Ah, Those Pretty, Pretty, Flowers! And She Knew Her Science too – Maria Sybilla Merian at KSK Berlin
(Berlin.) It’s spring again! Not only Easter is approaching, but if you live in a country celebrating Mother’s Day in May, you will be particularly grateful for this information: 2017 marks the 300th anniversary of Maria Sybilla Merian’s death, and Kupferstichkabinett decided to honour the floral artist, the favourite of every lady of a certain age, with an extensive exhibition. Instead of a sad bundle of murdered flowers, why not offer a ticket, and maybe a catalogue on top?
You might think, it’s delicate to celebrate someone’s demise, and Kupferstichkabinett agrees. They are eager to point out the artist’s 370th birthday as another occasion... Also, they’ve planned the event for a long time, with the initial title being “Flowers in Art”, before they were even aware of the anniversary. Now, it’s all Merian and friends. The Berlin institution owns a large stock of her works, and so does Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. It seemed natural to join forces for the event, and that’s what they did. Maria Sybilla Merian, the female Dürer, or Humboldt, painted, drew, and printed flowers and pretty much everything that is creeping upon them, halfway between scientific illustration and art. Much of it is here at Kupferstichkabinett, on many walls and in many old books.
Maria Sybilla Merian was interested in thorough natural studies, seeking to capture as much detail as possible in her illustrations. Her contribution to the evolution of natural science is undisputed. But her being between the spheres, is perhaps Merian’s biggest problem. What makes her an artist, and was she not merely an illustrator, a craftsman? An architectural draughtsman to architects? Hers might well be the perfect example of artworks that became obsolete with the arrival of photography - in the least when it comes to in-depth studies of single plants. This not only concerns Merian, but others too, and at the same time, their admirable skills lay claim on the “art“ label. Take (Johann Jacob and) Barbara Regina Dietzsch whose 18th Century water colours on black paper you might easily confuse with photographs. And who could tell (the) Dietzsch(s) from Joseph Karell?
The question needs to be posed: Is there an individual, a signature style, in Merian’s work? Her works have often been – and still are - misattributed, in both directions. A collection of studies at Kupferstichkabinett that are now presented as the work of less famous Johann Bartholomeus Braun, once was filed under “Merian". They could also be Georg Hofnaegel’s, or Georg Flegel’s, or...
A difference between art and illustration lies in composition, in the scenery – or in its absence. Merian either painted a single leaf, a single flower, a single butterfly. Or, if she did combine them, she left the background blank. There are human portraits by other artists not much different, you might object, but those focus on the individual, personality, character, the soul (there are photographers of non-human animals today doing the same). Portraying a species is different from portraying the individual, and that’s not just a matter of style. Some of the complementary artists in this show are different, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe is one, Johann Christian Reinhart another (yes, it's a very Teutonic show indeed). Both born about a century after Merian, they were less modern, less scientific, when they framed their naturalistic studies with classical landscape scenes. And yet, there is evidence in her work for what exceeds pure textbook illustration. When Maria Sybilla Merian (with the help of her daughters?) on a trip to South America painted lizards and snakes, she took care to keep the eyes's appearance less “true” than harmless, almost cute.
There is an anecdote of how she once observed a dead mouse in her studio, and the maggots’ way from egg to fly. She painted the eggs, the maggots, the flies, the whole evolution – but not the mouse, because “it was not a pretty sight”.
But be she an artist, or one of the best skilled illustrators ever - and who would dare to draw the line?, – she was brilliant in what she did.
Maria Sybilla Merian and the Tradition of Flower Painting Images, 07 April-02 July 2017, Kupferstichkabinett
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism