02.02.2021 - 26.09.2021Curators: PhD Anna Król, Sylvia Peter Exhibition design: PhD Anna Król Exhibition prepared in cooperation: Nuremberg House in Krakow
Botanical Art in the 21st CenturyFor years the Manggha Museum has been showing exhibitions focusing on the relations between nature and culture, between various traditions, Japanese and Western, examining their surprising, inspiring interactions. Our suiseki, bonsai, and ikebana shows, as well as international, nature-themed exhibitions, such as Co-garden and, on a grander scale, Kachō-ga: Pictures of Flowers and Birds in Japanese and Western Art, are part of this reflection.
Exploring Botany. Botanical Art in the 21st Century is Poland’s first exhibition showcasing the phenomenon of today’s botanical art, both European and Japanese. We are showing works by modern-day artists in the context of the oeuvres of old masters of botanical illustration, Basilius Besler, Crispijn van de Passe the Younger, Jacob Hoefnagel, Emanuel Sweert, Elizabeth Blackwell, and above all Maria Sibylla Merian. These are complemented by Hiroshige’s and Watanabe Seitei’s ‘pictures of flowers and birds’, which engage in surprising visual and narrative dialogue with the European works.
The computer Garden from Bożka Rydlewska’s New Botany series, a knowing reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Karolina Kowalska’s Creatures conjure up a world that is surprisingly akin to the imagery of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work. The series Senses: Water and Leaves, Water and Lilies created by Iwona Ornatowska-Semkowicz in the spring of 2020 is the artist’s response to the pandemic, specifically to the related confinement – an outcry to summon the saving power of nature.
At this point I would like to thank the person who came up with the idea of this inspiring exhibition – Sylvia Peter, a curator, essayist, and artist creating suggestive images of nature.
Exploring Botany. Botanical Art in the 21st Century is being held at a special time, when the world of plants and insects that the artists, both contemporary and historical, have immortalized in their works is facing extinction. Perhaps viewing these extraordinary and beautiful works at the Manggha Museum will incline us towards reflection and also offer us a different way to get through this trying time of pandemic.
Botanical art in the 21st century – a renaissance of plant depictionFrom the kitchen table to the museum
It is a woman who inspires so many people today to draw plants. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) is the one nobody can ignore when starting a plant painting. She is the most quoted old master when we discuss the standard of precision, composition and personal observation that makes a good botanical work. Today there are approximately three thousand artists dedicated to botany, the number increasing every year. And again, the scene is dominated by women. Most of the artists, and almost all the important curators, agents, collectors and presidents of societies are female. So, no wonder it was a lady, the British botanist and art collector Dr Shirley Sherwood, who gave the prospering scene of artists the essential push into publicity 30 years ago. She travelled the world and found artists who often enough were completely unknown and drew on the cleared kitchen table. She acquired their works, published them in beautiful books and brought her collection into prestigious museums, such as the Sompo Museum in Tokyo. She certainly was not the only helpful supporter. The Botanical Gardens of Kew, London, the Royal Horticultural Society and overseas the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh did play a very important role as well. Still, the impact of Dr Sherwood on the development of botanical art cannot be estimated enough. She brought us together.
The movement in Europe
The oldest society in Europe, the SBA (Society of Botanical Artists), was founded in 1985 in Great Britain by Suzanne Lucas.
Further societies were founded in Britain, and also in other European countries: the Netherlands, Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, and recently Austria and Romania.
The core of botanical art I dare say is in England. A pioneer in reviving it was Rory McEwen (1932–1982). He began painting plants seriously in the 1950s, and his work is still admired to the highest degree. Margaret Mee (1909–1988) started painting the endangered orchids of the Amazon rainforest in 1957. She was the first to use plant painting as a political message. Many British and international botanical artists were inspired by the works of those two artists. From the 1980s on, the SBA and several of its members organized a lot of teaching. This had an immense impact on the botanical artists of the whole world.
The movement in other continents
In the USA, where today the biggest Society of Botanical Artists exists, it was Diane Bouchier who found it necessary to bring those artists together. She founded the ASBA (American Society of Botanical Artists) in 1994 with 200 members. Today, 26 years later, it has more than 1,700 members. Their annual meetings are internationally attended and characterized by liberal sharing of knowledge and techniques. Every three years, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh calls artists to enter works for their prestigious exhibition. Based on a private collection of botanical books and pictures donated by Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt, the institute was integrated into the Library of what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1961. It is today the largest collection of botanical documents with more than 60,000 books and pictures. Parts of the collection are regularly shown as travelling exhibitions all over the United States.
In many other countries across all continents, botanical art associations have been established during the last decades. Artists from Australia, South America, South Africa, Japan, China, South Korea and many other countries are well known on the scene.
The movement in Japan
In contrast to the European tradition, Japanese court painters of old considered flowers a suitable subject for fine art. Artists of the late Edo Period, such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, produced wonderful paintings of flowers to decorate screens and scrolls. Artists were forbidden to travel for centuries, and thus developed a unique style of design that has been highly appreciated by art lovers all over the world since it came into sight. Even scientific illustrations show the elegance and sense of design that is typical of Japanese art, often using outlines, courageous crops and strong compositions.
Examples of Western plant depictions were seen only by very few Japanese artists during the time of strictly limited contacts. Keiga Kawahara (1786–1860) worked as an illustrator for the famous European medical officer Philipp Franz von Siebold and produced beautifully artistic and accurate illustrations in the style of Georg Dionysius Ehret. Kawahara’s work established the European style of scientific botanical illustration in Japan, and this style has since been refined by Japanese artists.
