Laurent Le Bon, the director of Paris’s Musée Picasso and the curator of “Jardins,” envisions a time when the boundaries that now separate art and science were more porous, if not wholly superficial—and his associative, self-conscious curating mapped out a nonchronological itinerary that wove together objective and subjective views of gardens since the Renaissance. On view were staggeringly beautiful herbariums (including the personal belongings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Paul Klee), carefully detailed botanical studies, maps, and clips from the cinema. Not to mention photography and painting: the walls were radiant with canonical works by Dürer, Delacroix, Monet, Redon, and Picasso, with brief dashes to contemporary figures such as Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Othoniel, or Wolfgang Tillmans. Although, or because, the show followed such a well-trod, boys’ school path through the garden of European art history—not much “cultivation” here — Le Bon’s conceptual frame was supplied principally by a selection of suggestive quasi-scientific pieces. Among them were the ocean-blue algae cyanotypes from 1845 by Anna Atkins, a pioneer of scientific visualization who is considered the world’s first female photographer, although no camera was needed to create her ghostly impressions of Polysiphonia fastigiata or Cutleria multifida. There were early experiments in time-lapse cinema by Jean Comandon, a microbiologist whose lush, black-and-white films documented heliotropic movement of flowers, as well as delicate glass models of plants, presented as specific botanical specimens, blown by the artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in turn-of-the-century Dresden (a rare loan from Harvard’s natural history museum).
The exhibition’s motion towards interdisciplinary understanding was crystallized in a section devoted to plant studies, done by both artists and scientists. Drawings, cuttings, and herbariums were displayed amid floral photographs by Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander, and Karl Blossfeldt, all of which evoked the 19th-century model of the scientific atlas: a large collection of objects or illustrations meticulously indexing a specific area of knowledge. Modernist form punctured this scientific paradigm, however, via Man Ray’s flickering close-up of a flower that only mimics botanical photography, filtering the scientific paradigm through surrealist models of desire. In Ray’s photographic surrealism, the petals of the wide-open magnolia flower are brittle, glistering, and obscene. He exposes the specimen of the herbarium as contigent and highly fetishized. (The philosopher Emanuele Coccia unpacks this point in his new book La vie des plantes: it is an ontologically distinctive trait of plants that they can be cut up without ceasing to exist.) Our desire to look at plants and flowers is intimately tied to their supposed fragility, and Man Ray’s photograph implies that this only intensifies our urge to crush them.