Touching nature

Originally published in May/June 2014

If traversing a well-curated exhibition can be compared to strolling through a beau­tifully tended garden or park, it is entirely appropriate that a show devoted to close looking at nature should take the idea of a nature walk as its guiding metaphor. "Of Green Leaf, Bird and Flower": Artists' Books and the Natural World, opening in May at the Yale Center for British Art, invites visitors to saunter through its various rooms and examine Brit­ish flora, fauna, and places as represented by artists from the past five hundred years.

When it comes to the natural world and British art, the poten­tial choices for a curator are practically endless. The British love for nature in its wild state or as presented in gardens and parks inspired works of art in every medium and covering subjects from the exotic to the local. Curator Elisabeth Fairman eschews the fruits of Britain's explorations, focusing the exhi­bition instead on specifically British plants, animals, and scenes, starting with the exquisitely painted blackberries from the Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary made at the turn of the sixteenth century (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Page in Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, c. 1500. Watercolor and gouache on parchment, 18 by 12 inches (page size). Yale Center for British Art [YCBA], New Haven, Con­necticut, Paul Mellon Collection.

As exemplified by the Tudor per­­iod blackberries, the historical works in the show from the six­teenth through the nineteenth centuries, whether by famous names or unknown makers, are selected primarily for their direct and intimate encounter with the subject. Professional and amateur practitioners used artistic means to record close views of fruit, flowers, trees, birds, insects, animals, and any number of natural objects, including views of specific places. While these were sometimes executed in tradi­tional formats and mediums such as book illustration or watercolor painting, many were crafted in surpris­ing ways. Deceptively realistic flowers made from cut and painted paper are pasted onto the pages of an album of about 1835 by the artist known only as Ellen W., the name inscribed on the front of the book (see Fig. 3). An extraordinary collection of dried plants assembled by an amateur naturalist is made up of paper parcels that hold the plants, each envelope painted with an exquisite watercolor capturing the living appearance of the dried specimen within (see Figs. 4, 4a). Housed in a beautiful mahogany box, this collection won a certain Miss Rowe the Liverpool Naturalists' Field Club's award for the most comprehensive collection of specimens for the year 1861. One imagines that the jury appreciated the artistry of the painting on the wrappers as much as the care shown in mount­ing the specimens.

The exhibition proposes an analogy between these distinctive, handmade responses to nature by his­torical artists and the work of contemporary practi­tioners exploring similar subjects by making artists' books. This field of endeavor is notoriously difficult to define. It can include anything from Livres d'artiste such as those published by Ambroise Vollard in the first decades of the twentieth century-luxury books, often with texts from literature, decorated with original prints by artists such as Bonnard, Matisse, and Picasso-to "zines"-low-tech, self-published books and booklets distributed to memorialize ephemeral events, collectives, and movements. One aspect common to most artists' books is that they foreground their very identity as books through format, materials, and structure and by calling atten­tion to the essential function and use of a book. Often handmade, these books are usually created in small editions and can be surprisingly affordable considering their relative rarity and fine craftsmanship. Artists' books move beyond the conventions of the illustrated book to create what can be considered a handheld sculpture or installation, activated by the user as the book/object is handled and experienced through time. Because of the importance of structure for this genre, most exhibitions of contemporary artists' books tend to focus on systems of presentation to the exclusion of content. Fairman provides a new context for this exciting and little seen material through her sensitive selection of artists' books based on a response to nature. She looks beyond brilliant struc­tural solutions to examine how contemporary artists enhance and share their encounters with the natural world of Britain through book forms.

Fig. 5. Study for herbarium sheet for Nine Wild Plants: Dandelion by Tracey Bush, 2006. Cut-paper collage with pen and ink, 16 ½ by 11 . inches. YCBA, Friends of British Art Fund. 

Fairman's argument linking old and new is based on her perception that the creative impulses of historical artists, especially ama­teurs, to make beautifully crafted art objects in re­sponse to the study of nature can be related to the motivations of book artists dealing with similar subjects today. The visual evidence presented in the show is convincing. Tracey Bush suggests a parallel to Ellen W. in creating simulated herbarium speci­mens by pasting colored papers onto paper. In her 2006 unique book of collages and drawings Bush chose to represent the nine most abundant and well-known plants in her urban environment (see Fig. 5). Most would call them weeds. She repre­sented these plants by collaging discarded wrappers picked up on the street. Just as the weeds are com­mon and highly recognizable, the wrappers represent a limited number of the most prominent global brands. Bush's work conveys strong political messages about ecology and branding. At the same time it shares the delicate craftsmanship of Ellen W.'s paper flowers and convincingly expresses the irrepressible and eternal fortitude of weeds such as the dandelion.

