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Orchids (and women) in art history

Heads turn as I scroll across to the garden. Only a couple of the faces I pass, somewhat hurriedly, are familiar. I wander over to the flowerbeds. How surreal it is to be viewing an exhibition halfway across the world a few days after it has ended. There are activities, videos of what went on behind the scenes, additional resources — far more material than I will actually look at, but I feel strangely reassured that it's there. I'm drawn to botanical art, I've written about it before, and there's something so wholesome about creating an exhibition and events around the contents of a garden. I'm slightly envious of those who get to see it in person. Maybe someday. 

Leaves dance, as though lulled by a gentle breeze that I can almost feel, in Angela Mirro's contemporary piece The Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Below, Sarah Drake's accurate botanical rendition of Galeandra baueri reminds me of a glorious peacock, a cascade of pink petals flowing downward. In other planters, the orchids of Marianne North (an "intrepid explorer", what a great term) transport me to an underwater scene, while Georgia O'Keeffe's are a whole universe. "Orchids: Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women", exhibited at the Smithsonian Garden from 29 January - 24 April 2022, has no dearth of showstoppers, with stories of daring, defiant adventure to match. It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, what I thought it would be and what it wasn't, yet now I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Marianne North, Angraecum and Urania Moth of Madagascar © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The online exhibition opened with 15 flip cards (is that the right term?) of "Women of Orchid History”, a subheading that made me sway between curiosity and amusement. Surely this could have been additional information to encounter slightly later, when I had a sense of my bearings, and when those names would have meant more. It's a bit too much information, but then a promising map of the garden, with each planter devoted to a different theme. I imagine what the exhibition would look like installed. Did they actually plant art in flowerbeds? Or was there only ever a greenhouse, with the exhibition existing solely online? 

I find the answer in "Planter 8: Exhibition Introduction." (I would have started with this.) Seeing the installation images, I think that the exhibition is best viewed online, with its rich purple background and the somewhat interactive layout; but it would be nice to admire the flowers, without interruptions, in person. I suppose we can't have it all. 

The more I meander, the more I feel my interest in botanical art deepen. I like that I'm learning new things, in addition to viewing unfamiliar art — the orchid as a symbol of 1970s feminism, how botanical art brought women closer to science. Isn't that the hallmark of a good exhibition? 

This piece was written for an art criticism class that I took in April-May 2022.