Davis Museum Announces Global Flora. Botanical Imagery and Exploration Exhibition

The Davis Museum at Wellesley College presents Global Flora. Botanical Imagery and Exploration Exhibition, on view October 19, 2011 through January 15, 2012 in the Morelle Lasky Levine ’56 Works on Paper Gallery, the exhibition is free and open to the public.

According to Elaine Mehalakes, Kemper Curator of Academic Programs and curator of Global Flora, the 28 works in this exhibit—from engravings that date back to the 1500’s to contemporary still lifes—are not only exquisitely detailed depictions of flora and fauna, but also tell a story about the complex relationships that have evolved alongside botanical art. “Botanical imagery has long been admired for its beauty and appreciated for its scientific significance, but its history is a more complex one, tied to the political, imperial, and cultural aspirations of an increasingly interrelated world,” said Mehalakes.

“From the Age of Discovery through the Age of Enlightenment, botany was at the forefront of scientific knowledge. Botanists and artists sailed with explorers, facing identical dangers. Suffering heat, cold, ticks and leeches, lack of food, and even sabotage, these botanist travelers ventured into uncharted territories, often made more dangerous by political situations,” she said. “Some expeditions, supported by colonial governments keen on gaining further knowledge of the lands they possessed, faced animosity from local peoples. The publications on view in this exhibition hint at the links between botany, climate, geography, culture, economy, and history.”

Botanical imagery reveals several centuries of change in the world, reflecting a journey through exploration to knowledge, and from isolation to globalization. The natural world has changed considerably due to the acquisitive nature of human beings with an attraction to the exotic. In the process of collecting and recording specimens from distant parts of the globe, botanists contributed to the international dispersal of flora. Transferring or propagating plants in botanical gardens back home naturally led to the spread of species, while publishing books on a region’s plants provided a means of organizing, simplifying, and containing the life of that place. Naming was another means of claiming, with native plants being labeled for foreign naturalists. Colonial gardens and colonial floras, or botanical books, were powerful symbols of imperialism and control.

Drawn from the Davis collections and Wellesley College Library’s Special Collections, the prints and illustrated books on view also demonstrate the changes from the 16th century to the present in techniques used to depict botanical imagery—from woodcuts, engravings, and mezzotints to lithographs, cyanotypes, and inkjet prints; from the hand-colored to the color printed; and from the compact to the lavishly outsized. They display variations in format and purpose, though with equal attention given to accuracy, from floral still lifes imbued with symbolic meaning to precise depictions of individual plants with their component parts labeled for scientific classification.

Featured works in the exhibition include:
Two engravings from Belgian artist Jacob Hoefnagel’s Archetypa Studiaque (1592), a series of fifty-two prints intended as a source book for artists, which includes a number of plants that were depicted for the first time.

The dramatic Rafflesia patma, from Carl Ludwig Blume’s Florae Javae (1835-48), is a yard-wide flower with a smell like rotten meat, and a plant that well met the nineteenth century, or any age’s, hunger for the strange and unusual.

w Exceedingly rare and unusual in both technique and style, Robert John Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1807), is a conglomeration of botanical science, classicizing manner, poetry, homage and national pride. Employing mezzotint and aquatint techniques, the plates depict specimens in settings suggestive of their native contexts. A live specimen of the plant shown in The Night-Blooming Cereus print is on view in the Wellesley College Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses. Also known at the “Queen of the Night,” the Cereus is a unique bloom visible only at night.

American artist Bertha Jacques’ interest in creating botanical prints came out of a desire for preservation. Many of the plants she depicted were endangered. Nasturtiums, as seen in her hand-colored drypoint from 1937, were originally found in Mexico and Peru. They were among the first New World plants brought to Europe and quickly traveled to the North American colonies as well, and are growing in the Wellesley Greenhouses.

Isabella Kirkland’s Taxa series (2006) examines the effects of humankind on nature, including introduction and invasion, decline and extinction. Each plant and animal in these still lifes is depicted with painstaking accuracy and at life size, after thorough research and observation from life or of preserved specimens. Kirkland’s compositions allude to Dutch seventeenth-century still life and botanical paintings, combining these traditions while giving the subject matter significance for the twenty-first century. Visitors are welcome to view actual plant specimens depicted in these works at the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens. www.isabellakirkland.com/paintings/taxa.html
The botanical prints, maps, and landscapes in this exhibition describe places such as Egypt, Greece, southern Africa, Indonesia, and the Himalayas, and culminate with contemporary prints evidencing an interconnected world, through the depiction of plant and animal life that has spread across the planet. These compositions include invasive species and rarities that make their way into personal collections. Revealing several centuries of change in the world, Global Flora reflects a journey through exploration to knowledge and from isolation to globalization.

Global Flora is generously supported by Wellesley College Friends of Art, and the Claire Freedman Lober ’44 Davis Museum Endowment Fund.

One of the oldest and most acclaimed academic fine arts museums in the United States, the Davis Museum is a vital force in the intellectual, pedagogical and social life of Wellesley College. It seeks to create an environment that encourages visual literacy, inspires new ideas, and fosters involvement with the arts both within the College and the larger community.

Image: Isabella Kirkland, Trade from the portfolio Taxa, 2008, inkjet print, The Nancy Gray Sherrill, Class of 1954, Collection, 2010.42.4

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