Blooming marvellous: The natural appeal of botanical art
There is growing demand for nature studies that leave the science books behind
The opening of Botanical Art Worldwide at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg on May 17 was packed to the rafters. By all accounts, there’s been a steady flow of people through the gallery since that night. (The exhibition closes on June 16.)
Botanical art represents a crossover between art and science, which has been a prominent theme in recent contemporary art. It also straddles the overlap between art and craft – because what we call botanical art now was for a long time considered simply botanical illustration, a skill purely in the service of scientific study.Recently, however, botanical art is seen very much as art and, as a genre, it is relatively modern. The Botanical Artists Association of South Africa was formed only in 1999. It’s also generally true that the genre has freed itself from its function only as a tool of scientific research. As John Rourke, a former president of the Botanical Society of South Africa, put it in an essay for another exhibition, Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa, at the Standard Bank Gallery a few years ago: “Local botanical artists are now creating botanical art for its own sake rather than to illustrate a publication.”
So, while botanical illustration was an artefact of scientific study and exploration in the 1700s and 1800s (which has its own cultural baggage), now it serves another function. In the exhibition catalogue, artist Vicki Thomas refers to this as the “second golden age of botanical art”.Botanical Art Worldwide is a part of a global series of parallel events in which 25 countries simultaneously show exhibitions of indigenous plants. Each exhibition screens show slides of works from the other exhibitions around the world alongside local works.
Part of the motivation for this worldwide event is to “call attention to the importance of conserving our botanical diversity”. In the exhibition’s emphasis on conservation lies the most common explanation for the recent resurgence of interest in botanical art. Contemporary concerns about the environment have fuelled people’s interest in plants.This exhibition, like Exact Imagination, includes works of contemporary art that engage with botanical themes. Among the 83 artists showing are local stalwarts of the field who have been at it since the 20th century – such as Elsa Pooley, Barbara Pike, Ann Harris, Gillian Condy and Sally Townsend – but there are many younger (or sometimes just newer) artists too. (Some of the works by the likes of Jenny Hyde Johnson, Jenny Phaero, Farhat Iqbal, Chris Lochner, Janet Snyman and Sibonelo Chiliza are astounding.) Many of these artists come to botanical art via other disciplines. There are fine artists, graphic designers, ceramicists, illustrators … you name it.What attracts them? You can walk around this exhibition and recognise the conventions from the 1600s or the 1800s … even stretching back to medicinal plant drawings of Ancient Greece. Botanical art might be a genre that fills a new, different cultural role from its original one but it draws on its connections with the past.
There is pleasure in admiring the incredible realism of some of the works and the skill that went into their making. But there’s also a sense of vitality that hints at a more profound shift in these beautiful works’ cultural power beyond science and illustration.