Is a botanical 'photo-copier' a phoney?

Posted by Michael Best on September 22, 2014 0 Comments

I ask this question about 'phoney' from the perspective of a collector and admirer of botanical art. Recent revelations (well, they were revelations to me) about 'artists' who cannot draw producing botanical art by tracing photographs or using mechanical devices to overcome their shortcomings, caused me to examine what it is that attracts me to botanical art, or for that matter, any form of visual art. I decided that it was as much the process as the piece.

For instance, if I were attending an exhibition at which I liked two botanical pieces hanging side by side but could only afford to buy one, choosing would be a dilemma. But, as a collector, if I knew that the first artist had produced the piece following the traditional process and the other artist had not, it would immediately solve my dilemma. In fact, if there had been an attempt to pass off the second piece as traditional botanical art, I would be appalled and would be inclined to regard it as an affront to a process firmly rooted in a tradition borne out of a historical purpose - something special that cries out to be cherished and preserved.

Consider this analogy for a moment. Where I live, western art has a long tradition that includes bronze castings of horses, cattle and cowboys produced by some very talented sculptors. Their work is popular, collectible and pricey. Much like botanical art, the attraction lies in the incredibly accurate detail requiring not just an abundance of talent but a meticulous dedication to the piece with the patience of Job. If, however, a collector eyeing a particular bronze casting discovered that the piece had not been sculpted by the artist in question but had been cast by him or her in a mould bought over the internet from some place that supplied ready-to-cast moulds, would the piece hold the same appeal? Surely the fascination with the process, and hence the appeal of the piece, would dissipate like the air rushing from a balloon. What is a piece without the process? What is an artist without the artistry?       

The magic of botanical art for me, a non-artist, is that jaw-dropping element - the talent that it takes to transform a three-dimensional botanical specimen into a two-dimensional rendering with breathtaking accuracy. Of course I understand the importance of other elements such as composition and colour accuracy, but the drawing skill (a major part of the process) is what for me differentiates a complete botanical artist from a 'photo-copier'.

George Stubbs' magnificent Whistlejacket resides in the National Gallery in London where the horse and I have a standing date any time that I visit or even pass through the UK. I dare say that now, some 252 years later, a similar painting could be produced by projecting a photographic image onto canvas by a much less-skilled 'artist' and thereby avoid the complete artistic process followed by Stubbs. The magnificence of Whistlejacket and other Stubbs horses is the result of a level of skill achieved by years of practice and research. Stubs is said to have dissected countless horse carcases, often in putrid condition, to gain an intimate knowledge of the subject. While the finished piece is magnificent, a significant part of the fascination with it is admiration for the process. Would a similar piece produced by the projection of a photographic image onto the canvas generate the same degree of awe? Absolutely not!  Should the work of a photo-copier earn the same degree of respect and awe for the process as that of a traditional botanical artist? Absolutely not! Why then do we allow the former to be confused with the latter? 

In spite of a spokesperson for a reputable botanical art society denying any knowledge of widespread 'photo-copying' making its way into botanical art exhibitions and walking off with awards, it is common knowledge that it is happening and that a blind eye is being turned by the botanical art societies, associations and exhibition organizers. The same organization that denied the existence of widespread photo-copying has as a member a person who has written a book on how to bypass the 'nuisance of not being able to draw' by copying photographs. Bypassing the artistic skill of drawing is apparently more common in botanical art than one would suppose; teachers and participants in botanical art workshops have told me of participants unable to produce a drawing in class, taking it back to the hotel room to work that night and returning in the morning with a credible 'drawing'.

Perhaps, rather than fight this unfortunate trend, the time has come to recognize that there are complete botanical artists and there are photo-copiers, and that the latter are now joining the former on gallery walls. As a collector though, I would like to have one distinguished from the other. As one intrigued by and admiring of the process behind the piece, I don't want to pay an 'artist' good money for a reproduced photograph any more than I would want to pay a 'sculptor' good money for a bronze casting poured into a bought mould.  

I foresee a day when complete, traditional botanical artists will have to differentiate themselves from 'photo-copiers' by attaching to their work a notation such as, 'This piece is guaranteed by the artist to have been produced by working from a live specimen in a manner true to the long-standing standards of traditional botanical art.'

There will always be those among us who will forsake skill for convenience. But let us be grateful for those who invest years of devotion to the development of artistic skill that fills us with awe, even if it is just for a few moments while we escape from our fast and phoney modern society as we gaze upon their work.  



                                                             Whistlejacket by George Stubbs




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