Old and New South American Botanical ArtSat 08 May - Sun 08 August 2010
Exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
Detail of Bauhinia (Leguminosae) and Hummingbird, by Etienne Demonte, 1994
‘Old and New South American Botanical Art’ is a vibrant exhibition, bringing the Latin continent’s exotic and lush plants to life at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Curated by Dr. Shirley Sherwood and Pilar de San Pío Aladrén (Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, the exhibition comprises 62 paintings from the Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid’s Mutis Collection (1783-1816) – none of which has ever been on display before – and 68 contemporary works from the Shirley Sherwood Collection. This is the first of two new exhibitions in the Gallery as part of RBG Kew’s Biodiversity Year celebrations.
The Mutis Collection
José Celestino Mutis was born in Cádiz in 1732. Having initially qualified as physician, his fascination with plants led him to become one of the most important botanists of his time in South America.
Mutis arrived in South America from Spain in 1761 and became Director of the Royal Botanical Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada (present day Colombia) over 20 years later. His role during the Expedition (sponsored by the Spanish Crown) was to identify and document the plants of the Spanish colony and look for commercially valuable crops, timber and medicinal herbs. In 1783 he established an art school at Mariquita to train local Creole men to illustrate the Expedition’s findings. They were trained by an established local artist, Salvador Rizo, who instilled a highly defined and uniform style. This has made it difficult to attribute the life-sized drawings to particular artists. The Expedition continued until 1816 and during that period about 40 illustrators worked on the project. An outstanding artist was Francisco Xavier Matis Machecha. There are six works of his in the exhibition. One is an elegant study of an exotic pink passion flower with the flowers hanging through a cascade of leaves, beautifully executed with the finest detail.
While Mutis was not an artist himself, he paid great attention to the Expedition’s materials, and ensured that high quality paper was obtained from Europe. He experimented personally with pigments extracted from plants and local minerals which he mixed with oils, gums, ammonia and other solvents to produce the colours needed. His careful approach resulted in vividly coloured paintings in tempera which still retain their beauty today.
Over 6,500 works were sent back to the archives of the Real Jardín Botánico in Madrid in 1816. None was published until 1952 and this is the first exhibition in Europe of the Mutis Collection outside Spain.
The Shirley Sherwood Collection
Complementing works from the Mutis Collection are treasures from the extensive Shirley Sherwood Collection, including works by Margaret Mee, Alvaro Núñez and Etienne Demonte.
Dr Shirley Sherwood says “South American artists have contributed greatly to the development of botanical art, and my collection has over a hundred works from the region. It is thrilling to exhibit paintings by such talented contemporary artists with artworks from the Mutis Collection which have never before been on show. This exhibition is a great introduction to the variety and beauty of South America’s splendid plants. The works are so remarkable that they are bound to cause a stir in both botanical and artistic worlds.”
Dr Sherwood started her worldwide collection of contemporary botanical art in 1990 and soon afterwards she acquired paintings in Brazil, first being by the famous Margaret Mee who moved to Brazil in the 1950s. Becoming fascinated by the exotic flora, Mee survived 15 challenging collecting trips into the Amazon, only to die in a car accident just after her major exhibition opened at Kew Gardens in 1988. She brought back and painted hundreds of valuable plants, and four previously unknown species were named after her. The first painting she produced in the Amazon, ‘Cannonball Tree in Belem’, is in the exhibition, together with her paint box and her sketchbooks.
Margaret Mee influenced many Brazilian artists who also feature in the exhibition. These include the Demonte family, a dynasty of botanical painters, and the award winning Alvaro Núñez whose work focuses on the fruits of the trees of the savanna, Amazonia and Pantanal. Núñez spends up to eight months on solo expeditions to these remote areas. He has an impressive 29 paintings in The Shirley Sherwood Collection, of which 13 works are in the exhibition.
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