Book review: ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’

Over the past few months, and in the past few weeks, the theme of ‘nature meets art’ has been a bit of a frequency illusion. From the discussion I had with the PCU a few months ago, to the stunning Plant exhibition at the Kirstenbosch Gardens last month, to the UCT ZooBots Exposure Nature Photography exhibition which will (hopefully) take place early next year – these kinds of events and ideas have been popping up all over the place. Of course, as a result, I’ve been talking about art with anyone who’d listen. Recently, it even came up in a documentary called ‘Before The Flood‘, where Leo DiCaprio talks about how much the 15th century triptych called ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ by Hieronymus Bosch shaped his understanding of our relationship with our planet.

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Most of the time, however, I’d be having casual conversations with my friends, showing them the new things I’d pinned on my naturey/artsy Pinterest boards. For interest’s sake, here’s one of them:

 A friend of mine sent me a link to an article about a new book that was published recently by Phaidon, called ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’. I was completely infatuated. So, naturally, I had to buy it – regardless of the blow to my bank account.

Cover image for the book 'Plant: Exploring the Botanical World'

Beautiful cover image of the book ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’, published by Phaidon.

“The ultimate gift for gardeners and art-lovers, featuring 300 of the most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever.

[…] this fresh and visually stunning survey celebrates the extraordinary beauty and diversity of plants. It combines photographs and cutting-edge micrograph scans with watercolours, drawings, and prints to bring this universally popular and captivating subject vividly to life. […] this stunning compilation of botanically themed images includes iconic work by celebrated artists, photographers, scientists, and botanical illustrators, as well as rare and previously unpublished images.”

It begins with the dust jacket – one of the most elaborate and visually stunning  book covers I’ve ever seen. An array of pleasantly embossed photographs, illustrations and paintings, arranged into a highly satisfying orderly floral structure, with whorls and whorls of vividly colourful images is what greets you. With a total of 315 full-page images of some of the “most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever”, Plant is nowhere short of stimulation for someone who, like me, is vividly imaginative, capable of visual thinking, highly stimulated by and sensitive to imagery, and hopelessly in love with both botany and visual art. Each page is neatly framed with the artist’s name in the header, and a few short paragraphs on the image in the footer. The image caption tells you the name and date of the art piece, as well as its dimensions, the medium used, and where it is currently being held. Not surprisingly, many of the pieces featured in Plant have found their final resting places in museums and art galleries around the globe; however, some of the most striking works of art (more than I imagined) are privately owned. What’s great about this book is that by exhibiting these privately owned images, the beauty is shared with everyone; otherwise, only very few lucky humans in the world would ever have the pleasure of indulging in it.

Embossed front cover of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Embossed front cover

After hours and days and weeks of paging through and reading the descriptions and marvelling at the intricacy and delicateness and creativity of some of the pieces, you finally reach the end. But the end is not the end, because after the last full-page image, you are rewarded with a timeline most magnificent. Beginning at 950 B.C., you are guided through the evolution of botanical art through the ages, all the way through to the year 2011. The timeline details some of the milestones in botanical and botanical art history, with decidedly few positive milestones in botany in recent years.

There are more accounts of a loss of species due to habitat destruction than there are accounts of new species being discovered… new species which urgently need to be discovered if we are to ever have any semblance of a complete knowledge base of the biodiversity that the earth boasts, and the biodiversity that we are collectively killing off by merely living our lives in the way that we do as modern consumers. Full circle, back to the main point of Before The Flood. If we could all understand how much beauty, spirituality, peace, provisioning, and stability we can garner from nature in its purest form – whether it be by spending time in nature, indulging in a beautiful book of botanical art, or by growing up in a city with The Garden of Earthly Delights staring at us everyday, scaring us to no end, reminding us of the seemingly inevitable progression of man into materialistic, consumption-driven hollow vessels – there is a possibility of pulling ourselves away from the edge of the deadly precipice on which we are currently teetering.

Find your inspiration. Find out how environmental issues relate to your life. Find out how you and your family would directly be affected by changes in climate. Find out how those who are less fortunate than you will be affected – those who are already starving and malnourished, or without shelter from the elements, or without water for tens of kilometres. Just spend some time really thinking about it, and then adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

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