The primary materials in Miss Rowe's ma­hogany box were dried flowers. Andrew Norris, who now lives in Croatia, used fourteen real dried leaves to carry the short poems contained in his tiny papier-mâche box labeled "POETree," issued in an edition of two in 2005 (Fig. 6). The title gives a foretaste of the slightly skewed puns inside, while the extremely fragile birch leaves suggest the "album leaves" proffered by poets and com­posers of the nineteenth century.

Fig. 7. Cut-paper basket, Eng­lish, c. 1820. Hand-painted and stitched with silk thread; height 3 3/8, width 11, depth 9 3/8 inch­es. YCBA, Paul Mellon Fund.

Other pairings abound. A cut-paper basket by an unknown artist, undoubtedly a woman, from around 1820, is decorated with naturalistic flowers and stitched with silk thread (Fig. 7). This object survives in miraculous condition and conveys a spikey sense of movement. It finds a natural partner in the work of Sarah Morpeth. Her Crow Landscape of 2008 unfolds to form both a basket and an evocation of birds in flight over a field (Fig. 2). Like the rest of Morpeth's work, it is hand-cut, relating it to the arduous craftsmanship dem­onstrated by the maker of the decorated basket.

Another work by an unknown maker, Album of drawings of English moths, butterflies, flowers and mollusks, dated between 1805 and 1822, at first seems so accomplished that it might be copied from a published source. On close examination it becomes clear that these lively watercolors are the result of intense observation. Anyone who has watched a ravenous caterpillar eat a leaf can sense the urgency of the artist to capture the image before the leaf was completely decimated (Fig. 9).

John Dilnot also deals with the rapacity of insects and plants we consider noxious in Weeds and Pests, a book screen-printed in brilliant Day-Glo colors in 2009 (Fig. 10). This accordion-bound book spreads out so that the entire codex can be seen in one view. The insects operate almost as a hieroglyphic text, punctuated by the vibrantly colored silhouettes of the weeds.

Mandy Bonnell is a central artist in the show. Her work appears in several sections and she spent time at the Yale Center for British Art studying Miss Rowe's herbarium. Her drawings are piquant and personal, demonstrat­ing a powerful individual style, yet remaining ut­terly respectful of the source material. Her books are formed from subtle abstractions of natural forms, restrained and organized but deeply sensual in her choice of papers and her sensitivity to delicate printed layers of chromatic gray, white, and black inks (see Figs. 8, 11).

Toward the end of the exhibition the idea of a walk through nature is brought to the foreground. Walking relates to the conceptual interests of the artists in this section; after all, we use our bodies to measure the landscape with our strides. Among a group of works dealing with concepts of time and space as experienced in walks is a compelling book by Colin Sackett, published by Coracle Press in 1989. Entitled Black Bob, it seems to arrest the passage of time by repeating the image of a border collie and his master leading three sheep beside a stream in sixty-three identical two-page spreads (Fig. 12). The image, appropriated from a children's comic of the 1940s, is printed to the edges of the pages in crisply textured letterpress. The act of examining the book from endpaper to endpaper and always encountering the same image is dis­concerting yet evocative, a powerful reminder of our deeply ingrained understanding of books as progressive entities.

Fig. 12. Pages in Black Bob by Colin Sackett (Coracle Press, London, 1989). Line block en­graving, 6 ½ by 9 . inches (open). YCBA, Friends of British Art Fund.

The culminating experience for viewers of the exhibition evokes a cultural figure who has been tremendously influential on the younger artists in the show. Ian Hamilton Finlay is represented both through a selection of his books of concrete po­etry and through landscape paintings of his great­est single work, Little Sparta, the garden/con­structed landscape/installation/poem-in-space that he created on his land near Dunsyre in the Borders area of Scotland. Finlay used plantings, architecture, sculpture, and text to create an extended medita­tion on nature, language, art, literature, history, and politics. Little Sparta and Finlay are brought to the galleries in New Haven through the paint­ings of Eileen Hogan, who has spent time during each of the past fifteen years working at Finlay's garden, identifying key subjects within his work (see Figs. 13, 14). She came to know the famous­ly prickly artist, and the exhibition includes sev­eral portraits she painted of Finlay before his death in 2006. Hogan is a marvelous painter in the tradition of the best British followers of Cézanne. One thinks of the soft, dry touch of Gwen John, the careful observation of nature by William Coldstream, and the precision of Euan Uglow, applied to a deeply felt experience of a landscape created by a conceptual artist who was in his own way the equal of Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys. Her work is an astonishing blend of old and new and a brac­ing exit for this wonderful exhibition.

 

ANDREW RAFTERY is an engraver, printmaker, and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.

 

"Of Green Leaf, Bird and Flower": Artists' Books and the Natural World runs from May 15 to August 10 at the Yale Center for British Art and is accompanied by a book of the same title, published in conjunction with Yale University Press; it is edited by and contains an introductory essay by Elisabeth Fairman, the center's senior cura­tor of rare books and manuscripts and curator of the exhibition. 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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