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work by celebrated artists, photographers, scientists, and botanical illustrators, as well as rare and previously unpublished images.”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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The role of art in conservation

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the web application called Pinterest. It allows you to bring all your ideas into one creative space by ‘pinning’ searchable images from the web, and/or uploading your own images from your device. You can create mood boards for planning a project, recipe ideas, or renovating your kitchen, and so on. I spend a lot of time on Pinterest, and I have several boards devoted to visual art, particularly illustrations and watercolour painting – something I indulge in from time to time. There was a time a few months ago when I sat in bed for perhaps three hours straight, pinning images of botanical art. To be honest, it was probably because my literature review was due at the time, and I was reaching the tipping point of procrastination where enlightened productivity finally kicks in. But there was a reason apart from my procrastination that made it possible for me to sit there for three hours and look at these paintings: they were captivating, and they stirred something inside of me.

I should mention that my level of skill with regard to illustration and watercolour is really not that high – at best I can sketch a plant from a photograph so that it’s only slightly disproportionate; my watercolour technique is a bit less constrained and more expressive – I like to see the colours run and the pigments leach toward the edges. But skill and receptiveness are two different things. I am highly receptive and highly sensitive to images. My mood can switch instantly if I see a baby panda, or a kitten (happy Hana) or perhaps an orangutan in a zoo, or a child in a rubble grave in Syria (distraught Hana). So understandably, during my rampant art pinning spree, I had a thought. Let me explain this thought in the form of a little psychological exercise.

How do you feel when you see this?

The White River in Bainskloof, by Gwelo Goodman (1871 - 1939)

The White River in Bainskloof, by Gwelo Goodman (1871 – 1939)

And this?

Evening, Riversdale Veld, painted by J E A Volschenk (1853 - 1936)

Evening, Riversdale Veld, painted by J E A Volschenk (1853 – 1936)

Perhaps you just thought they were pretty, or average, or interesting. Or perhaps you felt this abstract tugging feeling in your abdomen that pulled you in and made wish you were in that place right now, and made you hope that it always remains as pristine as it looks… or maybe that’s just me. Either way, I’m not the only human in history who acknowledges and understands the capacity of landscape paintings to stir emotions in people.

A few months ago, I chaired a discussion with the Plant Conservation Unit on historical paintings, repeat photography and the value thereof in terms of ecological research and conservation. Landscape paintings (and art in general) lends itself to some degree of artistic liberty. For example, an artist might like how a certain tree looks, and would therefore paint that tree more often than it actually occurs in the landscape, resulting in a misrepresentation of abundance. Repeat ground photographs, while they have a similar objective to that of landscape paintings (i.e. capturing the beauty or intrigue of a landscape), overcome this artistic liberty in that what you see is what you get. And while scientific analysis on these types of historical records may be slightly restricted to qualitative data, and quantitative only to a certain degree, this does not diminish their value to research and applied conservation.

Conservation, when approached from the top down, can go awry in many ways. There are countless examples of fortress conservation resulting in communities becoming marginalised, livelihoods being taken away or highly restricted, and people feeling isolated, excluded and becoming detached from the very areas that those in authority wish to conserve. But when communities and the general public mobilise to achieve some conservation objective, the results are almost always positive. It is my firm belief that appealing to the compassion of the general public by means of honest but emotive imagery, like these landscape paintings, is one way of mobilising support.

Alexander von Humboldt, a well-known geologist, naturalist, philosopher and explorer of his time, agreed with the sentiments of artists and fellow nature-lovers Jacob P. Hackert and Johann W. von Goethe about human history being an integral part of nature. He acknowledged that a landscape’s character is determined by the specific symbiosis installed locally between men and their habitat.

“The knowledge of the natural character of each different region of the world is intimately tied to human history and culture.” – A. von Humboldt

In 1807, Humboldt published a small book called ‘Aspects of Nature’, which outlined what he understood as the summary of the experience of his five-year trip through the Americas, in the form of a collection of ‘Paintings of Nature’. He wanted to offer the reader a Totaleindruck – a full impression – obtained by a detailed analysis of the local phenomena that composed the physiognomy of each specific segment of our planet. In particular, he tried to capture the climatic ‘segments’ he encountered on his trip in his paintings. I find it so beautiful how simply and seamlessly he managed to merge his love of art with his insatiable interest in science and the natural environment. I think this is something many of us have lost touch with – we try to separate our jobs from our hobbies because we don’t want our hobbies to feel like work. But what if you could combine all of your interests into one project? Think about your job. Think about your hobbies and your passions. Do they align? Now think of how much innovation could come from their integration.

One of the points agreed upon in the discussion I chaired was that there is a lack of interdisciplinarity amongst departments which could be extremely beneficial to causes that extend far beyond just academia. There’s this notion that is prolific with the science snobs among us, that suggests the Humanities are laughable degrees. Not true. Sure, Humanities degrees may not directly aid or inform the numerous pressing contemporary issues prevalent in most developing countries. But Humanities graduates do people. But here’s another exercise: try to mobilise a layman to conservation action by showing him (with no further discussion or debate) your scientific article in whichever journal. See if he even reads the whole thing. And then consider the Humanities again.

Here’s an excerpt from the news article on the PCU website regarding the discussion I mentioned earlier:

“When considering the place of humans in nature, the discussion also touched on the influence of the Arts on conservation efforts. While peer-reviewed scientific articles may appeal to academics, they necessarily lack emotion – something that is often crucial to spur people into action. It was concluded that artists and scientists can and should work together to create awareness about conservation issues.”

And now I have more ideas…