Thursday, February 06, 2014

Botanical Art in the 21st Century

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

8th February - 10th August 2014


                                 Iris germanica 'Superstition'                       
                                 detail of the inflorescence 
                                 (the original artwork depicts the complete plant)
                                 watercolour on paper
                                    101.6 x 152.4cm /40 x 60ins

                                  Coral Guest 2005
                                  Shirley Sherwood Collection
The latest exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, explores the most recent developments in Botanical Art. Works on display are specifically by artists who have pioneered the use of artistic techniques and materials that were not available to previous generations, or not considered appropriate by them. The development of new artistic methods and techniques has tended to run in parallel with the manufacturing of new materials, because the makers of art materials have always responded to the quest of the artist.

I have been asked why it is that so many of the artists in this show (including myself) were born in the 1950's. It is because we initiated key new developments through an exceptionally thorough understanding not only of materials, but of the history of the various genres that exist under the banner of Botanical Art.  The work then moved forward into the 21st century, developing as an art form but remaining connected to science, conservation, and the work of the naturalist. The very idea of moving Botanical Art forward as an art movement was itself a very  new conception. It is now accepted that Botanical Art is in fact an art movement because of the new innovations that have been made by these forward thinking artists.

Its an interesting process and any new art historian interested in this field of study can find an invaluable resource of information through the many catalogues from the exhibitions of works from the Shirley Sherwood Contemporary Botanical Art Collection. This Collection contains paintings, drawings, and prints by many international artists, and one of the outstanding achievements of this body of innovative work is its absolute lack of bias towards nationality. The focus is singularly upon the promotion of excellence in this world-wide phenomenon of the renaissance of Botanical Art.

In the 1980's, there was a risk attached to putting this kind of work into the general art collective because of the lack of understanding towards it. The difficulty most art historians and critics have with the work is the use of a white background, which traditionally defines it as illustration and not as art. So the path to redefine the white background and bring it into acceptance has been a long one.

When Dr Shirley Sherwood set forth on her mission as a collector, many individual artists were not aware that the others were there in other parts of the world forging the same pathway. Now with the many exhibitions on display worldwide, a young artist can view Botanical Art, connect with it, and take up a recognised career path. 

Towards the end of the 20th century many foundations were laid by practicing Botanical Artists to support the future of Botanical Art in the form of lectures and the teaching of techniques, the publishing of books, the setting up of societies, and regular exhibitions of individual work. The RHS system of Botanical Art Shows has grown tremendously in the last twenty years, and their program of awards remains a recognised standard. A new Botanical Artist now has an entire structure to support their life time quest.

The exhibition of Botanical Art in the 21st Century is essentially composed of the works shown in the Botanical Art into the Third Millennium exhibition that was exhibited at the Museo della Graphica in Pisa in 2013, with the addition of some exciting new acquisitions.

Two of my large works that belong to the collection namely the large Iris 'Superstition', and it's partner Lilium regale, are being exhibited for the first time in the large main gallery at Kew, where there is space to stand back and see the images from a distance. These two works have been displayed many times around the world, and one reason for this is the interest they receive from visitors on finding large format paintings showing life size depiction of the inflorescence, stem, foliage and root storage system. My previous post describes a problematic technical issue that was overcome when painting these large works. 

The aim for these works was to create large scale pieces that were painted life-size, in the naturalistic style, with an intense depth of tone and colour that will allow the work to be viewed at a distance as well as at close range. The idea is to depict the statuesque power of plants as well as their delicacy and their detail. Simply because this is how they do exist. The work is observational and aims to show natural beauty in natural light, in the tradition of Da Vinci and Dűrer.