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Amazonian Entanglements

Brazil has the richest flora in the world, with more than 40,000 species of plants, half of them endemic to the country. It also contains two biodiversity hotspots, Mata Atlântica and Cerrado. This abundance of plant life makes Brazil, in the words of Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, “the land of enchantment for the botanist.”

Mee’s first trip to the Amazon in 1956 introduced her to a still largely untouched natural environment of unparalleled beauty and exuberance. But the 1960s and 1970s brought development, the Trans-Amazonian highway, and rapid deforestation for cattle ranching, logging, and mining. Mee shared with Marx a deep concern for conservation. Her extensive and lengthy trips to the Amazon confronted her with the destruction of the coastal forests through the ravages of fire and the axe and she records her distress in her diaries: “the cleared land has been left scarred and abandoned”; trees are cut down, and with them “perish untold numbers of animals and plants.” Contemplating for the first time the flowers of Gustavia pulchra, Mee wondered: “Will the exquisite beauty of this species save it from extinction?”

Concern with habitat loss incited Mee to add the forest background into her later paintings. The exhibition contains one of these rare works, a loan from The Shirley Sherwood Collection, the Philodendron Rio Negro Amazonas. The work is undated, but it is likely that Mee originally painted the Philodendron on its own and then added the background, switching from portrait to landscape and “returning” the plant to its ecosystem. Her choice is an uncanny reminder that so many of her plant subjects that hover alluringly over blank space are actually epiphytes or vines that depend for their existence on other plants and animal pollinators. While no recognizable species can be identified in the background, Mee’s goal in Philodendron is rather to convey visually the metaphor of the “entangled bank” that concludes Darwin’s Of the Origin of Species: “these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner” convey the deep ecological truth that all life on earth is interdependent.

 

 

 

Exhibit Items

Couroupita guianensis

Margaret Mee (1909–88), 1956, 64 × 46 cm, gouache. Loan, The Shirley Sherwood Collection, UK

Philodendron

Margaret Mee (1909–88), 64 × 47 cm, gouache. Loan, The Shirley Sherwood Collection, UK

Heliconia caribaea

Bryan Poole (b. 1953), 2008, 75 × 55 cm, colored etching. Loan, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Heliconia bihai

Bryan Poole (b. 1953), 2008, 75 × 55 cm, colored etching. Loan, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution