Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Sex Lives of Plants

Do I have your attention?

 On Sunday, my husband and I walked downtown to the Yale Center for British Art to take a guided tour of Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. This exhibition recounts the fascinating life and times of Mary Delaney (1700-1788), in conjunction with numerous examples of her work. The details of Mrs. Delany’s most interesting life are too involved to recount here; suffice it to say her circle included Handel, Jonathan Swift, and the Duchess of Portland, the richest woman in England.

Accomplished in the arts of drawing, embroidery, and paper cutting, Mrs. Delaney is most known for her nearly 1000 botanical collages, 24 of which are on display in this show. She created the first of these collages at the advanced age of 72! These intricate ensembles of tiny pieces of paper, cut without guides, then layered and glued, are brilliant in color. Yet they are well over 200 years old. To put this into perspective, Mrs. Delany was making her “paper mosaics” during the American Revolution.

A revolution of another sort was also taking place during her time. Taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (neé Carl von Linneé, 1707-1778) had introduced the system of binomial nomenclature, assigning a two-part Latin name to each organism, the first part its genus, the second its species (e.g. Homo sapiens.) Linnaeus was a keen observer of plants, and he fervently adopted the newly re-introduced, and scandalous at the time, concept that plants had sexual lives. In fact, his plant taxonomy was based on the number and arrangement of a plant’s sexual organs.

Elderly Mrs. Delany also embraced this line of thought as she dissected and examined her plant specimens in preparation for creating her art. Upon completion of each collage, she would list on the back its Linnaean classification, who had donated the specimen model, where she was and the date on which she had created it, and the number of male and female parts it possessed.

The docent certainly got my attention. I’ll be back for another look at Mrs. Delany’s work before the show closes on January 3. And I’m so intrigued about Carolus Linnaeus and his obsession with plants, that I hope to find time to read one of the books about his life.

Check out the exhibition if you are in town or later at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in Spring 2010.

1 comment:

  1. So glad you enjoyed the exhibit and came on the tour.
    Michael Pollan has written a marvelous article in the Sept. '09 issue of Natl. Geographic about the sex lives of flowers, in particular, the Orchids. They are naughty!
    He is also producing a show on PBS come fall about the sex lives of plants. And, he didn't even see the Delany! His loss.