New crop of art books: Van Gogh, Mondrian and cacti

A pair of seeds appears to tumble near the pitcher plant


Is botanical art real art? Scroll through Floralia. Botanical art through the ages seems like an irreverent question. The beautifully illustrated book begins with Leonardo da Vinci, Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer. But the big names are not the main characters, and the author of this book is not an art historian but a botanist. Martyn Rix did his work from the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, better known as Kew Gardens. This book can safely be called a life’s work: the first edition was published more than ten years ago; Floralia is the first Dutch translation, based on a revised edition.

The focus is on the Kew Gardens collection and the heyday of the genre; the period 1750-1850. But Rix also outlines the context, starting with the earliest realistic images of flowers and plants. These can be found in the thirteenth century, both in Crete and in China, and they appeared on vases, frescoes and sometimes also on paper. Something stylized and schematic, and therefore not primarily intended to transmit information. Nature becomes interesting in medieval paintings: flowers are usually depicted because of their symbolic meaning, but the images become more and more accurate; it goes hand in hand with the increasingly realistic depictions of human faces.

In the seventeenth century, the paths of botanical art and floral art separated. Still-life painters see no objection to depicting bouquets of flowers that never bloomed at the same time, but the botanist never will. A branch with a flower is actually depicted, and next to it is often also the disassembled version: loose leaves, petals, fruits (sometimes even a cross-section): part and whole.

The illustrations are becoming more and more functional. No matter how beautiful: it is applied art, not primarily created with the intention of surprising the viewer with beauty, but to show how it really is. You will therefore not find Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Monet’s water lilies either. Botanical art develops in parallel with the science of biology, and voyages of discovery also provide new material. The illustrators usually work for scientists and often accompanied them on their travels.

IN Floralia are images collected from English herbal books (detailed pen drawings without colour), service from Turkey (again very colorful and more schematic images) and color engravings from Italy and Germany: the technique seen most often in the early days. And from the moment when the artistic ambitions of botanical art no longer seem to play a role, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between artists. And that’s why it’s fun to pay attention to details. Like the frogs that appear to tumble in pairs in a drawing of a pitcher plant from North America by Robert Catesby (1572-1605), the neat arrangement in the illustrations Georg Ehret (1708-1770) made for Linnaeus’ classification is the surprising one. collage technique by Mary Delan-Grenville (1700-1788) or the menacing cloudy sky, which one of the illustrators at RJ Thornton apparently considered the dragon’s root’s natural habitat.

But this kind of nuance is the exception: most flowers are depicted on a neutral white background, where realism and information transfer are the goal, making the illustrations timeless; often you can only look at the font in a caption if it is about old drawings.

Rix provides dozens of mini-biographies of the artists and tells of the circumstances under which their work arose – of how Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was able to travel to Surinam, of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who took his Australian finds with to Kew Gardens, where he was director, and about George Maw (1832-1912), who also went in search of unknown plants during his travels as a businessman and archaeologist and wrote a standard work on the crocus.

Versatile life stories that resulted in hundreds of illustrations in a very similar style. Because one beautifully depicted flower after another special plant passes in review, but you have to be a huge connoisseur to distinguish the style of an early nineteenth century orchid from a late 20th century cactus. It is art where the creator has to keep his personality in the background – perhaps that is a good description of science.

Adrian David’s surprising leap through art history


Art versus beauty: aren’t the two supposed to be allies instead of opposites? This is undoubtedly what reflective art collector Adrian David is aiming for with his title art vs beauty, a concise book on innovation in art. In this he talks about the well-known mechanism that innovation in art is usually accompanied by a confrontation with the taste of conventions.

Thus David parades in a flamboyant and seemingly quite random way through the history of art, from Caravaggio via Ensor, Richter, Koons, Manet to Banksy, Da Vinci, Warhol and back again to Goya and Courbet: all artists who did not initially become beautiful, became found. that.

The connections and leaps bring the surprise, because the observations and conclusions are often quite flat and absolute, as if he wants to do justice to contemporary manifestos: “Marcel Broodthaers was a cultural icon who touched art lovers. He created the void in art and opened the dialogue about the validity of art.” Or about the ‘genius artists’ Picasso and Beethoven: “They never followed the standard of beauty of their time, but they created the innovation that was far ahead of their time.” And: “Money motivates the art trade, but leads to wrong behavior.” These are not comments you can get upset about.

It gets more exciting as we get closer to the present. It is brave that David deals with NFTs, art that is not about a physical artwork but about digital property. The Beeple patchwork quilt (a digital collage of 5,000 images that Beeple made daily between 2007 and 2020, some of which are simple drawings and others complex 3D images) is not on display. But whoever says that is following the line of conservatism as David describes it. If Beeple does as it does with most of the artists in this book, this rejection will be followed by a review of judgment and a new paradigm.

It also seemed to be the case whenWeekdays – The first 5000 days‘ was auctioned off. Beeple was instantly one of the most expensive living artists. Although this book appears to be finished before the collapse of the NFT market, David already announces that the art world will not be too distracted by the “contemporary auction tricks” but will still be guided by the “ancient art values”.

In the case of crypto art, this prediction has (so far) come true.

The combination of light-hearted text and lots of pictures works like a charm


‘Sometimes it goes like this: you want to be friends, but it doesn’t go well’, says a drawing of two arguing men on the street in front of a terrace. Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin are pictured here. The latter had come to Arles to exchange ideas about art with Vincent, to ensure that Vincent van Gogh would be less lonely, and especially because Theo van Gogh had asked him to, someone on whom he is financially dependent thanks to his Parisian lifestyle art trade, the authors explain. But “everything turned out differently than Vincent had hoped. Hard work and arguments did not go well together. Not only was Vincent’s body tired, but so was his head.”

It’s just a few sentences The great Vincent van Gogh Atlas, but they are typical of the whole: subjects are attacked in a light manner without beating around the bush. You go through Van Gogh’s life at a fast pace. For example, the sentences quoted above form the prelude to the ear. Vincent van Gogh did something terrible because of the fatigue in his head: he cut off his own left ear. Alongside the note, this lavishly illustrated atlas includes a sketch by a doctor who, years later, had drawn what was left of Van Gogh’s ear: a stubbornly protruding lobe.

The combination of light-hearted text and a lot of pictures works like a charm, and can be compared to the classic children’s CDs from a few years ago, such as Beethoven lives upstairs or Vivaldi and the secret of the nightingale. In it, a child talks about his life near the composer and links the music to the events on the CD. They were exciting stories, and for the rest of your life you will recognize the melodies from the first notes.

When it is now less complicated with Van Gogh, you usually recognize his work immediately, but here too the story is told on the basis of his works, letters, old photos and news reports. It is told in a sympathetic tone how at first he seemed to fail at everything (“Sister Anna even thought he should just become a baker. Imagine if the world’s most famous painter had listened to his sister!”), about the many plans he had (“Vincent bought himself a top hat because it was fashionable in London. He really felt like a citizen of the world now”), about the constant money problems, the therapies and especially about the gloom, the loneliness, the manic and the suicide. In addition to a lesson in art history, you also get a lesson in life.

Leave a Comment