Art: Surrealism and Specimens

Untitled Collage (1936), Eileen Agar

I will admit that it’s quite a leap from last week’s post on medieval herbals to surrealism, the subject of this post in my series on botanical art.  However, I think some of the plants in the Sloane 1975 manuscript in the British Library are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s treatment of plants, especially in Human Form (1932).  But that’s not what I am getting at here.  Instead, I want to explore how surrealists, and artists working with at least some surreal elements, have used plant material in their art, in some cases in ways reminiscent of herbarium specimens.  Ernst himself employed a technique that is occasionally seen on specimen sheets or in botanists’ notebooks:  rubbings of leaves or other structures.  Ernst used rubbings particularly of wood, but also of other plant materials.  A series of pencil rubbings called Histoire Naturelle (1925) employs this material in unusual ways, for example, a wood rubbing to create a leaf, or a leaf rubbing a tree.  The mind is thrust into uncertainty in attempting to make sense of them.

My knowledge of surrealism as an art movement is rudimentary, but I gather artists were attempting to use the unconscious as inspiration and to express it in their work.  Their art presents odd juxtapositions as occur in dreams.  I recently came upon a work by Eileen Agar, a British artist who was associated with surrealists in the 1930s, though her art went through other styles over her long career, something that was true of many others who moved in and out of this genre’s influence.  A review of a recent show of her work highlighted a 1936 untitled collage, a favorite type of work for surrealists since it lent itself to putting the unrelated together (Baker, 2021).   Of course, what struck me immediately were all the dried leaves and flowers.  The leaves are mostly from trees, but the flowers appear to be from annuals.  They are pasted on to a watercolor background with a face at the top and mostly obscured body parts.  But that’s not all, there are two pieces of lace, a tiny wooden violin, and two starfish-like forms, as well as a number of button-like discs.  I have to admit that I find a work like this mesmerizing, and the fact that I can’t really understand it makes me turn to feeling rather than thought.  Exploring it is an emotional journey; life is presented here preserved but also with a motion to it.

I’ll stop my lame attempt at art criticism but only to move on to a couple of other artists.  Joseph Beuys is not a favorite of mine.  He is more about ideas than images, and used masses of lard in some of his works—not my favorite medium.  However, Beuys was interested in nature.  He was a German artist who came of age at the end of World War II, so not surprisingly his work often deals with issues of death and destruction in an attempt to make sense of life.  But he did have a hopeful streak and is known for his 7000 Oaks project of planting trees in Kassel, Germany, each accompanied by a four-foot stone column (Tempkin, 1993).  Many of the trees are still alive and celebrated as an early manifestation of the environmental movement and the now burgeoning field of the plant humanities.  But what I want to point out are Beuys’s pressed plants.  One from early in his career, The Image (1946), is essentially a leaf pasted to a piece of paper with a diagram on it.  Another called Herb Robert (1941) is a list of medicinal plants with two small pressed plants attached.  Later he created more pressed plant works, including Let Flowers Speak(1974), with a recent auction estimate of 75,000 to 100,000 euros.  Obviously there are several layers of meaning here, but his persistent connection to the plant world definitely points to the hopeful side of his oeuvre. 

Among Beuys’s students was Anselm Kiefer, one of Germany’s most notable artists today.  He was born in 1945, so a great deal of his work deals with destruction and depicts desolate scenes, but again there is hope along with a lot of plants, pressed and unpressed.  Kiefer applies paint heavily to his canvases, and often embeds dried plants and other materials into the wet paint, then working in more paint to build the surface further.  He also creates collages such as those with ferns that are framed behind glass in his massive installation Secret of the Ferns (2007) that I wrote about earlier.  These definitely have a surrealist feel to them and are mesmerizing, though most of my experience of Kiefer’s work is second-hand from books and videos.  He is not afraid to think big and uses a lot of lead.  He has created what amounts to a herbarium of lead sheets piled up with sculptures of large sunflowers peeking out from the ends (Biro, 2013).  As in many of his pieces, Kiefer is concerned with the destruction of our environment and its preservation, and both are encapsulated in this work.  I would not want to live with such a piece, but I would like to have the opportunity to directly experience its power.


Baker, H. (2021). Haul of nature. Apollo, July/August, 92–93.

Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.

Bischoff, Ulrich. (1991). Max Ernst 1891-1975: Beyond Painting. Bonn: Taschen.

Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.