MAK­ING SCIENCE VIS­I­BLE

In con­ver­sa­tion with Mali Moir

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Toby Fe­hily

Mali Moir pulls out a chair and sits amid the dis­so­nant quiet of the Melbourne Ob­ser­va­tory’s Whirling Room at the Royal Botanic Gar­dens Melbourne. Built in 1905 to house a ma­chine that tested air flow equip­ment, and named for the deaf­en­ing sound it once made, the room is en­tirely silent now, save for the oc­ca­sional chirp of a bird out­side. Across from Moir, scat­tered on top of a stone bench, is a bunch of pink camel­lia buds and five bright and perky chill­ies: some a bold red and oth­ers a soft gra­di­ent of greens and or­anges.

The camel­lias, un­for­tu­nately, aren’t a gift and the chill­ies, per­haps for­tu­nately, aren’t for lunch. A prac­tic­ing botan­i­cal artist for more than 25 years, Moir teaches botan­i­cal art here, and the camel­lias and chill­ies are spec­i­mens she’s brought for stu­dents tak­ing her classes. They’re a good en­try point to the long and sto­ried prac­tice, she ex­plains.

“The camel­lia buds are easy to man­age,” she says, “they’re a nice, tight, rounded form.” As for the chill­ies, “they come in dif­fer­ent shapes and they have lumps and bumps any­where they like...the painted bumps can be in dif­fer­ent places to your spec­i­men but it still looks like a chilli.” Both of them she de­scribes as “for­giv­ing”— a not-so-sub­tle sug­ges­tion that not all plants are mer­ci­ful to the artists who seek to cap­ture their like­ness.

Aside from these spec­i­mens, and a poster il­lus­trat­ing mush­room species, the Whirling Room doesn’t ap­pear to be a room where botan­i­cal art classes would be held. Two rows of desks fill the space, each topped with one or two small desk­top lamps and each within reach of a pow­er­point dan­gling from the ceil­ing. If any­thing, it looks like a science lab­o­ra­tory. Con­sid­er­ing the his­tory and very na­ture of the art form, it’s fit­ting.

From its in­cep­tion, botan­i­cal art has been tightly bound to science. Though de­pic­tions of plants have been around ever since hu­mankind first be­gan draw­ing on cave walls, botan­i­cal art as a field only emerged to serve a spe­cific sci­en­tific pur­pose, namely that of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Start­ing in the 1st cen­tury B.C. with Greek physi­cian Cre­tavas’ The Codex, il­lus­tra­tions of plants were in­cluded in ‘her­bals’—books that out­lined the medic­i­nal uses of plants.

Back then, they were coarsely ren­dered, al­beit beau­ti­ful im­ages, rel­a­tively crude com­pared to the finely wrought de­tail seen to­day. From its in­cep­tion, though, botan­i­cal art grew in time with the fits and starts of tech­nol­ogy, which both al­lowed us to see the nat­u­ral world more clearly and stoked our de­sire to un­der­stand it more deeply.

Dur­ing the Re­nais­sance, it was the in­ven­tion of the mi­cro­scope that led to a cor­re­lat­ing explosion of de­tail in botan­i­cal art. Moir men­tions Al­brecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf (1503) as a mile­stone. “It’s a paint­ing of a sod of earth with all the plants that would grow in a typ­i­cal square foot of earth,” she says, “and it’s just an ab­so­lutely mag­nif­i­cent paint­ing.”

Mag­nif­i­cent as it is, with its metic­u­lously ob­served and ren­dered minu­tiae, Dürer’s wa­ter­colour paint­ing strayed from the her­bals’ strict con­fines of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion and took some artis­tic lib­er­ties. Rather than a be­trayal of botan­i­cal art’s roots, though, it’s just an­other ex­am­ple of the con­stant ten­sion present in the field, be­tween what Moir calls “the very strict bound­aries of science and the bound­less, end­less av­enues you can fol­low in art”. “We have to sat­isfy both,” she says. She likens it to ar­chi­tec­ture: “You’re re­stricted with keep­ing the build­ing stand­ing and cre­at­ing a piece of beauty.”

The form be­gan to truly pick up steam to­wards the end of the 18th cen­tury. Tales of travel to ex­otic lands were daz­zling the pub­lic, who were equally en­tranced by the ex­otic spec­i­mens un­cov­ered in these far- off lo­cales. Un­usual plants such as the bird of par­adise, first in­tro­duced to Europe in 1773 and ren­dered in lith­o­graphs by Aus­trian botan­i­cal artist Franz Bauer in 1818, ig­nited a fren­zied cu­rios­ity about the end­less va­ri­ety of the nat­u­ral world. Il­lus­trated pub­li­ca­tions such as Cur­tis’ Botan­i­cal Magazine, es­tab­lished by English botanist Wil­liam Cur­tis in 1787 and still pub­lished to­day, fed an in­creas­ing ap­petite for these won­ders.

