On the Wing


Collecting and recollecting are at the center of both the memoirist’s art and the science of entomology. No one understood this better than Vladimir Nabokov, that perpetual exile who made a homeland of his mind’s vast capacities. Born
into highly literate, politically liberal Russian aristocracy, Nabokov was ruled from earliest youth by three passions: butterfly hunting, love affairs, and poetry. As an émigré in Berlin and Paris, and a professor of literature at Cornell University, and during his “atrocious metamorphosis” from a Russian to an American writer, Nabokov kept the fires of butterfly
science burning by working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and publishing
in scientific journals. Through the years, his triple passions coalesced in extraordinary handwritten dedications of his novels, embellished with butterfly drawings, to his wife, muse, amanuensis, chess partner, and soul mate, Véra.

Barbara Bloom, an artist with a singular eye for detail and an ear for history, has arranged these precious
volumes and added her own materials (moths, book jackets, notes, and diagrams) in an
installation that teases out Nabokov’s manifold translations between languages and sexes, between his avocation and vocation, nature and
illusion, history and memory. Nabokov’s research was
governed by scientific principles, but the lepidoptera that flit through his novels were ludic amalgams of fact and artifice, and even in nature, he said, he found evidence of the imagination—”the non-utilitarian
delights that I had sought in art.” So if you missed Bloom’s show this spring at Peter Blum Gallery, or her knockout room at MOMA’s “Museum as Muse” exhibition, or if the New York Public Library’s richly informative Nabokov exhibition (on view through August 21) makes you hungry for more, do go see this lovely installation, as deft and delicate as the beating of a butterfly’s wings.

Archive Highlights