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.

Herbaria and Art: Collaborations


Buttercup etching by Jane Hyslop, part of Herbarium Catalogue (2008)

In artist/botanist projects such as those I’ve discussed in the last two posts, each participant is introduced to a new way of seeing, a new perspective by looking beyond the confines of their areas of expertise. Having artists work in herbaria is not just a way to produce art that will communicate the herbarium world to a larger audience, it is also a way for botanists to see their collections in a very different context. Recently, the conceptual artist Taryn Simon inquired if anyone at the New York Botanical Garden could help her with a project which was ultimately called Paperwork and the Will of Capital. She had photographs of the flower arrangements set on the tables where major international financial agreements were signed (Simon, 2016). She expected that the flowers used would reflect the flora of the country in which the signatories were gathering. Instead, she discovered that the arrangements lacked species diversity, with the same species being used no matter where the ceremonies occurred. Daniel Atha, a botanist and Conservation Program Manager at NYBG, was eager to assist Simon because he had grown up in a family of artists. In turn, he called on Sheranza Alli, the Senior Museum Preparator and Herbarium Aid, to walk Simon through the steps of pressing and mounting specimens.

The result was an exhibit held at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, NY. Photos of the arrangements, along with descriptions of where they were used, were presented alongside mounted flower specimens of a rather non-scientific type since they were not labeled and several species were displayed on the same sheet, each being one of the species in the accompanying photograph. Atha found the experience fascinating since it gave him a window into the contemporary art world, and the realm of the flower trade as well. Simon ordered all the flowers used in the exhibit from commercial dealers in Holland—a commentary on cut flower economics. Interestingly, in their press release, Gagosian described the specimen sheets as “sculptures.” This emphasizes something that is often not evident when viewing digital images of herbarium sheets: there is dimensionality to pressed plants. They have lost some but not all of their texture and form.

This issue of dimensionality comes through in the work of several artists who have had contact with collections. The textile designer Imke van Boekhold used specimens from the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam as models for a series of machine embroidered herbarium specimens. In one series, she created “specimens” of Rotterdam plants, and in another, ones of plants that grow on the remote Scottish island of Foula, a place she had never visited. She employed specimens collected on Foula and now in the Rotterdam herbarium to make the pieces—a nice commentary on the way specimens move around and the international nature of herbaria. Van Boekhold’s work illustrates the way specimens can be rendered in a variety of different media. One book artist, Tracey Bush, has pasted cutouts of poppies and other common British flowers on sheets that are labeled with both the common and scientific names of the species. The cutouts are made from advertisements so they are colorful and incongruous, suggesting that nature is being commoditized, and that we are so accustomed to bright images that the faded flowers of a herbarium sheet would be disappointing. This is also a commentary on Mary Delany’s very accomplished cutouts of plants made in the 18th century and highly prized for their beauty and botanical accuracy.

Bush’s work appeared in a show on artist’s books and the natural world at the Yale Center for British Art (Fairman, 2014). Also in the show was a piece by Jane Hyslop who has done reseach at the herbarium at RBGE [see figure above]. Her process is particularly painstaking, and a metaphorical combination of botanical illustration and specimen preparation. She created a “paper herbarium” by collecting plants from her local area and making etchings of them, somewhat as a botanist collects specimens and flattens them on paper. Then she cut out the etchings and pasted them on herbarium sheets, with labels giving the names of the species and the collector, as well as the collection date and locale. This is reminiscent of the notebooks of Felix Platter, the early modern botanist who cut out the Hans Weiditz watercolors which were used to make the woodcuts in Otto Brunfels’ herbal. Hyslop’s work is also a commentary on the disappearance of so many plant species, with herbarium specimens being the only tangible record of their existence. In the future, all we can do is reproduce them in works of art.

Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Simon, T. (2016). Paperwork and the Will of Capital. New York, NY: Gagosian.