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Shoots and leaves

The spare beauty of Karl Blossfeldt's classic pictures of plants lead viewers to recall vivid snapshots from their own memories and act as a spur to inspiration.

art and culture Updated: May 02, 2015 17:01 IST
Flora story

To the contemporary viewer Karl Blossfeldt's (1865-1932) pictures could seem exceptional only for the vague sepia-saturated nostalgia with which dated photographs are inevitably imbued. Later classics like Harold Edgerton's Milk Coronet (1957) featuring the unexpected beauty of a splashing drop of milk or the wonderful views of the microcosm that photomicrography has revealed -- a world of beady-eyed water fleas, .5mm long eight-legged tardigrades (also known rather cutely as moss piglets), and of red blood corpuscles crowding against each other like so many velvet bean bags -- and the ease with which we now take pictures could make us undervalue the beauty of Blossfeldt's meditative images.

A self-taught photographer, and professor at the Royal School of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin, Blossfeldt originally made his plant portraits as teaching aids to illustrate his idea that the lines found in nature, the shapes, twists, design features and forms could be applied in sculpture, engineering and architecture. His collected photographs, published as Urformen Der Kunst, (Art forms in Nature or Archetypal forms in Nature), in 1928 altered how the natural world was perceived and influenced modern art and photography in the West.

(Left) Chrysanthemum parthenium. Feverfew chrysanthemum. Leaf enlarged five times; (Right) Allium ostrowskianum. Umbel of a garlic-plant enlarged six times.

(Left) Delphinium. Larkspur. Part of dried leaf enlarged six times; (Right) Cornus florida. Box-wood of North America, flowering dogwood. Shoots enlarged three times.

(Left) Bryonia alba. White Bryony. Leaf with tendril enlarged four times; (Right) Cirsium canum. Thistle. Flower-heads enlarged four times (all 1928)

The great success of the Art Forms in Nature show at Vadehra - this is the first time that Blossfeldt's pictures have been shown in South Asia - is that it encourages the viewer to free associate, to think of Georgia O'Keeffe's sexualised flowers, of Mrinalini Mukherjee's bronze fruit and seed that point to fecundity and the cycles of birth, death and decay that all species on our planet, both vegetal and sensate share.

As Blossfeldt intended, the pictures - all taken with cameras he developed - remind you of architectural features too: the image of a young shoot from the Japanese Golden-ball tree enlarged 10 times recalls the details of Mumbai's wonderful neo-Gothic university building; another of thistle flower heads recalls the purple fields of Culloden moor where the Highland clans of Scotland were decimated in 1746; still another of fiddleheads of the American Maiden-hair fern recall the verdant dew-drenched zoological garden in Gangtok; a picture of winter horsetail enlarged 12 times recalls the calming symmetry of the Qutab Minar; and yet another image of milkweed leads the mind to wander to Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. And so it goes.

Blossfeldt's images act as a magical spur to inspiration unlocking the unknown chambers of your mind. Gaze at these pictures endlessly and feel the doors of perception creak open. It's possibly the only time you will achieve a dream-like state by merely looking at a plant instead of consuming it.

(Karl Blossfeldt: Art Forms in Nature is organised by Tasveer and forms part of the gallery's 9th season of exhibitions, in partnership with Vacheron Constantin)

Karl Blossfeldt: Art Forms in Nature

24 April - 16 May 2015

Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, New Delhi - 110024 | T: 46103550 / 46103551

First Published: May 02, 2015 14:04 IST