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Dena Kahan's The Glass Garden: artifice, paradox and wonder

See Glass Garden paintings

"Ars longa, vita brevis … iudicium difficile". "Life is short, art long … judgment difficult."

Hippocrates (c.460 – c.377 BCE)

Throughout her career as an artist, Dena Kahan has sought to explore the nature of perception itself, that confluence of seeing, knowing and feeling. Her subtle and evocative paintings can be understood as "a meditation on desire and the gap that exits between fantasy and reality, imagination and execution".1 In pursuit of this larger ambition, her art has evolved through a series of thematic projects that address concerns shared by many contemporary artists today: the relationship of the natural to the artificial; the meeting of science and art; the expression of the alchemical and the paradoxical; and the intersection of internal and external worlds. For the last decade, Kahan's attention has focussed on the orderly domain of the museum – in particular, the extraordinary collection of 'Glass Flowers' in the Harvard Museum of Natural History - and the traditional display case has become the site of her creative endeavours.

Of course, living artists have long been stimulated by and actively involved with museums and their collections, whether the Early Modern period's cabinet of curiosities or the Age of Enlightenment's public institutions.2 During the twentieth century, this artistic engagement developed a sharper critical edge. In Europe and North America, several generations of artists, ranging from Diane Arbus, Hans Haacke and Anslem Kieffer to Fred Wilson, Thomas Struth and Andrea Fraser, have undertaken critiques and imaginative re-interpretations of museum collections that often interrogated the institution's cultural and political power.3 It is no longer unusual to view exhibitions in which artists' works are both "inspired by the collections that museums display and are challenged by the authority that museums represent." 4

In Australia, the significant role that the traditional museum has played in the 'colonial project' of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been a crucial motivation for contemporary artists. Post-colonial interpretations of collections or single objects have resulted in important works, installations and exhibitions by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists and curators.5 But as Jennifer Barrett and Jacqueline Millner have argued, contemporary Australian artists have also "diversified their engagement … beyond institutional critique in ways that complement, extend as well as complicate the role of the museum, the practice of art and the viewer's experience".6 Two of the most striking aspects of traditional museums are the use of taxonomic modes of categorization and display, and the sheer aesthetic dynamism of the myriad specimens and artefacts. Not surprisingly, it is these elements that have provoked the greatest response from contemporary artists including, among others, Dena Kahan.

Some Australian artists have focussed on local museums whose nineteenth-century displays survive intact – such as the Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide, founded in 1881 and the last colonial museum of its type in the world7 - but Kahan has instead chosen to look beyond these shores. Her current work is drawn from her close study of the renowned historic assemblage of over 4,000 botanical specimens made from glass in the Harvard Museum of Natural History – known for over a century as 'The Glass Flowers Collection' of Harvard. Commencing in 1886, and produced over a period of five decades, these astonishingly realistic glass replicas of flowering plants and fruit were so famous that by the early twentieth century, even newspapers in far-off Australia carried articles about the glass flowers' extraordinary workmanship: "one of the greatest artistic marvels in the world"8 and "marvels of beauty as well as perfect botanical specimens"9 . The makers of these wonders were the legendary German glass artists, Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939), who "were the sole possessors of the secret methods used in manufacturing these remarkable models".10

Regarded today as one of the most "unique and breathtakingly beautiful collections ever created", the Glass Flowers – or Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants as it is officially titled - constitutes the largest single public attraction at Harvard University, drawing over 100,000 visitors a year.11 The collection includes over 845 life-size glass models that represent some 780 species and varieties, illustrating 164 families of flowering plants. There are more than 3,000 detailed models of enlarged sections of "various floral and vegetative parts of the plants".12 Special groups of models present both the 'lower', more primitive, plants or 'cryptogams' (including fungi, bryophytes, and ferns) as well as a selection of rosaceous fruits (apples, pears, etc.) showing the effects of fungal diseases. Lastly, and most strikingly, a third group of glass models depict plants and insects during the pollination process. Housed in two rooms in the University's Botanical Museum, the original display is carefully maintained, with models of plants exhibited in glass cases and arranged "by [plant] family, in order of evolution, from the simplest to the most advanced or complex".13 It is this historic museum interior and its extraordinary collection, fusing science and art in a unique amalgam, that Dena Kahan has studied, photographed and painted for the last five years.

