Summer 2005/New York Botanical Gardens
Fifth Season Magazine SUMMER 2005 Issue: Nohra Corredor/ Familiar/Unfamiliar/"LOTUS LEAVES" at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx
NEWS 2014/2015 UPDATE
FIFTH SEASON MAGAZINE/Spring 2015 ISSUE
POETRY MONTH 2015
Earth Art/Ephemeral Art at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Canada
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Familiar/Unfamiliar 2011 Exhibition at GEO-METRICS SERIES 2004-2011
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Article about New York Botanical Garden
"THE NEW YORK TIMES"
December 30, 2005
Excerpts from "Where the Art Grows on Trees (and Everywhere Else)"
By Michael Kimmelman
"Call the garden a museum of plants. More than one million of them.
It is not a museum without walls, considering the conservatory, the greenhouses and the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, an immense Beaux-Arts pile built in 1900, crowning a very fancy tulip tree allee, with a huge modern annex housing an herbarium for 7.2 million dried plant specimens.
Even so, the botanical garden is a museum with relatively few walls, and in important ways it operates like any art museum, with shows and books and researchers and collections, and in-house scientists to care for those collections - except that curators at the Met and the Guggenheim don't carry pruning shears and watering cans and fret about whether what they have on display will get aphids or die.
The New York Botanical Garden is a little like the Louvre in that it is a museum housed within a historic site that had had another purpose. This was once farmland. It was chosen by the city in the 1890's for its graceful hills and glacial landscape, with a 1790's man-made waterfall, an old mill, rocky outcroppings and uncut native forest, the freshwater Bronx River flowing through the middle of it.
But the art, unlike the Louvre's, is seasonal: in spring, waves of daffodils and alpines; in summer, daylilies and bamboos; in fall, asters, chrysanthemums, spires of blue monkshood and flaming scarlet Japanese maples; and in winter, camellias, witch-hazels and mahonia.
Cezanne once told a friend about his favorite mountain: "Look at Sainte-Victoire. What imperious thirst for the sun, and what melancholy in the evening when all that weight sinks back. Those blocks were made of fire. There's still some fire in them."
The ancient Persians are said to have cultivated exotic plants. So did the mythical Chinese emperor Shen Nung, in the third millennium B.C., for medicinal purposes. Aristotle devised his own botanical garden, which he bequeathed to a pupil, Theophrastus, who wrote the oldest-known Western texts on botany.
But the modern botanical garden has its roots in medieval monasteries. Monks tended physic plots for remedial herbs. By the 16th century, these had evolved into scientific gardens at medical schools and universities in cities like Pisa, Padua, Oxford and Leiden.
This was when global exploration introduced Europe to all kinds of esoteric plants, as navigators vainly searching Asia, Africa and the Americas for a Garden of Eden instead took home strange flora along with manmade curiosities, which collectors compiled into the earliest museums, called Kunst und Wunderkammern, or art and wonder cabinets. Wonder cabinets housed paintings and drawings as well as bones, minerals, stuffed animals - whatever was the biggest, smallest or rarest.
Botanical gardens were like living wonder cabinets, and they mixed aesthetic appreciation with visions of Eden and the dream of a walled-in paradise - of wilderness tamed, made orderly and useful.
By useful, cultivators of botanical gardens increasingly came to mean commercially useful. Dutch navigators took a coffee plant from Yemen to Java, then to the botanical garden in Amsterdam in 1706. Its beans were shipped to Suriname, whence the French obtained coffee for Brazil. Progeny from the same plant ended up in Martinique and Jamaica. So the world coffee trade might be partly traced to a single plant in the Amsterdam Botanic Garden.
Commerce, education and later respite: heavy industry and the growth of huge, grimy cities during the 19th century turned botanical gardens into retreats for the burgeoning urban masses - at the same time, the gardens increasingly strove, like museums, to become encyclopedic resources. The age of wonder cabinets gave way to the age of Descartes. In London, the British Museum and South Kensington, later called the Victoria & Albert, were founded to encapsulate world culture and elevate the populace. Places like Kew, also reflecting imperialist ambitions, amassed enormous plant collections for comparative study.
In the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was conceived to emulate South Kensington. And the New York Botanical Garden modeled itself after Kew.
Being voracious and royally endowed, Kew obtained many can-you-top-this novelties like seeds from King Tut's tomb. In the Bronx, an herbarium was formed at the turn of the last century by joining together various collections, including Columbia University's. It rivaled Kew's, with a specialty in the New World. Today, there are always specimens from the herbarium on display in the library rotunda. These are exquisite, like fine drawings.
Botanical illustrators have often copied herbarium specimens, with their clear, elegant layout. "There's no substitute for looking at the original," Ms. Thiers said, laughing when I suggested that the same applied to art. "I had never thought of it that way." Then she showed me a kind of sunflower with thin, dark brown leaves, collected by Captain Cook on his first voyage, in 1768, to Tierra del Fuego. It was donated to the garden by the British Museum. Herbariums often exchange specimens, Ms. Thiers said, and occasionally give away duplicates.
Ms. Tripp explained: "Any art museum would accept rare and endangered works in order to ensure their safekeeping and preservation. In our case, we hope to repatriate these orchids to their native habitats.
Meanwhile, we are stewards for the plants of the world."