Sharon Field, Botany and Art: An Essay by Roy Forward
Art is getting to you when it roots you to the spot. I never managed to complete the circuit of the thirty-eight works in Sharon Field’s first solo exhibition in October 2013, they delivered such a powerful aesthetic shock.
From a distance they looked harmless enough – the usual array of plant-life specimens in pencil or watercolour on paper or vellum. Closer up they caught people off guard, disrupted their cosy expectations, held them motionless. I didn’t have to worry about blocking others’ progress, because visitors to the left and right of me were not moving along either.
How to account for our artistic comfort zones being so disturbed by – of all things – botanical art? We expected accuracy, and beauty reviving memories of gardens and the bush. What we were not prepared for were subjects that were damaged, dying or dead, grub-eaten, broken and in others ways imperfect.
Of the 42 artists in the online Members Art of the Botanical Artist Society of Australia in 2013, only one (2.4%), Joy Pearson, show dead or damaged material.
Of the 251 artists in the online Member Gallery of the American Botanical Artists Association in the same year, only 6 (also 2.4%) show dead or decaying material. See Janet DeLonga, Brigitte Flick, John Gist, Barbara Klaas, Irma Sturgell (‘I find as much inspiration in the dying leaves of fall as the in the blooming crocus of spring’), and Julia Trickey (‘Her current particular interest is in portraying autumnal and decaying leaves’).
And of the 66 artists in the online Gallery of The Society of Botanical Artists (England and Wales) in 2013, none represents dead or dying material. Of the 63 artists (with 189 works) in the online Member Pages, only five (7.9 %; 2.6% of works), one each by Paul Fennell, Amber Halsall (‘Her current focus includes autumnal subjects’), Jacky Jousson, Rachel Munn (‘The woodland on the farm holds endless compositions, particularly the infinite variety of bark’), and Julia Trickey (‘Julia… is particularly drawn to specimens that are less than perfect, especially leaves and seed heads’) show dead material.
So perhaps as few as one in forty botanical artists portray anything other than bright, healthy plants, leaves and flowers. Sharon Field is in this select group, with her dead leaves a winter wind was whipping along Mittagong’s gutters, and a pine cone from her Burra property eaten to a husk by Black Cockatoos.
Of a posthumous exhibition of Rory McEwen’s work at Kew Gardens in 2013 called ‘The Colours of Reality,’ someone said, ‘The genius of Rory McEwen was that he created perfect images out of imperfections, a dead leaf, a rotting onion.’ It takes a bold spirit to say ‘dead’ in this connection, the usual botanical-art euphemism being ‘autumnal’. The Irish artist Francis Bacon was even more sensitive, finding Monet’s water lilies ‘depressing’, because they were ‘going to die.’
We warm to an artist who lets it all hang out, who nonchalantly admits through rough brush marks that, yes, this is just paint. Like Michelangelo’s bodies coming out of the rough-hewn marble. Even the French painter Ingres, who railed against the ‘artist’s touch’ being visible in works of art – as leader of the Neo-Classicists who favoured drawing he was aiming mainly at Romantics such as Delacroix who favoured colour – even he would let an immaculately pencilled face trail off into sketched clothes.
Yet an artist who presents the seemingly inexplicable can – like a magician or ventriloquist – still stun us, and this must help account for the aesthetic body blow felt by viewers of Sharon Field’s work.
It is part disbelief: drawing and painting of this degree of perfection simply cannot be humanly possible. It is partly the intrigue of setting oneself the task of working out – as one should be able to do if one has eyes and a brain – how she did it. And it is partly frustration, with the more pious concluding, as they did with the Book of Kells, that it must be the work of angels.
There are no pencil marks. There are no brush marks. There are not even signs of the washiness of watercolour, or of graphite or pigment overstepping a border, let alone of erasure or changes of mind. This is scary.
When I ‘complained’ to her that I couldn’t see the pencil marks, Sharon replied that there weren’t any ‘strokes’, and proceeded to show me – on a big drawing of a dead Bunya Pine branch she had nearly finished – how she moved the point of the pencil across the paper in tiny ellipses. She explained that the elliptical motions helped to model the curled state of the leaves, to round them up. I was terrified I might cause her to make a mistake, such as deepening the tone with her ellipses more than she intended, and so was relieved when she stopped. I still couldn’t see any pencil marks.
Similarly, the laying of very pale washes over one another in the watercolours ensures not just the invisibility of the technique, but achieves the effect of luminous colour coming from within. I had already noticed this to be true not just of her flowers and leaves, where one might expect it, but even in supposedly dull old stalks. It sets you back to see stalks with an inner glow.
