One of the books I most cherish among my (seemingly) endless bookshelf holds the artwork of Bernard Durin. I find him to be the best illustrator ever to portray insects, one so talented that gave a new meaning to the representation of these animals with his passion and precision.
No wonder then my excitement when finding that a new book was coming out, with all known and currently available images produced by Bernard Durin in his lifetime (1940-1988), called Beetles and Other Insects. It finally arrived last week.
On the introduction to the book, Gerhard Scherer writes “There is (…) something mysterious about these objects, these small organisms with many hidden secrets. This aura of mystery, and the fascination exerted by insects, physical appearance, are no doubt what has repeatedly induced artists to depict them”. Indeed it was only at thirty-two years of age that Durin stumbled upon insects for the first time, during a walk in his native region of Provence. But the experience was so transformative that set him on a journey of dedication.
In this book about half of the sixty watercolor plates portray a variety of beetles, from the widespread seven spotted ladybug (Fig.1) and the expected hercules and rhinoceros beetles, to the rare alpine borer (Fig.2) and exotic flower scarabs. The remaining plates put the spotlight on a few species from the wasp, bees and ants group (Fig.3), on cicadas, tree and jewel bugs, grasshoppers, on a crane fly, butterfly and praying mantis. There are also one spider and two scorpion illustrations, which by being outside of the insect group, should have called for a different book title. Each plate is complemented by an historical and anatomical text about the species it portrays.
The assortment is marked by a prevalence in European species, with animals such as the cockchafer and pine chafer, that Durin predictably encountered given their abundance in his corner of the world. Nonetheless, the presence in the book of plates of other insects from a wide geographical range – some only found in southeast Asia, Madagascar or Australia – reveals his repeated visits to the collection at the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris to make close observations under the microscope. Besides exhibiting his work at one-man shows in galleries in Munich and at the museum in Paris, and publishing the book with Schirmer/Mosel, Durin’s images do not seem to have been used elsewhere. This might indicate he was simultaneously pursuing the career he got formal training for, being a commercial artist, producing illustration for books and magazines.
One glimpse at the plates and we immediately recognize the remarkable technical skills they involved. Bernard Durin painted in watercolor with the use of white gouache, on cardboard or sometimes on vellum. The original illustrations are in a large format, mostly 65 x 50 cm, which allowed for the rich amount of details and their meticulous definition. Hair by hair, punctation by punctation, we can imagine the painstaking attention and time each illustration took! The vividness of the watercolors, masterful representation of iridescence and transparency, set these pieces apart from most insect artwork done before and after Durin’s career.