Time to reach for a red flag?

Posted by Michael Best on July 29, 2014 0 Comments

I consider myself an art lover, most particularly, a botanical art lover.

I love that for centuries the genre has been firmly rooted in scientific curiosity about botany given expression by art - first out of necessity and later out of tradition. Firmly based on centuries of consistency, traditional botanical art still exudes a stability and an excellence of artistic talent finely honed over many years of dedication to the high standards of the genre. I am in awe of what it takes to produce a good traditional botanical art piece. I am in awe of the traditional process that begins with a three-dimensional specimen and ends with a two-dimensional painting of scientific accuracy and artistic excellence. I have been privileged to watch a single leaf take a full day to transition from a living specimen to a rendering of breathtaking accuracy and beauty; a reflection of the extraordinary interpretive skill of the artist.

That is what makes a collection of botanical art something to be treasured – not just the awe-inspiring finished product in a frame on the wall, but the centuries of tradition and the dedication to a painstaking artistic process that put it there. I view each piece of traditionally rendered botanical art as a testament to the valued attributes of human endeavour and high standards.

Alarmingly though, recent developments suggest that I may have reason to worry about an erosion of the traditions and standards that set botanical art apart as a genre to be revered. A threat appears to be coming from a regrettable tendency already well established in many aspects of our modern society – the tendency to supplant skill and endeavour with convenience and digital technology and then disguise the results to conceal the deception. I refer to an apparent trend to overcome a lack of botanical drawing skills by tracing photographs as well as painting from photographs rather than live specimens and then labelling the results ‘botanical art’.

I suppose that it is inevitable that in most aspects of life some people will be tempted to take short-cuts for lack of skill or patience from time-to-time. That should not be cause for undue concern unless time-to-time escalates into a trend, at which time it might become appropriate to raise a red flag. I would suggest that, in the context of traditional botanical art, it is time to raise a red flag when revered institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society awards medals (wittingly or unwittingly) to botanical art pieces that were traced from photographs or when books are written about how to bypass long-standing standards using modern technology to produce what purports to be botanical art.    

The big question for botanical art traditionalists (artists and collectors) is whether their societies, associations and other institutions have the fortitude to take a stand against the erosion of the traditional standards of the genre. So far the signs have not been encouraging.

On a personal level, as an admirer and collector of the genre, I have a request for anyone tracing photographs instead of drawing live botanical specimens or copying photographs instead of painting from botanical specimens. By all means continue to pursue your art form and, if you feel that it needs a label, perhaps call it something like 'modern flower painting'. But please, please do not present it as ‘botanical art’.

Such a description already exists and, by long-established tradition, is taken to describe a magnificent and noble genre with a tradition of scientific accuracy and artistic excellence that reaches back centuries - a time before photography and software when it took a well-developed degree of artistic talent to render a live specimen as a piece of art. A time when shortcomings in artistic talent could not be disguised by modern technology.  


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