Impressions of “Flora Japonica” at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London

by Asuka Hishiki, posted by Deb Shaw

Flora Japonica opened mid-September, 2016 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Before the opening, I personally felt very overwhelmed and was worried about how we would be received. It turned out GREAT! The people at the Kew were so nice and friendly. When Dr. Shirley Sherwood congratulated us at the opening speech, I felt so honored to be a part of the celebrated show.

There is so much to tell about the exhibition. There are, however, so many good writings about the show already available. Instead of summarizing those good reads, I thought I would make a list of the links for you to visit. Meanwhile, I would love to share my thoughts on several specific artworks. This are just my opinions and maybe rather boring ones at that, but I hope you enjoy walking with me through the show.

I have mentioned that these are just my opinions. Keep in mind, my bold statement is this: I think that most Japanese endemic plants are rather unflattering. Meaning that they are not obviously gorgeous like roses, tulips or tropical plants. Maybe this is the case not only with Japanese native plants; perhaps many endemic plants appear very humble looking. Well, really? It could be because these plants are not looked at properly.


Idesia polycarpa, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Akiko Enokido.

Idesia polycarpa, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Akiko Enokido.


Take a look at the watercolor Idesia polycarpa by Akiko Enokido. I think the actual plant (not her painting!) is very modest looking. Its male and female flowers are especially small and plain. However, if you look at it up-close as Akiko did, it is obvious that the flower clusters are very gorgeous! Akiko successfully converted the modest look of the plant into a dynamic figure using her vivid and strong color. The beauty is sometimes there in front of us, but it doesn’t reveal itself until we open our eyes properly. I think as artists we have the wonderful power to help open the secret door, clearing the smoke that hides nature’s beauty.

Speaking of color, I thought many of the artists’ subjects held a very clean but pastel color. I wondered how they achieved their shades. On first look, I thought perhaps the artwork was done in color pencil, but no, it was watercolor. In some parts, I saw tiny, tiny brush strokes. Instead of washing those stitches out, the artists kept them, floating them onto white paper, like a Georges Seurat painting. I couldn’t get an answer about this technique from my fellow artists, so I will tell you when I find out.


Magnolia obovata, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Mieko Konishi.

Magnolia obovata, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Mieko Konishi.


You may have the same question I have: how to portray something huge like a whole tree, or a plant like Magnolia obovata, which has leaves that grow up to 45 cm long and 25 cm wide? Two fantastic artists had the answers for me in this show.

The way Mieko Konishi portrayed Magnolia obovata was awesome! She positioned a main flower right up the center, and from it huge leaves spread in all directions. The leaves are cropped off in the middle. Only the two front leaves show almost the complete leaf shape, but even these leaves are cropped off at the tips. This is a huge painting already, but Mieko uses cropping and composition to indicate that the plant is too big to fit the paper. Her image reminded me the surprise I had when I picked up a Magnolia obovata leaf from the ground. I knew it was big, but seeing the actual leaf and holding it gave me additional amazement.


Pinus x densithunbergii, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Masumi Yamanaka.

Pinus x densithunbergii, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Masumi Yamanaka.


The other example is done by Masumi Yamanaka. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see her Pinus x densithunbergii in person. It was planed to be exhibited at the Japanese embassy in London a few weeks after I visited. This tree is known as the “Miracle Pine”, which survived the devastating tsunami that accompanied the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and somehow remained standing, even though the entire 70,000-tree pine forest along the beach was uprooted.

I had a privilege, however, to visit her studio in Kew Garden where she works with other official botanical illustrators of Kew. I could go on and on about the visit, but I would like to go back to her tree painting. I wondered how she created the tree painting without the actual tree in front of her. I watched her short documentary about the painting. Yes, she had many many references of the tree. Yes, she visited the actual tree and made the color samples at the site. But if she had had only those references, the tree would not be portrayed as accurately as it is in her artwork. What her painting contains is her experience and knowledge as a botanical illustrator. She has studied hundreds and thousands of plants with her keen observation and has painted them. This wisdom is laid on underneath the image.

I think the time we spend on a painting is not only spent on that specific artwork, but the knowledge we gain remains and accumulates in us as wisdom.

When I walked in the Kew garden and bumped into one of the trees Yamanaka had portrayed, I had a warm sensation as if I had just run into someone I knew.

Lastly, I couldn’t pass up telling you about what I do not know how to explain. Confusing, yes.


Cercidiphyllum magnificum, watercolor on paper, © 2016, Mieko Ishikawa