Saturday, November 26, 2016

Where Art and Ag Collide
Giuseppe Recco's Still Life With Fruit
There is something magical about walking around an open-air market, glimpsing the varieties of fruits and vegetables, ones you'd never see - maybe never even imagine - gracing the supermarket shelves. It's like entering a gallery, a visual experience wherever you turn. 

I have never been much of a modern art person, usually drawn to the large landscape paintings that captured feelings of awe and humility (e.g. Romantic era paintings of nature), or sense of exploration and adventure (e.g. Hudson River School). This realism attempted to interpret humans' complex relationship with the 'natural world'. Yet this overlooks one of the most central interactions with the environment; it is not often the context in which we discuss another flavour of realism, the still-life paintings of flora and fauna particularly popular during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Four Seasons in One Head
There was an article in National Geographic, a couple of years ago now, which tries to piece together the evolutionary history of our modern-day watermelon. Cultivated crops are products of generations selecting fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains that exhibit traits of better taste, more edible material, and ease of growing. Crops are in essence a most direct product of people's relationship to nature. Amazingly, some of this evolution is captured in art over the centuries, documenting how cultivars have ebbed and flowed with the passage of time. While the food still-life genre seems to bore some people to tears (sorry sis), it is a beautiful snapshot in time for the botanically-inclined. 

Perhaps a more explicit nod to humanity's direct confrontation with nature in the form of horticultural or extractive pursuits were Giuseppe Arcimboldo's series of seasons and elements (I'm a particular fan of autumn...). This vein of work seems to present a marriage between science and art, trying to meld botanical accuracy and metaphor within an image. At times I wonder how much effort was spent on studying rare or geographically-distant varieties of plants, how much the use of one particular cultivar was a carefully meditated decision, and how much we could learn from these paintings about the agricultural systems and trade flows of those eras. Perhaps it is not too late to change PhD topics, after all (...just kidding, I'm very content where I am!...)
Album Vilmorin. The Vegetable Garden (1850-1895)

Anywho, I had in mind no specific agenda for this post, no earth-shattering message; just a musing inspired by one of the various prints adorning my walls. So I'll end with acknowledging the artistry in marketing seeds themselves. Many a visitor returns from France with an A3 sheet adorned with a random assemblage of heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. Little do most of us realise that we can thank the Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie seed company (dating back to the 18th century) for this unintentional form of wall decoration. If you search 'vintage seed packet', a further array of masterfully depicted heritage plant varieties will emerge, testament to the beauty of agro-biodiversity and the skill of botanical artists. Not the obras we frequently find in halls of a museum, but a more subtle and everyday aesthetic.

So maybe, just maybe, you and I will look at still-life paintings (and seed packets!) with a more discerning and inquisitive pair of eyes. Art museum fieldtrip, anyone?

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