Very happy about the coincidence that on International Women's Day, I came across the work of a brilliant international woman.
Within the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (or - especially for non-London/UK readers - more often known simply as Kew Gardens) lies the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. It's a lovely exhibition space, built in 2008 to join onto the Marianne North Gallery. As a pair, they offer provocatively (and deliberately) contrasting viewing experiences: the more classical, jam-packed walls of North's art overwhelming the senses, with the cooler, more muted displays in the newer building allowing the brain a little decompression time.
This makes it the perfect environment for an exhibition by Masumi Yamanaka. Masumi (as she signs herself) is a botanical artist based at Kew, and she set herself the task of painting some of the most impressive trees in the gardens - notably 13 of the oldest and most venerable specimens which give the exhibition its title: 'Kew's Heritage Trees'.
Botanical art - distinct from flower painting in other areas of fine art - is by definition exact, as scientifically accurate as possible. If you can call to mind any botanical illustration you've seen, you might be picturing a plate showing part of a plant rendered in intricate detail, and alongside it isolated images of individual features, such as a seed or flower interior from a different angle. The aim is to give as complete a representation of a specimen as possible.
All of these elements are present and correct in Masumi's work, but there seems to be something else going on that makes each picture - and the exhibition as a whole - achieve a potent vibrancy that almost makes you forget the academic excellence on display and just immerse yourself happily in the image.
To begin with, the detail she achieves at times feels supernatural - particularly good examples would be the texture of chestnut tree seeds (or 'conkers' to some!). Like a reversal of the old joke that an Impressionist painting is a mess up close but achieves a kind of detail as you move further back from it - I found that Masumi's renditions got more and more convincing the nearer I leant towards the image. The slightly hairy or rough surface of a conker - or the grainy bark of a trunk - seemed if anything to come into focus.
Given that we also have the luxury of several images for each tree (there are 40 pictures on display), Masumi includes a picture of each one in its entirety. This is unusual given the forensic nature of the discipline and, as Head of Kew's Arboretum Tony Kirkham points out in the exhibitions's short video, it's also extremely difficult. Masumi adds that she was drawn to the sheer beauty of the trees' forms - the fact that some of them are centuries old means they have taken on unusual and fascinating shapes, that she hadn't encountered anywhere else (even the pagoda tree, which hails from her native Japan).
I found the effect this had on me was a sense of movement, or even narrative. Seeing a tree in full (and the detail is as acutely observed in these 'distance' paintings as in the close-ups), next to a section of a branch, say, I felt I could zoom in on the subject from a distance.
And this feeling of movement is also self-contained, in each picture. I was particularly struck by the painting of a cedar, where the combination of highly-detailed still points - such as the connecting branches - with the slightly (and I mean slightly) freer depiction of the leaves gave the impression that a breeze could be moving through the body of the tree.
Finally, the narrative theme is underlined by the suggestion of time passing - again, both across and within the paintings. In a couple of examples, we see a 'whole tree' picture from winter, with bare branches - Masumi writes about wanting to show the strength or power in their structure - then find beautifully-rendered leaves alongside it to complete the picture. Some other images also neatly convey the march of the seasons by showing a lush green leaf next to an autumnal yellow/red counterpart on the same branch.
I loved the way, then, that this exhibition honoured the scientific necessities of botanical illustration, without compromising a bold and generous personal artistic vision. Please go if you can - there's plenty of time. Along with two other enjoyable exhibitions - Spring flower paintings from the Shirley Sherwood collection and a group show from the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists - Masumi's paintings are on display until the first week in August.
(If you can't get to Kew in person, there's a beautiful exhibition catalogue, available here at the Kew shop price.)
Note on images: The pictures I've added to this post are all copyright to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: the first and third are from the Kew website, the second from the Time Out website. If there is any issue with including these, please let me know and I'll remove them. Many thanks!