But by the time the Vic­to­rian era rolled around in the early 19th cen­tury with its re­stric­tive so­cial mores, botan­i­cal art found it­self sim­i­larly con­fined, rel­e­gated a more dec­o­ra­tive pur­pose in ac­cor­dance with the age’s ob­ses­sion with or­na­ment. “The trend in those days was to put the por­trait of the plant in situ,” Moir ex­plains, “and to paint the en­vi­ron­ment sup­port­ing that plant.”

Most of the botan­i­cal art from this pe­riod was cre­ated by women, ei­ther wealthy or with the sup­port of a pa­tron, who of­ten pub­lished anony­mously. It was con­sid­ered shame­ful for women to en­gage in com­mer­cial un­der­tak­ings. In Dutch botan­i­cal artist Berthe Hoola van Nooten’s 1863–1864 plates for Fleurs, Fruits et Feuil­lages Choi­sis de l’ile de Java, she in­cludes an apolo­gia in the in­tro­duc­tion ex­plain­ing that the death of her hus­band and her re­sult­ing fi­nan­cial hard­ship forced her to pur­sue botan­i­cal art as a mon­ey­mak­ing ven­ture, de­scrib­ing the prac­tice as a way to ward against “penury and a refuge in sor­row”.

In re­cent years, fol­low­ing a down­turn in pop­u­lar­ity, the field has been bloom­ing once more in what Moir calls a new, world­wide re­nais­sance. She cites “the trend to­wards look­ing at the en­vi­ron­ment and the con­ser­va­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment; go­ing back to the land, back to plants, back to na­ture.”

“The qual­ity and skill of botan­i­cal art, I be­lieve, is at its height in this cur­rent re­nais­sance. This, of course, may be due to the very qual­i­ties which at­tract peo­ple to it, be­ing the car­ing and gen­er­ous shar­ing of plant bi­ol­ogy and artis­tic prac­tices, along with the med­i­ta­tive na­ture of di­rect ob­ser­va­tional focus and quiet slow ren­der­ing tech­niques.”

Moir de­scribes a move to­wards not re­al­ism but what she terms “ac­cu­rate re­al­ism”—“it’s not photo re­al­ism, it’s not su­per re­al­ism, it’s ac­cu­rate re­al­ism”. See­ing, she sug­gests, is about more than just sight. For her classes she pre­scribes a steady course of science, which in­cludes the some­times trau­matic ex­er­cise of dis­sect­ing beloved flow­ers. The idea is that the un­der­ly­ing sci­en­tific struc­ture of a plant must be grasped in or­der to truly see, and thus un­der­stand, what lies be­neath the sur­face.

“We have a whole leg in botany and an­other whole leg in art,” she ex­plains. “When we’re in class here it’s al­ways about mea­sur­ing and count­ing, be­cause it has to have sci­en­tific rigour.”

“So you can’t have five petals on a mono­cot,” she adds, laugh­ing. (To be par­tic­u­lar, which botan­i­cal artists in­vari­ably must be, the mono­cot, or mono­cotyle­don, is a trimer­ous plant, which is a plant whose parts come in threes, mean­ing it has ei­ther three, six or nine petals.)

In ac­cor­dance with their un­wa­ver­ing ded­i­ca­tion to ac­cu­racy, Moir and most botan­i­cal artists only work with live spec­i­mens. The only use Moir has for pho­to­graphs is as a tool to con­jure up mem­o­ries of a plant’s ap­pear­ance— an aid for a men­tal im­age, and not an im­age in and of it­self. For all the ad­vances in pho­tog­ra­phy in the 20th and 21st cen­tury, the cam­era still falls short of the real thing and even, in some cases, the triple zero paint brush. “With photo re­al­ism you’re still not get­ting the clar­ity; even though it looks very real, I couldn’t dis­sect it and un­der­stand it at its sci­en­tific level.”

As such, it’s no sur­prise botan­i­cal text­books still pre­fer line draw­ings over pho­to­graphs. “Line art can spell out a story much clearer. Some­one who’s skilled in line art lan­guage can por­tray furry or softly fuzzy sur­faces—there are dif­fer­ent ways of ren­der­ing tex­tures. It’s clearer in that sense. And as an il­lus­tra­tor you can em­pha­sise a par­tic­u­lar fea­ture a lit­tle bit more than a pho­tog­ra­pher.” Science, cold and clin­i­cal as it may seem, still needs the gen­tle guid­ance of a hu­man hand to be able to ac­cu­rately con­vey the nat­u­ral world.

“It comes down to com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween peo­ple and con­nect­ing peo­ple to each other. I guess that’s what art is: com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Ex­cept we’re not try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate emo­tions, we’re try­ing to trans­late the nat­u­ral world,” she says. “We re­ally are telling the story and com­mu­ni­cat­ing our love for na­ture.”

Mali Moir, Stre­litzia nico­lai, 2015. Wa­ter­colour on cot­ton pa­per, 55x75cm. Im­age copy­right Mali Moir.

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