If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should get along to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts First Moderns exhibition, which among its object collections is showcasing a selection of rare botanical books from the John Innes Historical Collections. The exhibition can be found on the West Mezzanine, and will close on the 8th of December, so this really is your last chance to see it!
Part of a programme dedicated to the history of Modernism, First Moderns focuses on the period 1890 to 1930. The main theme is the use of natural forms among pioneer Modernists. The new natural science had a profound effect on Art Nouveau style. Charles Darwin’s widely-read Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) altered late-Victorian views of humanity’s place and relationship to nature; microscopy introduced cellular life to artists; plants, insects and flowers provided patterns and forms that Modernists applied in designs for glass, ceramics, jewellery and furniture. Connected to this new naturalism was the idea that models of evolution could be applied to human artefacts, society and culture. Nature was seen as transformative, and the use of natural forms was a means to break with the artistic conventions of the past. The botanical books underline the central importance of scientific thought and endeavour to the wider cultural landscape at that time.
Visitors to the exhibitions will find fascinating works from SCVA’s Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau (which include pieces by Emile Gallé and Eugène Baudin) complemented by objects from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and from private collections. The items on loan from the John Innes Centre are woven in to thematic sections titled ‘The New Art and the New Science’ and ‘Outside of Europe’. They include a volume from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1879), open at an illustration of the orchid Paphiopedilum lawrenceanum, which shows how closely Art Nouveau jewellery makers studied natural forms. Georges Fouquet’s Orchid Brooch (1898) lovingly recreates the flower in gold, pearls, mother of pearl and pliqué à jour.
In ‘Outside of Europe’ the exhibition explores how Japanese prints and other artwork became part of the visual vocabulary of Art Nouveau. It includes JIC’s copy of Siebold’s Flora Japonica (1870), a book which had immense influence on horticulture and art as it was the first time that Europe and the rest of the world became aware and had access to plants such as Wisteria from that region.
Also included are two volumes by Bunjiro Fujisawa (1902) containing illustrations of varieties of the Morning Glory plants isolated and appreciated as leaf and floral developmental variants and grown in nurseries throughout Japan. These are displayed with artefacts showing the Modernist fascination with the decorative art of the orient and the influence of oriental styles of botanical representation. This is a beautiful exhibition and food for thought for all those interested in the connections between art and science in the modern era.
For visitor information contact:
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia
Norwich Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7TJ
The featured John Innes books will be returning to our Rare Books Room, so if you’d like to have a closer look please make an appointment!