The idea of art as a field distanced from other endeavours is a Romantic pipedream. In today’s article, Dr Nick Gordon looks at some of the ways that visual artists have been at the intersection of art, science and politics through exhibitions at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, State Library of NSW, and M+ in Hong Kong.

Giovanna Garzoni at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Chinese dish with artichokes, rose and strawberries (c 1655–62), Giovanna Garzoni © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Palazzo Pitti’s Giovanna Garzoni exhibition in Florence was to coincide this year with the National Gallery, London’s Artemisia Gentileschi show, which would have presented two of the most successful women artists of the 17th century in one year. (You can read about the significance of these exhibitions here). Artemisia has been postponed, while the Garzoni exhibition has been extended for a month until June 28. The exhibition, a collaboration between the Uffizi Galleries (to which the Palazzo Pitti belongs), the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and the Medici Archive Project, brings together the breadth of Garzoni’s art.

Garzoni exhibited exceptional artistic talent from a young age, as is revealed by her early work in calligraphy and drawing, including a Galleon at Sea drawn with a single continuous line. As a young woman, she was introduced to the Florentine circle of Maria Maddalena dei Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, where she formed a number of relationships with artists, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, and scientists, such as Cassiano del Pozzo. She also travelled extensively, including professional journeys to London, Turin and Naples. But, as Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Galleries, notes in his introduction to the exhibition, Florence was, in the early 1600s, a centre of science and it was here “in the city where Galileo Galilei perfected his optical instruments and lenses for microscopes and telescopes, Giovanna Garzoni had at her disposal, the most advanced technology for observing the microcosm and translating her detailed observations of reality into painting”.

Ranunculus with two almonds and a Hymenopteran, Giovanna Garzoni, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The exhibition showcases Garzoni’s ability across a range of genres and includes many of her exceptional still lifes and botanical illustrations. Botanical illustration was an increasingly popular discipline in the 1600s, as European ships returned from distant lands with specimens and accounts of non-European flora and fauna. Public interest in these exotic plants and animals is apparent in the print success of books that showed them, along with the birth of modern botanical gardens and the popularity of still life, itself a new genre in this time.

Vase with flowers, a peach and a butterfly, Giovanna Garzoni, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

But what is particularly interesting about Garzoni’s flowers is that they are, for the greater part, species that flower at the same time of year. This was not so common – the “Grand Bouquets” of Flemish painters such as Jan Breughel tended to flower across different seasons, suggesting that the artists drew extensively on botanical illustration. Garzoni, as both a scientific illustrator and an artist, was committing to an additional degree of realism in her work, which makes it even more pertinent to show how her artistic and scientific work were inseparable.

Portrait of Zaga Christ, Giovanna Garzoni (c 1608–38), courtesy of Philip Mould Company

The exhibition places these works in broader contexts. The selection includes examples from Florence’s collections of the Chinese porcelain that appears in Garzoni’s work, her miniature portrait of Raga Christ (the last prince of Ethiopia, and perhaps the first miniature of a person of colour painted in Europe), and her self-portraits. The selection soundly places Garzoni where she belongs: at the centre of art, science and the courts of Europe in the “Age of Discovery.”

You can see the introduction to the exhibition online here, take a closer look at Garzoni’s oeuvre here, admire the breadth of her work in this photogallery, and discover more about the artist in the catalogue essay by Sheila Barker, curator of the Palazzo Pitti exhibition, here at

State Library of NSW – Eight days in Kamay
Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770, E Phillips Fox (1902)

We can no longer talk of the “Age of Discovery” without acknowledging that European expeditions were voyaging into regions that were utterly familiar to their inhabitants. To gain greater insight into first contact, take a look at the State Library of NSW’s Eight days in Kamay. This online exhibition is interdisciplinary, and takes you into the eight days of contact between the Gweagal people of Kamay (Botany Bay) and the crew of the HMS Endeavour in 1770.

The show brings together a diverse range of material, including recorded accounts by Gweagal elders and knowledge holders, journal entries from Cook and his crew, botanical illustrations, documentary photography and contemporary art. The story this tells is multifaceted. You hear, for example, Gweagal accounts of familiar events – including forewarning of Cook’s arrival carried by message-stick up the coast of NSW – and these are juxtaposed with excerpts from the journals of Cook and others that suggest surprise when they realise that they have been observed.

The accounts of conflict at the outset are contrasted with how the environment and its flora and fauna were understood. Sydney Parkinson’s botanical illustrations and excerpts from Joseph Banks’s writings show how the scientists on board sought to make sense of the strange new land before them. This section of the online exhibition is immediately followed by one exploring “A place of plenty.” Here Gweagal elders and knowledge holders explain how they used and managed the resources of their Country, so that the exhibition broadens the public record of Indigenous knowledge.

The exhibition then moves into the modern era, with a close look at the Indigenous protests during the last major Cook anniversary in 1970. This aspect of the exhibition doesn’t come out of the blue – it is preceded online by numerous works of contemporary art that contest the meaning of Cook. These begin with Daniel Boyd’s We call them pirates here (2006), based on E. Phillips Fox’s 1906 painting Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. Boyd’s work is followed by the work of other contemporary Indigenous artists, including Michael Cook, Carla Dickens and Vincent Namatjira. The art and its context within the exhibition is a well-crafted reminder that the colonisation of Australia has been challenged for 250 years.

M+ Hong Kong
M+ Stories is the bilingual online storytelling platform of M+ in Hong Kong

Art and politics coincide in a postcolonial world, but exactly how they intersect with technology can require some teasing out. In the current climate Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff’s 2017 essay “Visual activism and the Snapchat generation” is particularly interesting. Mirzoeff focuses on how digital technology has been used to create a new visual culture, especially by a younger global generation. But he also explores how this visual culture has been used by activists worldwide, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US, sparked by the deaths of people of colour at the hands of public officials, to the “visual activism” of Zanele Muholi, the South African photographer, who is part of this year’s Biennale of Sydney.

The essay is part of M+ Stories, an initiative of M+, Hong Kong’s long awaited museum of contemporary art. This collection of online articles and videos covers diverse topics, such as the development of artist-designed playgrounds in HK in the 1960s and 70s, to a series of videos (“Making Hong Kong”) that look at the artists and designers, such as Henry Steiner and the Shanghainese Leung family, who have helped shape HK’s distinctive visual and material culture. The selection of topics is quirky, but it takes you into the unique social history of a fishing village-come-colony that became one of the great poly-ethnic metropolises of the modern world.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
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