Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa

Originating out of a desire to showcase the extraordinary national treasure of botanical illustrations in the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) collection and extended by curator Cyril Coetzee, Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa brings together three intersecting themes: botanical illustrations from SANBI and other collections; contemporary botanically inspired fine art; and southern African objects of material culture made from a variety of grasses, reeds and creepers.

Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa is the third in a series of four Standard Bank Gallery exhibitions focusing on the elements: water, fire, earth and air. Explaining the choice of botanically inspired art as a theme, as exhibition curator Cyril Coetzee says, “What better way can there be to approach the theme of the ‘earth’ element than through an exhibition about plants?” Like Water: The (Delicate) Thread of Life (2011) and Fire! (2013), this exhibition highlights broad concerns about biodiversity and sustainability, and explores ways in which these are interrogated and communicated through a wide range of techniques, stylistic modalities and artistic conventions.

Visitors who arrive expecting to see purely decorative floral art such as still lifes or garden scenes will be in for a surprise. While these have their place in the world, few examples of this genre will be found on the exhibition. What visitors will find instead are a selection of exquisitely detailed images made in the service of scientific research, images that demonstrate a concern with geometry and a fascination for intricacy, and artworks addressing a range of ecological or environmental concerns. While art and science are sometimes regarded as polar opposites, this exhibition demonstrates the powerful and subtle relationship between these two complementary ways of knowing.

Among the works on view are 18th-century hand-coloured etchings by Francis Bauer and delicate watercolours by George Dionysius Ehret, plus a selection of antique books, containing work by Masson, Commelijn, Redoute, Andrews and others. 20th-century botanical illustrations including grasses by Gertrude Laurence and JP Acocks, wild flowers from in and around South Africa painted and drawn by such well-known artists as Cynthia Letty, Elaphie Ward-Hilhorst and Auriol Batten are also on show. Exuberant, richly coloured and textured works by contemporary artists, including William Kentridge, Helmut Starcke and Walter Oltmann, demonstrate a fascination with the structure of plants, but are less constrained by the need for scientific exactitude. Keith Struthers demonstrates a similar interest in structure, exploring the precise geometry of plants as an underpinning for architectural design. Gerhard Marx’s careful renditions of plants gathered from liminal places around the city, constructed from fragments of a cut-up atlas, suggest that everything is fragmented and recycled endlessly. Karel Nel’s works, which combine plant material with pigment and charcoal, sit alongside a collection of woven baskets and mats, offering fascinating insights into the range and diversity of South Africa’s contemporary cultural production.

The exhibition is complemented by a catalogue which offers further insight into the exhibition’s key themes. The catalogue includes essays by Dr John Rourke, past president of the Botanical Society of South Africa, Per Wästberg, president of the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature, exhibition curator Cyril Coetzee, former Curator of Traditional Southern African Arts at the Johannesburg Art Gallery Nessa Leibhammer, and others who bring their considerable insight to bear on this topic. This is a publication that those with a keen interest in botanical illustration and contemporary art will covet!

In a world where our view of what is around us is increasingly shaped by the images from around the globe flashing past us on our electronic devices, this exhibition reminds us to stop; to look down and to take pleasure in the fragile beauty of even the most commonplace weed that makes its way miraculously through the cracks of the pavement, and into our view.


A note on Standard Bank as one of Africa’s greenest banks

Standard Bank strives to be an environmentally responsible corporate citizen. This is evidenced in the many initiatives that the bank supports and in the measures that it takes as an institution to ensure the sustainability of the renewable and non-renewable resources on which the bank and its customers depend, to operate now and in the future. Standard Bank has received significant external recognition for its achievements in this regard. In 2013 Standard Bank was ranked Africa’s greenest bank and the 12th greenest bank globally in the Bloomberg Markets Magazine’s Top 40 Greenest Banks rankings. The bank’s new Rosebank building, completed in 2013, was awarded a five-star rating for design by the Green Building Council of South Africa.

Lecture Programme

A fascinating series of lunchtime lectures has been planned to complement this exhibition. All lectures will be held at Standard Bank Gallery, Cnr Simmonds & Frederick Streets, Johannesburg, from 13:00 to 14:00. Phone 011 631-4467

  • 8 October: Cyril Coetzee – Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa
  • 15 October: Mary Scholes – How plants and microorganisms work together
  • 22 October: Bob Scholes – Mixed Media: Art Meets Science
  • 5 November: John Rourke –  History of Botanical Art in South Africa (Colonial times to the present)
  • 12 November: Braam van Wyk – Remarkable Wild Flowers of Gauteng
  • 19 November: Ben-Erik van Wyk – Indigenous plant-based medicines: the fiction and the fact.
  • 26 November: Vivienne Williams – The History of Medicinal Plants in South Africa

*This program is subject to change.

Author: PR Officer

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