The Meticulous Hand of Mali Moir

The greatest flower artists have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and hand of the artist.

Wilfred Blunt[1]

There is nothing imprudent or whimsical in the artistic renderings of Melbourne-based botanical illustrator/artist, Mali Moir. These qualities would be antithesis to the fundamental objective of an aged old art form that requires exactitude and verisimilitude in its mission to aid in the identification and differentiation of plant species. Botanical illustration is bound up with the scientific field of Botany, a discipline originating in antiquity that sought to discover, study and classify organisms, to better understand life on earth. It must adhere to complex principles of taxonomy, a Latin classification system devised for plants first articulated in the mid-18th century, by renowned Swedish natural historian Carl Linnaeus. Its objective, however, is not to render an image that is truly representative of our limited visual experience, but rather to meticulously recreate a species so that all its surface elements are given equal visual acuity. It must be distinct from even its closest relative and be able to stand worthy as a visual record in the place of a plant specimen in its absence.[2]

Moir’s career as a botanical illustrator began in 1993 at the National Herbarium of Victoria, one of Australia’s foremost state herbaria. Established in 1853 it now houses a prolific collection of algae, dried plants and fungi specimens sourced from continents all over the world, encased like hidden secrets in drawers and cabinets. Such a repository takes one back to the earliest practical uses of botanical illustration, which was for identifying and documenting plants with medicinal properties. Bound into books known as herbals, these intricate drawings were a veritable source of information for physicians working in plant-based medicine. Much of Moir’s oeuvre is aligned with this exemplary pursuit of botanical precision for the purposes of research, with several of her pen and ink works featuring in esteemed scientific publications, such as Flora of Victoria, Flora of Australia and Mulleria.

 

Gradually, however, Moir has shifted her practice away from a purely scientific focus and replaced the lens of the microscope with a new way of seeing. Her burgeoning output now includes interpretative works of natural science themes, rendered in a style known as Accurate Realism. While it is an approach that still covets an all-encompassing gaze, and aims, through traditional techniques, to realise a veracity of image and precision of line, Moir introduces a freedom of expression that gives to these works a fresh contemporary vibe. This is reflected in her recent life-size charcoal drawings of horses, titled Glutaeus magnificus, a bi-nominal name invented by Moir as a playful reference to their large rears. Although rendered on sizable pieces of paper, the series of works was digitally enlarged for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2015.

It is, however, to Moir’s earlier series of exquisite marine works in watercolour and the charming charcoal drawing on white paper of a Flemish chandelier, that feature in this years |not|fair|, and to which we will now turn. These works are significant as the bearers of Moir’s new artistic beginnings. Whilst the idea to render the chandelier was realised while Moir foraged through antique shops amongst objects smelling of history and memories, the marine species were produced during her time spent as artist on scientific expeditions. Such occasions takes one back to the romantic idea of the voyages of exploration that occurred from the 15th to the 18th centuries. It was an age of discovery where the explorer, eager to purvey and acquire the new and the exotic, engaged a botanical artist to painstakingly record and document the inimitable findings.

While these intricate works showcase Moir’s technical and scientific training, they stray somewhat from the weighty constraints of scientific illustration. On Moir’s most recent expedition to Papua New Guinea she assisted a team of 100 specialists handpicked by the National Museum of Natural History in France to conduct a rapid survey of the coastline’s marine species. From her experience come two meticulously rendered sea snails rendered on natural vellum, one image, titled by its Latin genus name, Turbo, of a larger sea snail type and the other of a sea snail found in salt and fresh water, titled by its Latin family name, Neritidae.

Natural vellum is a robust support material typical to Medieval times that can be rubbed back and reworked more readily than paper. Moir has chosen Kelmscott vellum for these pieces, its highly-processed quality providing an exceptionally fine textured surface that lends to the application of paint at the minutest level of detail. Watercolour on vellum is known as a magical combination, its translucent substrate affecting its reflective qualities to create a luminous glow. Moir’s rendering of light and shade, subtlety of colour and recreation of texture is, thus, so nuanced that one can almost feel the textured surface of the sea snails’ shell.

Moir also engages an aesthetically novel way in which to highlight the sea shells’ diminutive size. The Turbo sea snail and the delicate sketched image of its actual size, are each contained in a lightly pencilled perspectival box, side by side, revealing Moir’s technical method of reproducing a larger image of the object exactly to scale. With Neritidae, Moir sketches the true miniscule size of the mollusc in the bottom left hand corner, and adds faint pencil lines to illustrate that the finished image of the species has been enlarged almost ten-fold. It was important to capture the colours of this particular mollusc, as some are only visible when there is a living mollusc within the shell.

From a small group excursion to Point Cook, Melbourne, in 2013, comes Moir’s work titled by its Latin Order name, Strigiformes, a lateral view of the skull of the common barn owl. Along with its Latin species name Tyto alba penned in the corner of the work, Moir also documents the latitudinal and longitudinal co-ordinates of the exact place of its discovery. To better communicate its miniature size, Moir’s faint pencil line measurements clearly indicate to the viewer that parts of the creature are only a few centimetres long. A less processed vellum is used for the support of this piece, its coarser texture aesthetically more fitting with the rawness of the skull.

The tiny shallow water barnacle drawn from two perspectives was uncovered on an expedition to Wilson’s Promontory with the Melbourne Museum, where Moir joined a team of scientists engaging in a rapid survey of the area. The resulting works, Catomerus polymerus Frontal View and Catomerus polymerus Lateral View referring to their genus name and viewpoint, are executed on a less treated vellum embedded with the visible remains of animal hair and veins. The uneven texture assists in the recreation of the intricate whorls of plates situated around the base of the organism’s outer shell, and reflects its elaborate surface.

Originally part of a triptych, the third piece now graces the wall of a private collection. It is this final image that exposes the rather eerie miniscule creature hidden within the layers of shell and plates. While the triptych is historically intended for religious altarpieces, it is rather apt that Moir has used this form to represent the barnacle, for in the scientific world such creatures are valued as a living primitive relic species. The use of the triptych, thus, honours the organism as a wondrous miracle of creation, as old as time itself.

The piece that deviates from Moir’s typical fascination with natural science, is her depiction of the Flemish Chandelier. It is the first work that signalled her expanding range of subject and a softening of style as she moved away from a technical exactness of line. Rather, Moir blurs the outlines of the chandelier to create a smoky effect by her use of sfumato, a canonical Renaissance painting technique most associated with Leonardo da Vinci and his followers. The dark, hazy, imperceptible charcoal contours are enhanced by the stark white background of the paper. Rendered as a lone object, the chandelier has the semblance of a creature suspended in space.

The chandelier is perhaps, somewhat in keeping with Moir’s interest in natural history. It is not only an enduring object and an historic symbol of grandeur, but adorned with tendril-like arms and spiral scrolls, it is deceivingly plant-like, with the appearance of an exotic species in need of classification. Traditionally a support for candles, it is also wonderfully symbolic if read as the light that led the way for Moir’s new artistic journey.

[1] Botanical Art and Artists, URL: https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/what-is-botanical-art.html

[2] Sarah Simblet interview Botanical Art and Artists, URL: https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/what-is-botanical-art.html

 

Featuring in this year’s |not|fair| art fair Mali Moir recontextualises botanical art.

|not|fair| will be held at 12 James St, Windsor,  from 11-19 November 2017.

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