14 January 2022
Elegant and Enchanting
Explore the plants of south-east Asia through botanical illustration.
An illustrious history
Botanical illustration has a long history. Around 60 CE, Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides created De Materia Medica, an illustrated book to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes.
Though originally used as a means of identification, by the Renaissance period botanical illustration was seen as an art form in its own right.
There was a lot of debate about whether photography would see the end of botanical illustration, but there continues to be new artists specialising in this field to this day. All the artists featured in Elegant and Enchanting are contemporary.
A drawing can provide a lot more detail than a photograph, not only by including elements that are only visible under a powerful microscope, but also by telling the story of a plant: showing what it looks like at each stage in its life cycle and at different times of year.
This detail is what gives botanical illustration the ability to highlight the beauty of the natural world. It shows the elegance of plants in form and function, and the enchantment of a seed’s transformation into a new plant.
The pieces in this exhibition display this so beautifully, while combining scientific accuracy and artistic sensibility.
Though many of the plants in Elegant and Enchanting may be admired in parks and gardens, these illustrations provide an opportunity to see them from another perspective, one that encourages greater appreciation and insight into plant life.
This includes the intricacies of how seemingly fragile fruit blossom can attract pollinators and ensure the plant’s survival.
Even seemingly uninteresting plants like the humble sweet potato are shown as beautifully complex, especially the part of the plant that consumers never see – the heart-shaped vine leaves and pretty, purple-centred flowers.
Kimiyo Maruyama’s Pinus palustris showcases the architectural splendour of pine needles, much overlooked as the spiky unchanging counterparts of deciduous leaves with their fiery annual autumn display.
The exhibition’s depiction of cherry blossom is especially interesting as it shows how two modern British artists have captured the transience of this flower, alongside works from Thai, Chinese and Japanese botanical illustrators.
An exhibition case contains examples of David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring 2020 (a Royal Academy exhibition). Hockney used a stylus on an iPad to create a series of paintings that welcomed and documented the season in his garden.
There is also a print from Damien Hirst’s The Virtues series, which was shown at a solo exhibition in Paris.
This large, exuberant print shows the textural quality of Hirst’s painting technique, which included him ‘attacking’ several canvases at a time with paint-laden, long-handled brushes.
In an article in the Financial Times, Hervé Chandès describes the exhibition as being like ‘”an anatomy lesson” within the “interior organs of the tree”’.
Although there is a clear dichotomy between the hyper realistic rendition of plants of botanical study and the freedom of artistic expression in Hockney and Hirst’s pieces, that desire to capture the fleetingness of cherry trees in bloom is the same.
Dr Shirley Sherwood curated Elegant and Enchanting from her own collection, and each artwork deserves more than a passing glance.
From the silky peach-bluff softness of Phansakadi Chakkaphak’s Lagerstroemia loudonii to the ultra-fine, translucent root work on Mariko Imai’s Asarun blumei, there is a lot to admire.