MAKING SCIENCE VISIBLE
In conversation with Mali Moir
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.”