The phrase "natural history museum" comes with no shortage of gravitas; every word carries the weight of authority and fact. In such a place, one expects to find documentation solid as a rock: the irrefutable record of the natural world revealed through evidence - fossilized, petrified or safely preserved deep in some bog. But of course, natural history museums are really nothing like that.
Just as their contents are subject to interpretation, the museums themselves are faced with defining choices: where to focus, where to locate, how to participate in the world. In A Passion for Nature, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History looks at the art of its late and long-time director William E. Scheele, who was at the helm of the institution at a time when it faced such choices. Curated by his son, the gallerist William G. Scheele, it's a portrait of the man and the broad scope of his life. To visit the museum today is to see a place that still bears his imprint and indeed remains vital because of it. The organization's 2007 adoption of EcoCity Cleveland as the Green City Blue Lake Institute seems like the very kind of thing he'd have done.
Scheele's art - mostly watercolor, but also ink drawing, oils and other media - shows a range of traits, from the documentarian's technical skill, lavishing appreciation on the natural world, to the visionary's ability to imagine the past from its remnant bones. And in that range, it mirrors some of the same kinds of decisions he would have made as a museum director.
William E. Scheele was born in Cleveland in 1920, and graduated from West Tech High School, Western Reserve University and the Cleveland School of Art, before serving in the Army during World War II. He left the Army in 1946, and three years later was made director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. At the time, the organization - one of Cleveland's venerable old institutions - was planning a move from a Euclid Avenue mansion to its current location in University Circle. It was an enormous job for a 29-year-old man. He held it for 23 years, until 1972, when he became director of the World Wildlife Fund. During his tenure at CMNH he supported conventional activities for a natural history museum, including the excavation of Devonian-age fossils along the path of what would become Interstate 71. He also supported expeditions that led to major acquisitions, including a giant sauropod dinosaur, Haplocanthosaurus.
But Scheele was a forward thinker too. He did what would now be called "outreach" by starting youth programs and launching the quarterly magazine, The Explorer, which was the museum's membership magazine and grew to fill the same role for a network of other museums. Half a century ago, Scheele had already moved the museum into an activist role, advocating conservation - even to the point of making land purchases, including on Kelleys Island (where a park now bears his name) and Fern Lake Bog. So in putting together an exhibit of his father's art, the younger Scheele was not only showing a series of pictures, but using them to tell the museum's own history.
Most of the show comes from the Scheele family's collection, and it spans his career. Early works include observant bust portraits of birds, like red and green macaw heads rendered in watercolor. Painted when he was 18, they show a steady hand and precise technical skill. The feathers on the backs of the heads are delicate, individual petals flowing around their curves. A portrait of a wood duck employs longer, fine lines, sweeping gracefully, a crest at rest. These are firmly in the tradition of John James Audubon, and show his influence (and that of other wildlife painters) more than the imagination and confidence that would come later.
Some of these paintings have a quality people might associate with greeting cards - recognizing the beauty of nature and simply reporting it as such. This is especially true of a series of watercolors that take the bird and its immediate situation out of their broader context: cedar waxwings on a pine bough touched with snow or a kingfisher perched on a bent twig among grasses.
But the range of style, subject matter and tone show a man willing to experiment, to try things that might not work, to imagine what he cannot see and even to imbue paintings with social commentary. A watercolor titled "Imaginary Scavengers," for example, has an apocalyptic buzzard perched on a skull growing grass for eyebrows, the eye sockets glowing with apparent fire, fern fiddles and mosses sprouting nearby beneath a yellow sky, with roots like blood vessels creeping across the ground. It's an environmentalist's cautionary tale, a vision of what we might expect if we don't succeed in reigning in our multifarious pollutions.
His pen-and-ink drawings of Army life show soldiers not in battle, but shaving or cooking over a garbage-can stove. An acrylic-on-board painting called "At the K-T Boundary Bar and Grille" shows dinosaurs playing poker in the manner of C.M. Coolidge's schlocky card-playing dogs. It is at best a natural historian's joke about extinction, and its value here is mainly to show the breadth of Scheele's personality.
The strongest and most interesting paintings, though, are the ones in which Scheele imagines what the dinosaurs looked like, how they hunted, ate and drank from verdant pools. These, which are also generally his largest paintings, show not only technical skill, but strong lines, movement, in some cases effective handling of light and, most significantly, the ability to create and tell a story. The creatures are imagined from their fossilized skeletons; their situations and behaviors from information gleaned by what those bones can tell. The teeth of an allosaur, for example, reveal it to be a carnivore, and so Scheele has it feeding on some lizard-like prey, dominating a landscape it shares with sparse trees, the sun below the horizon, its wash of orange giving way to blue. In another painting, a mastodon dips its trunk into a green pool, taking a drink while the light streaks in at what looks to be about 9:30 in the morning. It's worth noting that Scheele authored and illustrated a series of books targeted at young readers, including Prehistoric Animals, The First Mammal and Ancient Elephants, among others. His paintings have shaped the way we believe these creatures looked.
The largest painting in the show - the one in which he takes the most space to explore light and movement - is one of these imagined prehistoric scenes, a 4-foot-by-6-foot undersea snapshot of something that must have happened all the time some 400 million years ago: a giant armored fish, the Dunkleosteus, thrashing his way through a school of sharks. It's shallow water, and the undersea grasses slither through the current. The great fish is on the hunt with an intimidating set of jaws. Smaller fish hide in a hollow log below. Scheele has captured startling movement. The shadows of light playing on the water's surface glitter in a tortoiseshell pattern on the big fish's boney head and back. All the lines of movement are at odds - the curve of the big fish, the rush of the smaller ones, the waving seaweed, the cast and twinkle of light. The mix of prehistoric information and 20th century vision with that interplay of movement and light make this narrative stand up to a good long look - just like the rest of William E. Scheele's career.
A PASSION FOR NATURE The Art of William Scheele Through January 21 Cleveland Museum of Natural History 1 Wade Oval Drive 216.231.4600