nature – Composite Collections
Marie-Hélène Breuil
Translated by David Kidman, Coordinateur International Esba TALM and Professeur de Cinéma
This article is a translation of:
Préface [fr]

Full text

My subject is a barren one—the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian, words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one person to be found among us who has made the same venture, nor yet one among the Greeks who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject. A large part of us seek agreeable fields of study, while topics of immeasurable abstruseness treated by others are drowned in the shadowy darkness of the theme.

Pline, Préface à l’Histoire naturelle, livre I.

1On December 2, 2011 and November 23, 2012 two symposia were held on Art and Nature (De l’art et de la nature) at the École supérieure des beaux-arts de Tours. Dedicated to current research on the conservation of collections in natural history museums and on contemporary artwork using elements of natural history, these events complemented and accompanied work undertaken in our Conservation and Restoration of Sculpture department.

  • 1 Amongst the current research on this subject, one might cite the British network, preserved! dedi (...)

2The principle was to have a wide-ranging approach to questions of conservation and the exhibition of those curiosities which have come to be the raison d’être of some museums. From amateurs’ cabinets to public collections, such as the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, the Gassendi Museum in Digne-les-Bains or the collection Curios & Mirabilia in the château d’Oiron, contemporary artworks, sometimes objects of curiosity themselves, are placed in relation to and as a reflection of an entire body of artefacts which enrich our view of the world. These two days hoped to be a period to reflect on the conservation of objects by considering scientific and historical studies with questions of presentation and production. Also on the agenda was the need to think out strategies and methods of conservation for identical materials or skills which are used and applied differently in the very discrete domains of contemporary art and the Earth sciences1. We intended that during these two days, just as in the act of reading these pages, the audience member or the reader could consider museum objects or contemporary art without feeling the need to worry about classifications or æsthetic categories.

3One of the recurring difficulties facing not only those managing collections, whether curators or restorers, but also artists, is that of infestation- for who hasn’t had woollens holed by moths? In the words of the eloquent subtitle of the introductory text by Marie-Christine Prestat, La chasse aux mythes, an expedition into the history of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature and its collections shows how the museology is inspired by cabinets of curiosities and mixes mythology and nostalgia for the ancient, eclectic and humanist learning, animals and the precious, while leaving a large share for propositions by contemporary artists.

4The presentation of conservation problems opens with a first section focused on insects, enabling an approach to the entomological work of Jan Fabre, followed by the study by Grazia Nicosia, Fabien Fohrer, Yoanna Dechezleprêtre and Virginia Gisel de Billerbeck on “bioactive substances for the protection of heritage against harmful insects”, the first results of which are announced here.

5The second section gives an account of experiences of the practical management of collections. These reports resume the problems met in contact with artefacts or artwork incorporating naturalised or living animals and the solutions brought to them using the means available: Béatrice Guilloux sets out some of the difficulties involved in the management and the preservation of a Regional contemporary art collection; Samuel Quenault shares his experience as collection manager and production assistant at the château d’Oiron ; Johanna Kapp gives an overview of the complete inventory of the collections of the musée d’Elbeuf in preparation for their removal to another site. During the first day, we spent the afternoon looking at collections and artwork in fluids. The work in Damien Hirst’s series Natural History, especially The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1992, a shark in an aquarium of formaldehyde, are clear examples of the interest, even the fascination, that some artists have for the representation of bodies in fluid. The preservation of this work and the replacement of the shark a few years ago have been widely commented upon2. The contribution of Marc Herbin presents the history of procedures for the preservation of specimens and looks at the problems of the preservation of these collections.

6Finally, the last section is dedicated to geological heritage. The Réserve naturelle nationale de Haute-Provence held two main points of interest for us. Since the year 2000, it has contributed to the establishment of a collection of contemporary art initiated by the Gassendi Museum and Le Cairn art centre. The work produced is in phase with the geological site in which it is placed and is a dynamic collection, visited and sometimes occupied by visitors. The site also hosts in situ experimentation on fossils, Myette Guiomar explains the specific questions that are raised in her intervention. In the last article, Giliane Odin, Dominique Chabard and Véronique Rouchon report on their preliminary study of pyrite fossil materials.

  • 3 galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, 22-29 May 1936.

7The interest for natural formation, curiosities and other monstrosities is constant in the art world, even so, we can consider the borrowings from the “natural” sciences in contemporary art participate in the desire of artists to transgress the boundaries set by fine art. The attraction for representations of flora and fauna, the taste for herb gardens, the collections of vials, preserved animals, gems and precious stones appear both as the motor of creation and provider of a certain effect; the “physics of poetry” for many of today’s artists. The nomenclature established by André Breton for the Exposition surréaliste d’objets3 in 1936 retains its pertinence today: natural objects, interpreted natural objects, incorporated natural objects, perturbed objects, savage objects, mathematical objects, interpreted found objects, surrealist objects, etc.

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ER[cr]OS, Équipe de recherche sur la conservation-restauration des œuvres sculptées de l’École supérieure des beaux-arts TALM, site de Tours

Carnet de recherche :

Actualités du département :

EPCC École supérieure des beaux-arts TALM, site de Tours :

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1 Amongst the current research on this subject, one might cite the British network, preserved! dedicated to “such kinds of preserved natural objects, in particular with anatomical wet or dry preparations and taxidermy. It explorses the hybrid status of these objects between nature and representation, art and science and studies their fabricaton, history and display.”

2 Carol Vogel, “Swimming With Famous Dead Shark”, New York Times, 1Octobre 2006,, Petra Lange-Berndt, “Replication and Decay in Damien Hirst's Natural History”, Tatepapers, n°8, Autumn 2007,

3 galerie Charles Ratton, Paris, 22-29 May 1936.

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Electronic reference

Marie-Hélène Breuil, “Foreword”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 18 August 2013, connection on 27 January 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marie-Hélène Breuil

Marie-Hélène Breuil enseigne l’histoire et la théorie de l'art dans le département Conservation-restauration des œuvres sculptées de l’École supérieure des beaux-arts de Tours (EPCC Esba TALM). Ses recherches se partagent entre l’art contemporain depuis 1970 – notamment autour du travail de peinture et d’écriture de l’artiste Claude Rutault – et les problématiques de conservation-restauration des œuvres contemporaines. Elle est l'auteur d'une thèse en histoire de l'art soutenue à l'université Paris IV - Sorbonne en 2009, L'Œuvre de Claude Rutault – définitions/méthodes : écriture, peinture, sociabilité.

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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