W. Hammerschmidt’s print “Arbre de la Viege, pres du Caire” portrays a monstrously large sycamore in Cairo that has been around since the early Christian era. The entire print is occupied by a detailed description of its lush, eternal foliage, and the presence of human beings is reduced to silly caricatures that are practically neglectable. Throughout history, trees have branched into many areas of humanity. Their sheer beauty alone creates a dramatic, oftentimes dark spectacle of nature, eclipsing light with their large canopies and eradicating the complacency of mankind with their enormous physical presence alone. In addition, tree branches form intricate systems of order and structure that have been used to diagram thoughts ranging from politics to evolution, helping humans visualize complex knowledge and search for enlightenment.
The Johnson Museum’s Exhibition, Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture, displays an impressive range of prints and photographs representing trees from the Holy Roman Empire to present day, with rare works from esteemed artists from Albrecht Durer and Charles Darwin to Ansel Adams and Elliott Erwitt. Religion, history, science, philosophy, psychology and pure visual pleasure intertwine in every sense under the canopy of “ramifications,” creatively advocating environmentalism by emphasizing the deep-seated presence of trees in our history and cultural consciousness.
The collection begins with obligatory images of the Tree of Knowledge, such as in Durer’s print of Adam and Eve. Although viewers and readers of the story of the fall of mankind usually focus on the human drama, the role of the tree is passive yet critical. Why does the tree represent knowledge, and what is the role of the tree in the fall of men? Although these questions are unanswerable, it is interesting to view this very famous print from a refreshing framework. In the pieces that follow, the “tree of life” is presented in lynching scenes by George Grosz and Jacques Callot, where dead bodies dangle like snapped branches in a chillingly natural, almost decorative ease.
After the Romantic Age, nature became mythologized and artists and poets attempted to illuminate and enliven nature rather than merely reflect it. Trees, the kings of the forest, were elevated to a dramatic, mythological status. The woodcut prints in the exhibition showcase this spirit of imaginary especially well as the imprecise nature of woodcuts requires abstraction and the viewer’s engagement. In Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder’s 1789 etching “Man and a small boy in a Wood,” the man and the even smaller boy are engulfed by the landscape and are visible only after a careful search. Not only do human figures occupy a minuscule physical portion of the piece, attention to detail in the figures is much more reduced compared that of the majestic and mysterious trees.
The pieces from the modern era mostly deal with the interaction between trees and men. Howard Cook’s dramatic woodcut “Wind in the Elms” nostalgically depicts the Elm trees’ intimate relationship to American rural communities before the Dutch Elm disease reduced out the prevalence of Elm trees in North America for a generation. The bold black and white contrast sacrifices possibilities for nuances with an expressive style that allows the artist to blend the trees, the house and their interaction with the wind into an aesthetic abstraction of unity.
The exhibition also included many outstanding photographs of forests, such as Sally Gall’s “Thirst From Subterrana,” a slightly terrifying black and white photograph of a bright tree trunk and its roots searing rapidly through the soil of the underworld, and one of Ansel Adams’ famous photographs of the sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevadas. While these majestic images of trees are sublime in their own right, the most delightful pieces in the exhibition are the photographs that depict the relationship between trees and urbanity, such as Kenji Kanahashi’s color print “Trimming,” showing workers almost floating among the branches of a leafless, fragile canopy that almost looks like a large spider web plastered against the skyscrapers and the cobalt sky. Trees are incredibly delicate but also possess an irreplaceable power enough to conjure imagination. Another memorable piece is Elliott Erwitt’s “Bearded Man with a Tree,” a hilarious photograph of an obscure man whose quintessential 70’s beard resembles a scruffy palm tree that he was walking by, suggesting an inherent kinship between humankind and nature that cannot be eradicated by urbanization.