There are exquisite and eye-opening treasures to discover throughout Botanical: Observing Beauty (Végétal – L’École de la Beauté), a diversely curated exhibition on now at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. For visitors who come knowing that Chaumet is the sponsor, these will include the precious archive jewellery inspired by natural elements. Others will be drawn to the meticulous studies marry art and science. And beyond an appreciation for variety of representations, visitors will sense that the theme goes deeper than aesthetic, that there is a meaningful ecological foundation to the show that resonates more than ever. Curator Marc Jeanson is an agricultural engineer and botanist who was responsible for the vast Jardins exhibition in 2017 notes that this show focus on plants for what they are – whether an object of interest in the academic realm or an endless source of inspiration to artists.
The exhibition apparently spans 5,000 years. Is it fair to say that vegetal and botanical motifs are the among the most universal and consistently explored across human history?
Yes, and even more if you take into consideration the paleobotanical collections which are hundreds of million years old. The exhibition is about the time of living species, the time of gemstones, the time of metal and of course the time of humankind. Plants have been inspiring humans since humanity’s existence, even though they are still less perceived and considered by humans compared with animals.
Why, in your mind, do we return over and over again to interpreting the nature around us — that it inspires endless representation and creative expression?
Plants, because of their mathematical and extremely regular organisation, are a source of fascination and inspiration for us. Endless inspiration indeed. But we could say the same of iconic architecture or any other kind of great intemporal embodiment of beauty. Most humans need beauty around them, and nature is always around us, more or less obviously, but always around us as we need it to live. This existential relationship is more and more obvious to humankind which is also why our consideration for the living world is changing, and more and more on everyone’s mind. As the living world is disappearing and threatening our survival, the perception of the beauty of living organisms seems to increase.
And beyond this, why does it remain so integrated and recurring across things we wear — from an ivy motif to a crown or wreath of laurel leaves?
Plants are essential to our survival. They feed us; our clothes come from them; they cure us; but they are also associated with many of our myths; and they represent key symbolic values. This is also why they are also strongly associated with jewellery and fashion design. They cover our bodies because their aesthetics are incredible but also, even though we kind of completely forget about this today, they suggest a message, they have a meaning.
In many cases, the works on display touch upon three categories: botanical studies, artistic creation, and decoration/ornamentation. Perhaps the Chaumet pieces are unique in that they encompass all three.
Indeed, jewellery is quite unique in that sense. But the exhibition is really about the way we perceive objects. First, we question the scientific and artistic values. For many pieces on display, if one was hiding the captions, it would be really hard to say if the piece was created by a scientist or by an artist. But the message of the exhibition goes beyond this. Let’s take for example the Otto Dix piece. It. is a work made by an artist; in the choice of background color for example one can say it is a piece of art. On the other hand, it is clearly a plant study to the degree of botanical details and the way the work depicts perfectly how the look of the creator was only focused on the plant for itself. We are clearly not in a still life. In this, it definitely has a botanical value.
Something that Chaumet pieces and other jewellery pieces have is a three-dimensional transcription, which is deeply associated with the history of botany. Artists and botanists have been working together for centuries trying to transpose the volumes of plants for teaching and creating a precise rendering of species characteristics. Some choose wax models, glass models, papier-maché models, while pieces as detailed and accurate as Chaumet pieces could also be seen as an extremely luxurious attempt to represent the exact volumes and structures of plants.
When you were exploring the Chaumet archives, what were some of the discoveries that emerged?
The quantity and the quality of the drawings and the naturalist inspirations – in the botanical field of course but also regarding ornithology. There are drawings of birds’ heads and legs that are remarkably precise and rigorous and totally unexpected, I think, for a jewellery house. What also touched me greatly is the diversity of the Chaumet flora. A floral register is expected (rose, peony etc. …) but a much humbler flora (small fern, clover, thistle …), I did not expect at all.
Are you seeing new technologies or applications providing alternate expressions of nature, for instance, the from Alan Butler, the so-called cyberbotanist?
Alan Butler is featured in the exhibition because he completely integrates his work into the botanist’s approach. He isolates plants in their virtual environments and transposes their forms thanks to the cyanotype technique that has changed the history of botany. His approach is indeed very innovative but absolutely anchored in botany. He was therefore perfectly legitimate to be presented. It also shows that this research of representation of the plant by new means is still very much alive today, obviously.
Botanical: Observing Beauty at Beaux-Arts de Paris continues until September 4, 2022.