Issue 6 Horticulture Spring 2002
Great Vitreous Tact
In 1870 in Dresden, Leopold Blaschka, Glaskunstler, had printed some business cards advertising his services as a maker of two things: glass eyes and scientifically accurate models of marine invertebrates. The eyes came in a spectrum of sizes and irises, heavy and smooth, made to order. Meanwhile, naturalism was becoming a fad. Conservatories and museums displayed the transplanted wonders—both living and dried—of colonized continents. There was popular interest in aquaria and botany, and Leopold—who had apprenticed in gem cutting and smithery before inheriting his father’s glassblowing works—sent his son Rudolf to study zoology. Blaschka fils came back a member of the Dresden Natural History Society, with entrees to the magnificent greenhouses of Prince Camil de Rohen of Bohemia and Professor Ludwig Reichenbach’s Royal Dresden Botanical Gardens. Then in 1886, Professor George Lincoln Goodale arrived from Harvard University.
Goodale was the first director of the new Botanical Museum in Cambridge, which had its roots in a different Harvard establishment, the “Museum of Vegetable Products,” founded in 1858 by the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz and botany professor Asa Gray. The Harvard men dreamed of a research museum fully stocked with specimens botanical, mineral, zoological, and ethnographic. This idea eventually came to fruition in the Peabody Museum, “a building in which all the departments of natural history [are] represented” to aid the scientist and educate the public.1 Rocks, crystals, ores: easy. Stuffed otters, lynxes, songbirds: doable. Masks, drums, boats, spears: yes, and context be damned. But how to procure permanent botanical specimens? Replicas made of wax or papier mâché were fragile and inexact; dried plants and drawings preserved some details accurately but sacrificed others. Photography was a nascent and sepia-toned technique, and “color, of course, is vital to any appreciation of flowers.”2 Professor Goodale had a problem, until he saw samples of the Blaschkas’ glass invertebrates at Harvard’s zoology department. Ushered into the Blaschkas’ parlor, he saw glass orchids Leopold had made to amuse himself. Eureka.Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.
—Leopold Blaschka in a letter to Mary Lee Ware, 1889
The project was financed by Boston brahmins Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter, Mary Lee. The Blaschkas were originally contracted to make models for ten years, from 1 July 1890 to 1 July 1900. Leopold died in 1895, while his son was on a botanical field trip, making drawings of exotics in New England, California, and Jamaica. Rudolf returned to mourn, then went on making glass flowers for Harvard until 1936. The resulting Ware Collection is made up of 847 life-size models representing 780 species. There are also three separate special collections: an abstract, watery series of works representing the cellular structure of lower orders, fungi, bryophytes, and ferns; a sixty-four-model group of lurid, lovely vanitas illustrating the fungal diseases of the Rosaceae family (roses, apples, peaches, etc.); and a sequence of enlarged models of flowers and honeybees demonstrating pollination mechanisms, preternaturally long bee-tongues, and spring-loaded stamens. Three thousand models in all: Harvard’s most popular museum attraction.
Please do not lean on the cases. All the models are made of glass.
Remember, no matter what your eyes may tell you, they are not real. They are made of glass.
All glass. Some with wire armature to support heavy appendages, long leaves, fat blossom clusters, fruits. Many composed of several different types of glass, with varying degrees of malleability and fusibility. Some made from clear glass painted by Rudolf in a process he called “cold painting.” After Leopold’s death, Rudolf—that paragon of vitreous tact—continued to experiment with the chemistry of his materials, and in the 1910s began to make models in “self-prepared glass,” colored compounds he made from scratch in his private furnace, using pigment, sand, and alkali. Ultimately, in the 1920s, he pioneered a process of powdering colored glass, which was then annealed to the plant structures, forming indelible tones over which he had the maximum control.
World War I damaged the studios, but the garden of the Blaschkas went on functioning more or less undisturbed. The Peabody’s promotional material does not mention World War II, or what happened to Rudolf between his retirement in 1936 and his death in 1939, nor anything about the politics of representational botany in the Third Reich, or if the glassworks was flattened by the 1945 bombing of Dresden.
He’s built a perfection out of hunger,
New flowers were transported from Dresden to Cambridge in cardboard and wooden crates packed in straw; by special arrangement with Customs, they were delivered to the Peabody untouched and opened by museum staff in the presence of a Customs officer. In the 1970s, a loan from Harvard to the Steuben Glass Company in New York traveled down the Eastern Seaboard in a hearse, road tests having shown that shock-absorption in the coffin-bay was the best available by land or air.
Next day Demon was having tea at his favorite hotel with a Bohemian lady whom he had never seen before and was never to see again (she desired his recommendation for a job in the Glass Fish-and-Flower department in a Boston museum).
The leaves of the red maple (Acer rubrum) have little irregular blotches on them. The head of the goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) bristles with tiny yellow blooms and even tinier hairs along the stem. That familiar, faded blue on the spiky New England aster (Aster novae-angliae): the mimesis is so perfect it is dizzying. Certainly the rooms are a Wunderkammer, but the exoticism of their contents lies not in strangeness but in familiarity. Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus). Morning glory (Ipomoea hederacea). Common catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). They shouldn’t look as common as they do.
What the Peabody exhibit recalls perhaps most of all is a wonderfully well-stocked florist’s shop, but one in which time has stopped, as in many a Twilight Zone episode or the phantom gingerbread shop in Mary Poppins. Even as you are marveling over how lifelike the flowers are, your central thought remains that they are glass—they seem to have transposed themselves before your eyes into a more noble and untouchable substance, to have shed the base juices and fibers of their nature and transmogrified themselves into immortals.
