Herbaria and Art: Diversity


Alberto Baraya, a prominent contemporary artist in Columbia, has taken up this herbarium theme in a different way than any of the artists I discussed in the last three posts. He has a long-term project called the Herbarium of Artificial Plants (Herbario de Plantas Artificiales) which he began in 2002. He collects artificial plants—made with plastic, paper, fabric—and mounts them on herbarium sheets. He includes “dissected flowers,” pasting them in the lower part of the sheet much as botanical illustrators include enlargements of flower features in their drawings. In addition, there is at least one small photo of where the plant was “collected.” This is a colorful group of works because these plants don’t loose their color, and in that sense remain more aesthetically pleasing than herbarium specimens do. There is something eerie about this: that the artificial remains more “real.” Also, it is suggestive of invasive species, since plastic-leaved ficus trees, for example, are found in hotel lobbies the world over. Baraya’s method of collection—often surreptitiously lifting plants from restaurants or waiting-rooms—is reminiscent of the collections made by colonials: no permission asked.

In a blog post on Columbian artists including Baraya, the art critic Tom Jeffreys notes that botanical illustration was one of the first independent threads in the development of modern Columbian art. This was largely through the work of the Spanish priest and botanist José Celestino Mutis who led a collecting expedition to Columbia and stayed there for the remainder of his life. His project, which lasted more than 30 years, resulted in sending thousands of specimens and illustrations being sent back to Spain (Bleichmar, 2011). Most of the art was done by native Columbians trained by European artists. Their work is strikingly beautiful and accurate, while definitely having a style of its own. Baraya’s herbarium is in part a commentary on how botany has changed since the late 18th century when Mutis arrived in Columbia. The artificial has replaced the real, providing a poor substitute for the green world humans crave. The rich botanical environment that Mutis experienced has changed into a gaudy unreal show.

Disappearance of species is also one of the messages of Mark Dion’s Herbarium, a portfolio of seven photogravures the size of herbarium sheets. To create this work, Dion mounted seaweed specimens on herbarium paper that had been stamped in purple ink: “Herbarium Henry Perrine.” There is also a green stamp: “Marine Algae.” Each sheet has a label attached with the heading: “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine, Indian Key, Florida,” but aside from this the labels are blank, no information on the specimens is given. Much of Dion’s oeuvre is a commentary on the history of natural history and of collecting. Here he is alluding to Henry Perrine, an early 19th-century plant collector who died in a raid on his Florida land which also destroyed his plant collection. Dion’s work suggests what Perrine’s collection might have looked like, but the blank labels also tell of what was lost.

While Dion’s art references herbaria directly, often the relationship between plant specimen collections and art is more subtle. Paul Klee, for example, created a herbarium as reference material for his drawings. His specimens are definitely “unscientific.” They are mounted on paper he has painted dark brown, several species per page, with no labels. Klee was interested in plants from an early age, doing botanical drawings at age ten. At one point, he writes in his journal that he looks forward to seeing his herbarium after being away on a trip: “It surprises me that these treasures of form have been apart from me for so long” (Baumgartner & Moe, 2008, p. 16). It is the forms, not the details, of plant structure that fascinated him, and this comes through in his art. Several hundred of his pieces relate to plant growth, including Botanical Theatre which he worked on for ten years.

Two 20th-century German artists took a more direct approach and actually used pressed plants in their works. Joseph Beuys did a series of what can only be called herbarium specimens: pressed plants pasted to paper with a penciled title, Ombelico di Venere, or the umbilical cord of Venus, the name of the attached species Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (now botanically designated Cotyledon rupestris) (Tempkin & Rose, 1993). In some of these, Beuys must have moved the plant after pressing it to the paper because there are stains where water from the plant was absorbed. This is not good herbarium technique but it adds to the texture of the piece and is reminiscent of some of Beuys’s other works where he employed plant material such as moss to color the paper’s surface. The use of plant material suggests life and regeneration, important themes in Beuys’s post World War II work.

Anselm Kiefer, Beuys’s student, uses a great deal of dried plant material in his art. The closest he comes to suggesting a herbarium, a bound herbarium, is For Paul Celan-Ukraine, a stack of lead-paged book sculptures with aluminum sunflowers sticking out from them. In earlier work, he pasted dried plants to painted canvases, in what Matthew Biro (2013) suggests is a form of biographical memorialization. In others pieces, Kiefer employed straw to suggest both death and new life emerging beneath this covering. For a very different setting, a vitrine, a pressed algal specimen sits amid gold-plated organs including a heart. Obviously the plant form is being used metaphorically, both in looking like an abstract ribcage and in implying that all life is related, that we are an amalgam of plant and animal material.

What is clear in the variety of examples and contexts I’ve explored here and in the last three posts is that pressed plants can have multiple layers of meaning, that they are important sources of inspiration for artists as well as sources of information for botanists. I come back to the first post in this series and Victoria Crowe’s ideas of fragility and timelessness, the pairing of these seems to be the essence of what makes herbaria so attractive as symbols, combined with their aesthetic appeal. While I have mentioned a wide variety of artists here, there are many more I haven’t cited, including Joanne Kaar’s work with the herbarium of the Scottish baker-botanist Richard Dick, John Walsh’s (2016) prose/herbarium piece The Arctic Plants of New York, and M.F. Cardamone’s surreal takes on herbarium sheets. Fortunately, there are many artists working in this area.


Baumgartner, M., & Moe, O. H. (2008). In Paul Klee’s Enchanted Garden. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.
Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York, NY: Phaidon.
Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Walsh, J. (2016). The Artic Plants of New York City. New York, NY: Granary.

Who Has a Herbarium?

I once did a presentation on “Guess Who Had a Herbarium?”  This was in the early days of my herbarium infatuation, and I was fascinated by the number of non-biologists who collected plant specimens.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau not only was very interested in plants, but also tutored others in how to create their own plant collections.  Paul Klee kept an herbarium, though it was not very botanically correct:  the plants were pasted onto black paper and were unlabeled.  As a teenager, Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend and asked if she were collecting plants because “everyone is doing it.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a collection, which isn’t so surprising because he wrote about plant morphology, and it is seems only fitting that Henry David Thoreau collected plants.  Two of his specimens were found a few years ago at the University of Connecticut’s George Stafford Torrey Herbarium stored unnoticed among their several hundred thousand specimens until the collection was digitized.

Since that original presentation, I’ve come across several more collectors, including John Stuart Mill, who had a herbarium of thousands of plants, and John Cage who collected mushrooms and even taught a mycology course at the New School.