Botanical illustration is more than pretty flower paintings. The visual representation of plants have graced the walls of palaces and decorated textiles for thousands of years. Either venerated for their sustenance, mystical medicinal properties or the goods of trade and commerce plants have been depicted in numerous stylistic ways – each one fulfilling a particular cultural purpose. The same can be said for botanical illustration. By acknowledging the history, aesthetic decisions and function that inform the creation of such illustrations one can reveal the motivations and agendas that formed them – and help us understand what botanical illustrations might mean to us today.
The earliest known image resembling a botanical illustration is from a Greek papyrus dating from approximately 400 AD. It is assumed that these early illustrations were used to traverse language boundaries in the growing travel and trade of the ancient world and to increase the accuracy of information about medicinal herbs. Botanical illustration as we know it today, however, is often attributed to having emerged during the renaissance (14th -17th centuries) with the fine etchings of Albrecht Durer and the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who made their illustrations in the aid of early scientific enquiries. In the following period the enlightenment (18th-19th centuries) rationalism was thought to be independent of mystical belief and therefore lead to a golden age of science - which in turn caused some major developments to botanical illustration. Enlightenment illustrators strived to depict an objective realism of surface, form, structure and often showed the plants dissected and with exposed roots. Despite the pretension for objectivity and didactic purpose, the illustrations remained highly stylised and heavy-laden with particular connotations of romantic beauty. Later during Modernism (late 19th and early 20th centuries) botanical illustration became more refined, precise and symbolic of mankind’s superiority over nature. Since then there have been many new advancements science but nevertheless the quest for knowledge of the natural world continues. Botanical illustration has likewise continued to provide a didactic and aesthetic service for scientists. However, in our digital age one must ask what purpose paintings have to science when computer imagery is so proficient.
Well on exhibition in Puke Ariki’s Lane and Wall galleries are some contemporary botanical illustrations which give us some insight into such questions. The exhibition is called A Passion for Plants: Botanical Paintings by Susan Worthington. There is a range of plants represented from rare indigenous foliage to common wildflowers and prised rhododendrons. Humbly presented in simple plain black frames these powerfully seductive watercolour paintings need no fancy display to win respect from the viewer. Indeed, each work has an aura of sophistication and elegance. However, we must question why these paintings impress us so much.
For instance, one painting depicting a blooming kakabeak branch can tell us as much about human connotations of beauty than the specimen itself. Browsing the painting we are shown flowers from bud to bloom. Each flower has a vast range of different hues and colours from quinacridone reds, magentas, pinkish tangerines and slivers of daylight yellow. This careful rendering allows us some insight into the complexity of the plants photosynthesis. The branch holding the blooms seems to be surgically dissected allowing a central composition that draws our eyes further inward - rather than the edges which might make us question what is beyond the frame. The central composition is significant of the categorisation and taxonomy of science to reduce things in order to understand the whole. At the bottom right of the painting is a dissected example of a flower allowing us to study the petals inner chambers and stigma – further emphasising the deductive pursuit of the scientific eye.
The sterile depiction of indigenous plants also brings to mind the colonialist history of Botanical illustration. Voyages such as Cook’s Endeavour carried on board naturalists who were both scientists and proficient painters - to report on the natural resources of the south pacific for Britain’s quest for riches and power. Botanical illustration therefore is also not only shaped by scientific endeavour but also the imperialist prerogative of nationalistic exploit and economic dominance.
These paintings reveal that we find nature beautiful only when it is depicted as empirically ordered and controlled. Which perhaps suggest a deep seeded fear within the human psyche of our inherent transience and mercy on natures baffling complexity and wild unrelenting power. Furthermore, the painstaking skill of these paintings also helps us understand the benefits of painting over digital media. The subtlety of water soluble paint and the intricacies that the human hand can record on paper are far superior than any laser printer and computer programme. The exhibition also gives us some insight into the skill, patients, research and understanding that is required to produce botanical illustration of this calibre. Overall the great thing about this exhibition is that it will captivate anyone who has a pulse.
Exhibition closes on the 13th of January 2008.