Oświeceniowe "laboratorium natury". W poszukiwaniu mediów poznania
The Enlightment's "laboratory of nature". In search of means of knowledge
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Jean-Pierre-Laurent Hoüel does not seem to belong to the realm of art history. His work features as an addition to the galleries of views executed in Italy in the last decades of the eighteenth century by various “small masters”. Yet his depictions of Sicilian and Aeolian landscapes and historical monuments in large part shaped the image of the land modern Europeans (like Goethe) formed, as they got to know it. Although not belonging to the realm of proper art, the etchings of the excellent French painter (his watercolours and gouaches were at that time almost unknown) shaped this image by virtue of their documentary nature. As a matter of fact, Hoüel did not create paintings but was rather an active observer, a painter, engraver (and writer) of the inseparable spectacle of nature and history, and like Goethe, he did not segregate knowledge according to the means used to acquire it. He was an explorer of Nature beyond his role of a painter and traveller. Hoüel conducted geological and zoological studies, assembled his own collection of minerals, and corresponded with various scholars. Like other artist observers of this type from the Age of Enlightenment (e.g. Gautier d’Agoty, Nathe, Captain Cook’s artists), he should be studied as a representative of both art and science, a participant in the culture of the Grand Tour understood as a vibrant laboratory of cognitive experience. Although in his case the aesthetic experience organizes knowledge, the former does not exclude historical reflection; instead there is a focus on the overall impression – particularly of Sicily – it made on Hoüel. The artist did not investigate the essence of individual phenomena, nor was he carried away by the brilliance of specific discoveries in themselves, but instead was guided by his curiosity about the whole. Contrary to appearances, the countless works of contemporary travel – written and illustrated recit de voyage, graphic series, and single images – cannot be treated and interpreted uniformly; it is impossible to create from and for them a stable methodology. Each individual case reveals its own singular place in the rapidly evolving relationship between the sciences and the arts.
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