Mastering myths and wandering wallflowers : botanical illustrations, gardens and the "mastery of nature"
Du Toit, Victoria
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This thesis investigates the historical roots of botanical illustration. It argues that far from being simply scientific representations of plants and flowers, empty of artistic comment and only accompaniments to a scientific text, botanical illustrations assisted in presenting plants brought to Europe from the colonies, in ways that influenced the easy assimilation and appropriation of these plants into European culture. The "mastery of nature", which implies an attitude of dominance by humans over nature, is discussed as symptomatic of the European colonial period. European acts and attitudes of dominance are manifest in scientific approaches toward botany, botanical illustrations and gardens. This thesis proposes that attitudes of dominance have resulted in humans being spiritually and physically separated from nature. This thesis proposes that associations of botany, flowers and botanical illustrations with the feminine have assisted in human domination over nature. In much the same way as female is dominated by male, in a human sense, so plants and flowers were pictured as feminine − replete with feminine associations of subservience, weakness and vulnerability − making a human domination of the plant world possible. The artworks produced in conjunction with this thesis, for the degree Master of Philosophy (Illustration), aim to promote a sense of human attachment to and identification with the plants painted, in opposition to the separateness from nature that is promoted by the "mastery of nature". While traditional botanical illustration, in service to modern science, promoted the supremacy of vision as a way of knowing nature, the artworks draw attention to the unseen issues around plants and the human spiritual connections with them. This thesis proposes that, in a contemporary context characterized by an environmental crisis, there is a new role to be played by botanical illustration: it is felt that botanical illustrations should emphasize human connections with the plant world, thus alerting humans to the necessity of nature for our physical, as well as spiritual, survival.