Joos van de Plas; Portfolio Wiesbaden, 2013
In 2007 I contacted Museum Wiesbaden because I had read somewhere that it housed a spectacular entomological collection. It dated back to the seventeenth century. This so-called Gerning Collection included Surinam butterflies which might have been collected by Maria Sibylla Merian, herself!
After a few visits to Wiesbaden I was struck by a tantalizing idea. The collection of butterflies was available to me, and so was the copy of Merian’s book ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ in the Museum’s library; why shouldn’t I bring the two together? It might be possible to decide whether some of the specimens in the collection had actually been used for the engravings. It was a simple idea, but apparently no one had thought of it before.
This idea had occurred to me because of something Merian had written to a Doctor Volckamer in 1702; in this letter she mentioned that she was drawing her insects life-size, and if so some of the butterflies in the Gerning Collection ought to match exactly with the butterfly illustrations in Metamorphosis. A careful optical comparison should be enough to start with. It quickly became clear when comparing the butterfly wing shapes and patterns that there were indeed some astonishing similarities, I decided to commit myself to it as a project.
As it turned out, this was truly an undertaking that had been waiting for me to discover all along. Carefully comparing dried insects with their drawn counterparts is simply not enough to draw conclusions. One must be able to follow the 'translation' from reality into a drawing, a painting or an engraving and it certainly helps you to understand the difficulties and the impossibilities of it when you are intimately familiar with all these techniques.
To make a record of the project I started working on an ambitious artist's book. It would take me the better part of five years. I named it Portfolio Wiesbaden, and it has become a bulky book which is loosely based on Merian's Suriname book. It consists of two parts. In Part One I present all the insects from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium for which I found a close match in the Gerning Collection.
The second part of the book gave me the freedom to give it a more relaxed, painting-like character. Here I show those butterfly specimens which do not correspond closely to the drawings in Metamorphosis.
When I see my book now I am glad to find that it amounts to anything but dry, academic science. It has become a series of intriguing, colourful adventures that shows the results of my research.