The opening of Botanical Art Worldwide at the Everard Read Gallery on May 17 must be one of the most packed-to-the-rafters I can remember going to. By all accounts, there has been a steady flow of people through the gallery since that night.
The exhibition’s popularity took me by surprise but maybe it shouldn’t have. There is something undeniably zeitgeisty about botanical art. It represents a crossover between art and science, which has been a prominent theme in recent contemporary art (probably in a way that is much more authentic and historically rooted than quite a few of the more recent, trendy attempts to do so). 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 botanical 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 is 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 of course 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. In each exhibition, there are screens showing slides of a selection 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. But there is something else going on.
This exhibition, like Exact Imagination, includes works of contemporary art that engage with botanical themes. If the impulse behind this exhibition was to bolster the sense of the relevance of botanical art in the art world more broadly, Botanical Art Worldwide actually appears to have turned the tables on it.
Among the 83 botanical 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, 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, to pick out a completely unfair, subjective selection of striking works, are simply astounding.) Also, it’s worth noting many of these artists come to botanical art via other artistic disciplines. There are fine artists, graphic designers, ceramicists, illustrators… you name it.
What attracts them? It’s tempting to speculate that the reinvigoration of traditional forms such as botanical illustration is a sign that the Avant Garde is no longer where it’s at. 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 and continuities with the past rather than with the breaks and novelties. Perhaps it’s a sign that the cult of the young and the new has been disrupted.
The pleasure in admiring the incredible realism of some of the works, and the skill that went into their making, is undeniable. But there’s also a definite sense of vitality that hints a more profound shift in these beautiful works’ cultural power beyond science and illustration.
Botanical Art Worldwide: Linking People with Plants Through Contemporary Botanical Art is on at the Everard Read Gallery until June 16, 2018.