It’s not very often that a museum devotes an entire exhibition to a houseplant, but the current show at the Wolfsonian, “PHILODENDRON: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern,” does just that and more.
It both canonizes and deconstructs this leafy genus of the Araceae family, highlighting as it does the plant’s artistic virtues, while tracing its social and cultural history. Said genus boasts more than 900 species — some still unknown to man. Some have flaring lamina, rubbery skin, pronounced veins. Some feature elliptical openings, swooning petiole and heart-shaped leaves that are sometimes splayed or perforated, as in a popular variation known as Monstera deliciosas — whose undulating forms have graced everything from curtain fabric, wallpaper, carpets, overstuffed couches and book covers to haute couture fashion, architecture and high art.
With more than 150 objects on display, the exhibition — curated by Christian A. Larsen, who also edited the attractive 128-page catalogue — shows how the plant’s distinctive shape and texture inspired many generations. It went from a scientific curiosity in the 17th century to a favored subject for 19th century artists to being a much sought-after prize for horticultural explorers like David Fairchild in the 20th century.
Frederic Edwin Church’s oil and graphite study for Fig Tree and Wild Philodendron (1865) introduced the steamy lushness of South America’s tropical wilderness to art lovers of North America, while Austrian architect Otto Wagner incorporated the plant’s suggestive silhouette into a carpet he designed for the Royal Waiting Room at the Vienna Imperial Railway Station (1899). Other designers followed suit with works such as an ornamental wool rug (c. 1927) by Brazilian designer Theodoro Braga; the evocative black-on-white prints of drooping philodendron leaves by Don Blanding (1945); a hand-carved hardwood dining chair from Brazil in the shape of Monstera deliciosa leaves (c. 1965); up to the more recent work of contemporary artists like Edouard Duval-Carrié (Crystal Explorer, 2013), or Miami-born Michele Oka Doner, who is well represented by a glass mosaic, Healing Plants (2007-2009), and a sculpture, Relic, Future Tense (2015), that immortalizes the plant in cast-bronze form.
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There’s something moody, even sinister about the big rubbery leaves. They made romantic backdrops for Hollywood sets of the 1940s but cast shadows that evoke a kind of Deco Noir, a Carmen-Miranda-meets-Dr.-Caligari decadence. Both the 1947 wallpaper prints by Dorothy Draper (Brazillance) and the 1942 Key West drapery fabric by the Riverdale Manufacturing Co. are playful but cloying and mildly suffocating.
One of the more uplifting gems of the show is a 1939 painting by Henri Matisse called La Musique in which two women play music in front of a backdrop of undulating philodendron plants, succulent green throbbing against black, captured by the master with a generous fluidity that brings the plant to life and gives the overall work a jazzy rhythm that one can almost dance to. (While shown in the catalogue, this piece is represented in the actual show by an etching).
In time, one sees how the exotic plant was re-envisioned by modernist architects such as Richard Neutra, Oscar Niemeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, and how it set up a biomorphic counterpoint to the machine-age grid of straight lines and right angles that otherwise dominated the Modern Movement.
Burle Marx’s semi-Cubist painting, Still Life with Philodendron II , is a high point of the exhibition. Photographs by Julius Shulman show Neutra’s von Sternberg house (Los Angeles, 1947) and A. Quincy Jones’ Brody House (Los Angeles, 1952) with large potted philodendron plants as the only living, nonlinear objects in these otherwise Spartan interiors. The plant’s form is nothing if not architectonic, bringing a touch of color while creating a sculptural counterpoint to the floor-to-ceiling glass, white walls and floating staircases of the modern, mid-century home.
More locally, we see the tropical plant form reduced to lyrical abstraction in Francisco Brennand’s large-scale renderings on the blue-and-white tiled facade of the former Bacardi Headquarters (1963) on Biscayne Boulevard (now the YoungArts campus). The Wolfsonian exhibit includes several exuberant watercolor studies by Brennand for the Bacardi murals, and while his stylized plants may appear to be in heretical contradiction to the Meisian logic of Enrique Gutierrez’s steel structure, together the architecture and murals make for an idealized marriage of northern rigor and southern sensuality that suggests a model for future Miami collaborations. (The 2-year-old PAMM museum by architects Herzog and De Meuron picks up on just such a theme with its hovering geometries and tropical hanging plants by botanist Patrick Blanc.)
While occasionally stretching the metaphor and verging on repetition, the man-made artifacts in the Wolfsonian exhibition have been thankfully grounded with a series of actual examples borrowed from the collection of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Herbarium. These dried and slightly mangled specimens — monstera delicerata from Panama; philodendron lacerum from Cuba; philodendron pedatum from Guyana — have the rawness and authenticity of primitive art and evoke the subtropical verse of Wallace Stevens: “As the immense dew of Florida / Brings forth / The big-finned palm / And green vine angering for life ... ” (Nomad Exquisite, 1923) and it’s in the almost grotesque “angering for life” that the philodendron transcends its humble role as houseplant and becomes something monstera and otherworldly, as if it had been seeded from a distant galaxy — think Little Shop of Horrors, think Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And if there remain any doubts about the impact these exotics must have first made on northern sensibilities, consider the series of photographs Fairchild took in the 1920s of the giant aroid plants dwarfing human figures in the rainforests of Equatorial Africa and the Far East.
The living jungle is brought directly into the museum’s ground-floor lobby with a specially commissioned installation, Forest for the Trees, by the Colombian-German landscape team of Mauricio del Valle and Veronika Schunk. Various types of philodendron have been combined in these hovering “plant totems,” all of which were raised to maturity by Urban GreenWorks, a locally based nonprofit that creates environmental projects for under-served communities.
One of the strongest contemporary works, hanging just across the lobby from the plant totems, is a panoramic photomural by Claudia Jaguaribe that reveals the epic complexity of a Brazilian rainforest. The range of hues goes from blackest shadow to brilliant green and sun-struck vines, all angering desperately for life.
Some of the contemporary examples in the show do not stand up to the earlier work, however, and this makes me think that the philodendron, as show-runner and design icon, might actually belong within a specific time slot, namely from the 1920s to the 1950s as green counterpoint to mid-century design trends. After that, it becomes more like a borrowed trope, an effect more than a pure generator of form and mood. Be that as it may, this thought-provoking and beautifully installed exhibition is a must-see.
If You Go
What: ‘PHILODEDRON: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American
When: Through Feb. 28.
Where: The Wolfsonian Museum, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
Info: 305-531-1001, wolfsonian.org.