This, of course, is both exciting and disturbing. And yet the fantasy is not perfect: there are cracks; and as usual, the flaws exist in dialectical relationship to the perfections. The broken leaf of the iris (Iris versicolor), visibly mended with glue, the telltale glassy sheen on the blooms of the closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) where pigment has detached from glass support, become poignant and eerie in equal measure. Et in Arcadia Ego. In museological terms, the installation is old, dirty, quaint, and dated; there is dust on some of the plants, foxing and water stains on their cardboard mounts. The lighting in the galleries is out of date, the carpet threadbare. Someone, strangely, has chosen a large-patterned and brightly colored floral chintz to drape the tall and grimy, gracious Harvard windows.3 This insane delicacy, this meta-endangerment of fragile species, stirs some iconoclastic desire to smash the flowers just to prove they can be smashed, to force the medium to confess its vulnerabilities. (The same instinct leads us to yank leaves off tree branches without thinking as we walk past.) The hair-thin spines on the prickly pear, the perfect waxy surface on the red berries of ground hemlock, the twirly, climbing passionflower tendrils, are too dainty to be true and recall Georgia O’Keefe’s oft-quoted “No one looks at a flower, really. One hasn’t time.”4 Only here, of course, one has time. The extinctions, pollutions, and destructions of habitat that real flowers face won’t touch these pieces in their dusty Eden.5Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
—John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 1819
In fact, the Blaschka plants are arguably rarer and more precious than their living counterparts, since the earth can make more and the Blaschkas cannot. The collection out-flowers flowers. Inevitably, there is something both mythological and hubristic—shades of Babel, Arachne, Icarus, not to mention Dolly, the cloned sheep—about the artist who dares cruise too close to natural perfection. The Blaschkas were playing God, and the seamlessness of their success is unnerving. It is counterbalanced, though, by the stubbornly shabby premises, the absent-minded-professor atmosphere, and, essentially, by the very intensity of the makers’ gaze. Their observations of natural form act like a Möbius strip, swirling from diligent science to flamboyant art, from a sublime efflorescence of willed form back into the humble human effort to describe.
A marvel of art in science and a marvel of science in art.
A monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary of concepts which would not be synonyms or periphrases of those which make up our everyday language, “but rather ideal objects created according to convention and essentially designed to satisfy poetic needs.”
Morphological mimicry could then be, after the fashion of chromatic mimicry, an actual photography, but of the form and the relief, a photography on the level of the object and not on that of the image, a reproduction in three-dimensional space with solids and voids: sculpture-photography or better teleplasty, if one strips the word of any metapsychical content.
The Ware Collection can be entered from three directions: one directly from street level, via a wood-paneled, Ivy League-ish staircase; the other two circuitously, through the museum’s other galleries. Patrons choosing the eastern door are the only ones likely to see Leopold Blaschka’s 1870 business card, displayed in a large case outside the exhibition proper, and accompanied by examples of his tools—which, to the uninitiated, look as if they could belong to any nineteenth-century craftsman, be he blacksmith, tanner, dentist, or veterinarian—and several uncannily beautiful samples of Leopold’s glass eyes. The western doorway, on the other hand, gives way to the hall of gems and minerals. The giant diorites, the huge quartz crystals, and prodigious blobs of turquoise are installed in another down-at-heels gallery, unvisited and aggressively old-fashioned. The juxtaposition is telling: In the mind of the nineteenth-century naturalists who assembled the two collections, both were intended for the same purpose—to create the best possible conditions under which to study nature’s forms. The fact that one group represented natural elements dug up raw and displayed as such—uncut, unpolished, unmediated—while the other group only pretended to do this, was obviously not an issue to Professor Goodale and his colleagues. They were serenely empowered to take for granted the elegant clues circumstance had dropped about the essential meaning of the whole affair: the fact that Leopold Blaschka had trained in gem-cutting and jewelry making, before setting out in his first profession as a manufacturer of prosthetic vision.6
The object is that through which we mourn for ourselves, in the sense that, in so far as we truly possess it, the object stands for our own death, symbolically transcended.
In Freud’s model of the psyche, the elements of the unconscious were akin to artifacts. In the psychoanalytic process, each element had to be unearthed, examined, and displayed in conjunction with the other elements—a therapeutic exhibition of the neuroses.
Collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects [and in this they] turn into interpreters of fate. One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.... To renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire.
In the vault of the museum: no death, no frost, no bulldozers, no pesticides. Commenting on the collecting mania that sought to fix this timeless arena for dignified taxonomic meditations, the artist Christopher Williams takes the Ware Collection as his text for a piece called Angola to Vietnam, a photographic installation in which images of the Glass Flowers are released from the Engler-Gilg botanical classification system (in order of evolutionary development) and rearranged alphabetically according to their country of origin. Angola, Argentina, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Lebanon, Namibia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Vietnam: suddenly the fraught and fought-over socio-political world surges back into the hortus conclusis of the Peabody.7
The practical application of the Glass Flowers as research specimens subsided with the advent of precise color photography, plastics, air travel, and refrigerated transport. And, predictably, as the primacy of their scientific literalness receded, their role as fetish and metaphor gained power. The Blaschkas’ masterworks not only represent the urge to catalogue and preserve, not just the thrill of illusion and mimesis, but the primal sex-and-death tableau of flowers. It is worth noting, at the end, that one of the earliest known collected objects was botanical—a sea urchin inscribed in Eyptian hieroglyphs with the date, the name of the collector, and the site of the find.8 In collecting, the beloved is possessed perpetually, even if that beloved is the world at large. In the Glass Flowers, as in love, attention becomes creation.
Every collector is a substitute for a Don Juan.
Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.
Flowers, you know, are the real story behind the birds and the bees.
A version of this article appeared in Pink 2, no. 4.
Frances Richard is a poet who teaches English at Barnard College and works on magazines, including Artforum, Fence, and Cabinet.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine