Is our relationship with plants in control?

As my research helps me to delve more into botanical/garden art, I am coming to the conclusion that we have a very artificial relationship with plants, one of control over plants by us, whether it is how we depict them, where we plant them or how we collate and order them. As I write this I look out my studio window into the garden I created. Where I selected plants for certain colours, textures and size and placed them where I wanted them to go. As the garden matures, that control is exercised each time I go out there, through cutting back, removing too many of one species, lifting and dividing to make more of another or trimming to fit a certain shape I want in that space the plant occupies.

The plants are very much like an art work on a wall, chosen to fulfil a specific ‘emotional’ reaction in that space. It is not only as a gardener or artist that I exert this control, as the cook in the house the same thing happens, decisions of what and how things are cooked are another form of control of how plants enter my life. As time has gone on my garden is taking on a ‘natural’ look. By this I mean that most plants are allowed to grow without being clipped or pruned to controlled shapes, but if I was to walk into the garden to the vege patch, then the control by the hand of man (in my case woman) would be more obvious.

The neat rows in which I have sown seeds or the patch of strawberry plants all in one corner, these vege beds are in nice rows, with paths between. This whole control over where what is planted creates a very artificial relationship, as selection of what is suitable and what is not is made, sometimes from a description in a catalogue. Having read and flicked through many books now that cover botanical art, this same artificial relationship shines through for me in many art works, artist select plants (flowers, foliage or fruit) for a specific look within their work. What is interesting to note is that at times they even combined flowers together within one bunch that would never have flowered at the same time of the year (unless you are a plants person would you notice this).

Plants are selected and either re-arranged in a vase or otherwise to be captured, which was done already by the still life painters of the 16th century. What is interesting to note is that, in this period there was no distinction made between decorative flowers and others, such as herbs, vegetable etc (Still life - Norbert Schneider 1994 Hamburg, Germany. Benedikt Taschen Verlag). They were often combined within one bunch. Having just finished reading The Painters Garden; Design, Inspiration, Delight (is a catalogue that was published in conjunction with an exhibition of this title and is edited by Sabine Schulze (2006. Munich, Germany. Hatje Cantz).

The works within this book range from realistic & naturalistic works to abstracted ideals of nature. I felt it was worth selecting a few works that appealed to me, as the art works in this exhibition/book spans many centuries and are all related to plants & gardens. I initially flicked through the book, simply marking those works that I was visually attracted to. Then I started to read the passage that each work was accompanied by to get a better understanding of these works. The art in this book spans from the early 16th century to 2000.

Two early works I found very delicate were done in the early 16th century (by unknown artist), one was of a small part of a garden, titled Flower Bed. What is interesting is that this work has no relationship with the detailed botanical studies of the Renaissance era, it is more a work that is depicting the ‘natural’ garden. Where herbs and flowers are planted for the benefit of the owner. In this work you can recognize the humans sense of ordering and systemizing nature, creating an artificial structure for nature to grow within. This type of control by humans on nature only works if it is tended to regularly, otherwise nature breaks the boundaries through the spread of seeds beyond the confines of the border, as is shown by the lone holly hock growing out of a crack.

In contrast to this ‘natural scene’, another work from 1526 is also by an unknown artist, is Greater Celandine. Here one plant has been singled out, without being completely detached from its natural environment (as it appears to be still growing in the dirt patch it was found in, except all other plants around it have been ‘weeded out’). This work is not an abstraction of the real, simply ‘a singling out of one, almost a naturalist portrait of an individual specimen.’ (pg 29) Besides being a man of words, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was also an accomplished artist. Goethe created many detailed line drawings of plants over his time, often singling out one plant at a time. Some of his drawings appear to be have a more scientific approach than others. While he also created a large collection of herbarium sheets, presumably used later for referencing. (am in the process of reading his ‘metamorphosis of plants essay)

It is hard not to think of the relationship with plants as anything but control, whether we cut out white paper shapes of plants and stick them onto blue paper, as Philipp Otto Runge did in 1805. Or placed plants onto photosensitive paper to get the same white outline of plants on blue back ground (the cyanotype process), as Anna Atkins did during the mid 1800’s. Selection was done by both these artist with a specific reason in mind, Atkins created a book on British Algae using this cyanotype process, while Runge started to create his cut-outs after he contracted TB, as he was bed ridden.


Another work that caught my eye in this catalogue was by Egon Schiele. Not knowing much about this artist, the work (on the left )

Sunflower II (1910) had a very emotionally beaten feel about it. The plant felt like an old wrinkled lady, standing all alone amongst all these small young children. This image is not the normal depiction of sunflowers, as they are mostly portrayed as bright, happy plants, faces of sunshine. Upon researching more of this artist I found that he mostly did drawings & paintings of people and often as beaten, skinny or undernourished with ribs sticking out. Onto this Sunflower work Schiele had managed to put a similar human emotion of being beaten, his ability of how he depicted this plant was very powerful.

The very last work in this catalogue was a very recent work, from 1998 by  Peter Fischli & David Weiss. It was titled Projection 3 (F) (Flowers) and it consisted of 162 slides that were projected over top of each other (each image also had a double exposure on it). The still images in the book looked like a kaleidoscope of colours, with some flowers or leaves that you could distinguish from the rest. It again appears to make no distinction between flowers, herbs or vegetables, almost coming full circle in the depiction of plants by artist. This is by no means the full account of this book, as there are many other great art works in this book. Plants are in a constant stage of transformation, ever changing going through its many stages it needs to within one season. This book showed a similar transformation between the many works, it is an interesting how plants are depicted by artist over centuries, what was chosen for their art work and how they dealt with the execution of the works. References used: Schulze, Sabine. The Painter’s Garden; Design, Inspiration, Delight. (2006) Munich, Germany. Hatje Cantz

Posted by Elle Anderson

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