Beyond Words: The Symbolic Language of Plants
On view through April 8, 2012, Beyond Words: The Symbolic Language of Plants – which was created by a group of DC — based artists known as Studio 155 — is part of the Museum’s Outlooks Exhibition Series.
Beyond Words is inspired by artists’ use of plants as symbols across cultures and throughout history. In the ancient world, Roman artists used roses to represent Venus, the goddess of love; Egyptian art connected the lily to Isis, the goddess of fertility; and Asian art included lotus flowers to convey beauty.
Plant symbolism reached a high point in Medieval Christian art when religious craftsmen and artists used plants to explain the meaning of church parables and doctrine to a largely illiterate population. The lily and rose, for example, were used to denote perfect purity and love.
Inspired by Medieval artistic quality, the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artists revived the use of this ancient plant language to provide additional layers of meaning in their paintings. This exhibition, which includes over 60 works in watercolor, oil, tempera, and colored pencil, features a variety of symbolic natural subjects – flowers and trees, fruits and vegetables, and herbs and vines.
For example, Wendy Cortesi’s whimsical watercolor Pumpkin recalls Dia de los Muertos, the Hispanic tradition of Day of the Dead and the autumn season; Neena Birch’s painting Rose symbolizes ancient spiritual contemplation and centering; and White Oak by Michael Rawson stands for strength and endurance.
About Studio 155: The 17 artists of Studio 155 all reside and work in the Washington D.C. area. Their collaboration began during the 2006 Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark. Since then, they have continued to paint as a group in a shared studio and show their work together in Washingtonarea galleries. Their mission is to realistically capture the natural world while expanding the boundaries of botanical art.
Editor's Note: The Oxford Journals' Journal of Experimental Botany published a series, Symbolism of plants: examples of European-Mediterranean culture presented with biology and history of art. The journal addressing the month of March and the plants Silphion and Narthex can be read online:
"There are two conspicuous herbaceous perennials of the Mediterranean and western Asia that impress with their enormous resurgence each year from dormant rootstocks and thus function as symbols of reactivation and perseverance. Silphion and narthex develop with tall inflorescences over large tufts of finely divided leaves. Little wonder they became symbols of the Goddess Aphrodite."
1. Centering, 2010. Neena Birch. Oil on canvas, Triptych, 48 x 24 inches each panel. Lent by the artist.
2. Camellia: Luck, Perfection and Loveliness, 2011. Betsy Kelly. Oil on canvas, painted wood frame in oil, 22 x 16 inches. Lent by the artist.
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