Keep your Flowers in the Museum

Over the holidays we visited the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, just across University Avenue from the Royal Ontario Museum. We went there to see their show of ceramics by Joan Miró and Josep Lorens Artigas. Unfortunately this exhibit will have been taken down by the time you read this, but what I really wanted to tell you about considerably predates Miró and Artigas.

On the second floor of the museum you’ll find works by some of the most famous European makers of china from the 18th and 19th centuries. To the floral addict, this represents a real treasure trove of styles of flower portraiture. Just at the entrance to the exhibit are works from Meissen, the birthplace of European chinawares. Their cups, plates, and bowls from the 1730’s, although very beautiful, are frankly imitative of the Chinese and Japanese styles of the precious pieces brought by Portugese and Spanish ships at great cost from half the world away. The flowers shown are brighter than life, and stylized: representations of chrysanthemums and what looked to me like buddleia, no doubt copied from Oriental originals. I enjoyed their works from the period 1740-1785 more: during this time they developed styles in which minutely observed fruit, insects, animals and flowers were depicted in an increasingly European style.

By 1765 the knowledge of china making had spread from Poland to Germany, and German and Dutch artists were producing much more realistic images of European garden flowers. One display case shows the work of Ludwigsburg, Nymphenburg, and Höchst artists from 1765 to 1775. Gorgeous carnations, tulips, poppies, and forget-me-nots are shown with loving care and a stylish, but European, eye to arrangement on the surface of the work.

In another cabinet you’ll see the Composite "Dessert Service" of Derby, England bone china, done from 1795 to 1805. The flowers on these larger works were designed from plates in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine and other British compendia of botanical illustration, and are very pleasant indeed to behold. I noted passionflower, tulips, Belamcanda, morning glory, Gomphrena, double scillas or bluebells, cyclamen, iris, moss roses, Clitoria, and others. I spent some time in front of this case imagining owning such a service myself...ah well, in another life perhaps!

After visiting the Gardiner, we had time for a short foray into the ROM across the street. The new Christopher Ondaatje gallery of Southern Asian art is well worth a visit, both for the creative way the gallery is laid out, and for its display materials on flora native to the Indian subcontinent and their role in decoration and the arts. Ginger, tea, Rauwolfia, and other plants are given their due in exhibits which relate the plants to their everyday as well as their artistic uses.

Adjoining the Ondaatje gallery is a room of Japanese prints, screens, and paintings (the Herman Herzog Levy Gallery). If you can tear your eyes away from the Hokusai and Hiroshige prints long enough, the large screen at the back shows well the original of the styles the European chinoiserie artists were imitating. Strangely, the museum's press release for this exhibit seems only to be available in French: Trésors de l'art japonais. It's on until April - see it!

Downstairs from the Asian galleries is an exhibit called Growing Cultures of two dozen works by photographer Vincenzo Petropaolo. He has shown a number of Toronto’s immigrant gardeners at home in their gardens, from tiny downtown lots to Etobicoke and Scarborough. The accompanying commentary tells us how each gardener is melding her or his own cultural background with the Toronto experience, by growing the seeds of their youth in their new land. Hort members may well find a friend or neighbor in these pictures!

-Clement Kent




Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t