The ‘Alice’ Illusion
An earlier generation accompanied Alice into a Wonderland that expanded as she grew smaller. Today’s equivalent is the vertigo-inducing journey into an evolving fractal. Art can raise the spectre of our scale being totally arbitrary, so that we could at any moment be sucked into the infinitely large or the infinitely small. Very high-resolution digital imaging, however, also gives us details we could live without. At 16 billion pixels, much of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper becomes a fog of meaningless particles.
Sharon Field’s art transfixes with the illusion that no matter how much closer you could get there would always be more and more to see. It is like the paintings of Eugene von Guérard, such as Koort Koort-nong homestead, near Camperdown, Victoria, 1860, where zoom or magnifying glass reveals impossibly small people on the distant veranda. Focusing intently on the infinitesimal indentations along the outline of one of her drawings of bark, for instance, can quickly persuade us we are exploring a coastline emerging over a horizon. The cellular structures of the bark’s broken end loom as large as the basalt stacks of the Giant’s Causeway.
Yet the drawing we are looking at remains life-sized. Were the artist to have increased the scale of her work, she would have disqualified herself as a botanical artist. Representations of magnified reality are outside the surprisingly strict conventions of botanical art.
Botanical Art’s Limits
From its long association with the accurate recording for scientific purposes of newly discovered botanical specimens, there is little or no room in botanical art for the less representational kinds of art, such as impressionism, neo-impressionism, abstraction, expressionism, surrealism, pop art, op art, minimalism and the like. The many artists who do portray botanical specimens in these styles (e.g., Laprisamata, or Luis Toledo, who mixes botanical depiction with surrealism) cannot expect to be allowed to join societies of botanical artists.
The same historical development would also account for the convention – only occasionally broken – that each work of botanical art presents but a single species. A painting of a vase of flowers on a table is understood to be a ‘still life’ rather than botanical art, and that of a garden a ‘landscape’ – although The Society of Botanical Artists allowed one exception on the following ground:
Dorothy [Pavey] specialises in watercolours of gardens, country waysides and woodlands. Her interest in plants and flowers gives the focus for her work and inspired by the beauty of their setting she paints these subjects in their natural habitat or in gardens, creating a sense of place and atmosphere.
It is harder to explain why botanical art in practice excludes photographic studies, when they could unquestionably combine accuracy with art, especially when the wider art world has welcomed photography into art galleries and museums. The separation relies on an antiquated notion that botanical art is botanical illustration, and that the illustrator uses drawing and watercolour. As the author of the Wikipedia article on botanical illustration puts it: ‘The development of photographic plates has not made illustration obsolete, despite the improvements in reproducing photographs in printed materials. A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens, and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included around the margins around the image.’ As if a photographer could not do all of those things and more!
Aesthetics is More Than Beauty
The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK raised more questions than it settled when it said, in calling for entries for its 2013 exhibition of botanical art: ‘Emphasis is placed primarily on botanical accuracy with aesthetic appeal.’ They obviously could not have said ‘with artistic appeal,’ because at all costs they had to exclude modern art. So did they mean ‘that is beautiful,’ which could see them excluding a painting (like Rory McEwen’s) of a rotting onion? Or did they mean ‘with perceptual appeal’, which could have ruled out a beautiful drawing of a plant afflicted by Dutch Elm Disease through its perceived connection to a national disaster?
The term ‘aesthetic’ derives from the Greek term for perception, both sensory and mental. Whether something is beautiful or not is only one perceptual concern. Nevertheless, equating ‘aesthetic’ with ‘beautiful’ is very common. Just as not all flower paintings are of interest to the world of science (because they are too indistinct etc), so not all botanical art is of interest to the wider art world – because it is merely beautiful, etc.
The aesthetic shock that comes from looking at Sharon Field’s work is more than discovering beauty in her subjects and in her treatment of them, though that is there in spades. That it is a highly idealised beauty we realise only when we compare her pictures with the miserable original specimens that were her subjects. The dried banana leaf displayed in a glass case is a dull monochromatic brown: the subtle coloration in her Banana Leaf, 2012, is – literally as well as figuratively – unreal.
To be confronted in her images by the imperfect specimens, then by their transcendent beauty, then the perfect concealment of technique, and then the vertiginous drop into infinite smallness, is to suffer one perceptual jolt after another. Any one of those is enough to make her work of immediate art world interest.
Lecturer in Art Appreciation at the ANU Centre for Continuing Education. Formerly a lecturer and assistant curator at the National Gallery of Australia 2014