Herbarium specimens are kept in many museums, museums of natural history, that is. They almost never end up in art museums. Almost never. At both the beginning and end of his career, the German artist Joseph Beuys used pressed plants in his work. Herb Robert (1941) is a notebook page with a list of medicinal plants in pencil and two dried and pressed flowers of Geranium robertianum pasted on top of the list. Ombelico di Venere–Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (1985) is a series of ten pages of pressed specimens of Cotyledon umbilicus-veneris L. (now Umbilicus rupestris). The first part of the title is the plant’s Italian common name, navel of Venus, for its navel-shaped leaves. Beuys’s “specimens” are labeled with both common and scientific names and also where and when he collected them. They may look like rather poor specimens made by an amateur, but they are considered works of art and have been sold separately to a number of collectors. I don’t know how much they cost, but I suspect that I couldn’t afford one. Beuys was influenced by, among others, Marcel Duchamp, who was famous for taking everyday objects like a urinal and exhibiting them as works of art, thus blurring the definition of art.
One of Beuys’s students, Anselm Kiefer, has used dried plants more extensively in his work, though not in ways as closely tied to herbarium specimens. I first encountered his art years ago during a museum visit with my husband, who stopped in his tracks when he saw a Kiefer work. I asked him why he was so struck by a painting that I saw as bleak and rather monotonous (you can tell which of us was an art historian). Bob informed me that Kiefer was one of the great German painters of the post-World War II era, whose art addressed issues of that time. I remembered the painting and the artist’s name, but I didn’t seek out his work. Years passed, Bob died, I fell in love with herbaria, and on a trip to Melbourne, I saw Kiefer’s Evil Flowers (1985-1992) at the National Gallery of Victoria (see above). Pasted to an oil painting, and almost completely obscuring it, were dried sprays of delphiniums covered in shellac. Now I was stopped in my tracks. These were not nicely pressed plants; they were brown and the flowers gone to seed. But they were still tall and stately, though the title suggests an ominous story, as does much of his work.
For Kiefer, dried plants are not a matter of science but of metaphor. He was born in Germany in March 1945, not surprisingly in an air-raid shelter. He remembers thinking it normal as a child to play in piles of rubble (Dermutz, 2019). But Kiefer’s work is not totally about destruction and death, it is also about memory and preservation. He has a work called For Paul Celan – Ukraine (2005) that resembles an herbarium, a massive pile of lead sheets with aluminum sunflowers pressed between them, their flower heads and stems sticking out at each end. It is as if the plants are struggling to leave the confines of the sheets and find the sun. There is hope here, as in many of Kiefer’s works that incorporate sunflowers—real dried plants, real seeds, and painted or sculpted representations. His work is complex, and though I’ve read some art criticism about him, I can’t say I understand it. Yet I have come to appreciate it, be moved by it, and see the importance of dried plant material in artistic expression as well as in botanical science.
Another example of herbarium specimens in an art context is Tarin Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015). This is a complex conceptual work in which Simon recreated bouquets decorating tables where important international agreements were signed, a political example of botany as interior decoration (see last post). After taking a series of photographs of each bouquet, she pressed the plants from the arrangements and attached them to herbarium sheets, without labels. She had sought technical assistance from the mounting staff at New York Botanical Garden. For each bouquet/agreement, the photographs were stacked on top of pages from the treaty, along with a stack of the related herbarium specimens. Each assemblage was presented in a glass case resting on a concrete plinth. For Simon, this work was a commentary on how nature is used to support and display power, and her installation itself created a powerful statement when it was displayed at the 2015 Venice Biennial; quite a prestigious venue for herbarium sheets (Simon, 2016).
There are too many artists working with plant material in the herbarium tradition to mention them all here. I’ll end with two who take very different approaches from the anthropological to the whimsical. Lindsay Sekulowicz is an artist who had an exhibit at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in 2018 that included a selection of items from Kew’s economic botany collection. Entitled Plantae Amazonicae, the show was made up of items that the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce obtained from indigenous peoples of the Amazon. It also presented some of the specimens he collected, including one of the tree Licania octandra, whose wood was mixed with river mud to make pottery. Also dealing with material from the past, the artist Margherita Pevere found a folder with unmounted specimens that had been collected along the Croatian coast many years ago. They had suffered insect and fungal damage, but Pevere felt this increased their visual and expressive interest so she mounted and labeled them. She sees this collection as a memento mori for pondering issues of life and death, much in the style of Kiefer.
Dermutz, K. (2019). Anselm Kiefer (T. Lewis, Trans.). London, UK: Seagull.
Simon, T. (2016). Paperwork and the Will of Capital. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.