Botanical art is expanding in twenty-first century Japan. Both professional artists and amateurs have organized themselves into regional circles and established a nationwide association, the Japanese Association of Botanical Illustration. Many of them are regular exhibitors at international shows, such as the Hunt Institute in Pittsburgh and the Royal Horticultural Society’s shows in London.
Today, many of the Japanese botanical artists work in the style of Western tradition. However, quite often connections to traditional Japanese art are found in their compositions.
Botanical artists all over the world study and appreciate their artistic ancestors. This exhibition shows how the contemporary artists have transposed the genre into the visual language of our time. They include elements of photography; they have a fresh use of colour and contrast and a different approach to light. Still, they deliberately continue a long tradition of painting and printmaking.
Their genre is still a niche in fine art, but the niche is expanding. Against the background of an increasingly endangered nature and people’s awareness of this threat, the depiction of plants is a very up-to-date task for an artist of our time.
Why artists today can and must paint flowers
Do I need to explain that plants are the basis of our life? In addition to air, food, housing and clothes, they also give us peace of mind. Why do those marvellous creatures play only a side role in the ocean of arts? A handful of masters popped up every century and dedicated some drawings to them; most of them did it in the service of science, or were commissioned to portrait the favourite flowers of a noble person. Some of them illustrated their own botanical research, like the famous Baroque scientist Maria Sibylla Merian, or the Bauer brothers. But still today only few of them appear in art encyclopedias. Why?
As Prof. Stefano Mancuso mentions in his book The Brilliant Green, the study of botany was always appreciated less than research on animals or humans in the world of science. Prestigious prizes were rarely given to botanists. Botany was regarded as not that important. Many of us still have the same hierarchy in our head as people had in the time of the Renaissance: at the bottom there are the stones – lifeless and stupid. The plants are not much above them. They are somehow alive, but cannot move, think or feel. The animals are regarded as individuals with small intelligence. At the top is the crown of creation – the human. More clever and sensitive than anything else. But there is a change underway these days. The number of people who are interested in plants has been growing rapidly. Books about forests are bestsellers. Scientists all around the world have been finding out astonishing facts about the intelligence of plants. They have observed that plants can perceive more than just light, temperature and water. Plants have more sense organs to analyze their environment than we have. Some plants can exchange information among one another, and quite quickly. The fact that they do not run away when in danger does not mean they do not react, or cannot protect themselves. They have manifold and complex strategies to survive – otherwise they would not be here any more. Mancuso concludes that the crown of creation is simply everything that is still there. And to be honest, the plants would still be there if the humans died out. But we would only have a few days left if the plants were gone.
The increase of interest in plants we witness today is surely a counter-reaction to the increasingly artificial world that dominates our everyday life. The more time we spend in front of computers and on sealed ground, the more grows our longing for nature. Forests and meadows are places of regeneration – and places of longing.
Love and scare
Another thing is scary. Since the 1980s we have read reports about the loss of plants and insects. We somehow got used to it. But with 2018 the awareness came that this loss was threatening not only some future generations but ourselves as well. The change of climate has become visible in every continent quite rapidly, and the change of habitats means a further loss of species. Everything is happening so fast that many species cannot assimilate. Neither can they flee to other biotopes, because the agricultural landscape offers only few of them anyway. Facing this situation, it is only natural that young people desperately want to protect what is left. Elderly people suddenly remember how different nature looked, or how apples and meat tasted in their youth.
Observing and celebrating plants is being both romantic and forward-thinking. Romantic in a positive sense simply means loving plants and therefore taking care of them. This is an honest attitude and can be very deep. It can be the reason for a young lady to sit in a tree for days to protect it from being cut down. Or the reason for an artist to sit over a sheet of paper for days to paint a flower that is endangered to vanish from our planet. Both use romantic ideas to call out for public support.
Still, when artists painted plants, for a long time they hardly got appreciation from colleagues or curators. ‘Diligently done’, ‘pleasing’ were the kind of comments we had to take, and they were not meant as a compliment, either. Painting plants was regarded as not that important. But then there was a change. After the 1990s, when the success of the Neue Leipziger Schule made realism fashionable again, botanical art was regarded in a new light. I smiled when a gallery owner saw an exhibition of the Korean Society of Botanical Artists and called out: ‘This is fresh! This is really completely different!’ I am not sure if he regarded it as art, but he felt there was something in it to be taken seriously.
So, is every botanical artist an artist? I dare say no. Many actually insist on being called an illustrator. However, I have seen many times that a botanical art show with its sheer mass of stored time and dedication as a whole can turn into a socio-political building. When I first saw the books of Dr Shirley Sherwood, I was thunderstruck. Hundreds of people all around the world drew thousands of meticulous reports of plants: Bizarre cacti, beautiful flowers and flowers not that beautiful, parts of bark, lichens, shrivelled tomatoes and intertwined herbs. I had no idea there were so many people into the subject, and I was deeply impressed by their skill and their humble attitude. They are a strong and cooperative community, connected in their common aim to throw a spotlight on plants by painting them.
It is a phenomenon of our time. It is no coincidence that the scene is growing fast exactly at this time. Not every single piece is an artistic reflection on climate change, or on the loss of biodiversity. But the whole movement is.
On 18 May 2018 the botanical art societies celebrated the first Worldwide Day of Botanical Art. Exhibitions were held in 25 countries on six continents, each focusing on the native plants of the specific nation. More than 1,000 plants were presented in artworks; all venues were linked with a digital slideshow. It was a moving moment. The planet’s biodiversity became visible in a hitherto unseen way. Botanical art is growing into a facet of art that is very contemporary, very important and very suitable to strengthen our spirits in our effort to preserve our beloved planet.