Her initial interest in the Glass Flowers collection, however, was not so much botanical as optical, and emerged from a more longstanding fascination with the qualities and nature of glass. Indeed, it was while she was working on an earlier series of canvases based on the dazzling displays of historic glassware at the Victoria and Albert Museum that Kahan first began to modify her painting practice to better capture the distinctive visual effects of glass objects. She realised that a different painting technique and a new palette were needed to convey the ambiguous imagery of reflected and refracted light. As Kahan later recalled:

Rather than paint the glass vessels on a painted background, the oil paint [had to be] applied thinly, allowing the white ground of the canvas to illuminate the colour, somewhat in the manner of a watercolour. This creates an effect of the transparency of glass whilst also enhancing the brightness of the colours. The thinly applied paint is dragged after application to create the effects of a smooth and glossy surface, both in an illusionistic sense to the glass objects depicted, and also to the surface of the canvas, a double-oil-primed, very fine linen.14

This innovative glazing technique and bright pastel palette suggested both artifice and iridescence and would continue to be refined in Kahan's next series of paintings when she shifted her attention to natural history collections. This was brought about by her discovery of nineteenth-century models of marine creatures - soft invertebrates like anemones, jelly fish, ribbon worms and sea stars – all rendered meticulously in glass. A perfect example of the Enlightenment museum's agenda of encapsulating and reclassifying 'nature' as 'culture', this complex subject matter gave Kahan the perfect means to explore the uneasy relationship between science and art and the visual expression of internal and external worlds, adding rich new dimensions to her work.15 The marine models from London's Natural History Museum were also Kahan's first encounter with the virtuoso glass productions of the Blaschkas, father and son, which led her inevitably to their most celebrated masterpiece, the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

The international reputation of the Blaschkas in the late nineteenth century had caused the director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, Dr Goodale, to choose glass models as the ideal material to capture the vitality and colour of living flora in his new displays. Glass's pristine surface could reproduce their finest details and also withstand the effects of time.16 Yet glass is a mysteriously complex and contradictory material – it is a form of alchemy, a liquid that has been transformed into a solid, yet its transparency, fragility and reflective surfaces seem to deny this very aspect. For Kahan, the multiple layers of glass that create and contain Harvard's collection of flowering plants – glass specimens in glass display cases, set between glass fronted cabinets – offered intriguing ways of seeing through and beyond the objects and re-conceiving the museum's Enlightenment project.

Employing a camera, another nineteenth-century invention also prized (like the museum) for its ability to record things more precisely and accurately, Kahan carefully photographed the Glass Flowers collection as a preparatory step before her painting process. But the supposed objectivity of photography actually allowed her to achieve a completely different result: one both unruly and enigmatic. Delighting in the unexpected flares and blurring and reflections that were captured by the camera's glass lens, Kahan used these poetic distortions as the basis for her own painterly vision of the Botanical Museum – one in which categorization is overturned and comprehension eluded. As she later remarked: 'Emphasising this slippage of focus … adds to a sense of uncertainty and unreliability regarding the physicality of the objects and the viewer's perceptions'.17 Of course this slippage of focus could also be seen to refer to the larger museum project itself and the unreliability of taxonomic categories.

For instance, in many of Kahan's larger paintings like Large Glass Garden #4, 2012, and Big Jungle, 2014, we, the viewers, seem to inhabit the same cabinet as the looming, gleaming plants, while our gaze is constantly distracted by the vivid reflections in the glass overhead that turn the 'careful taxonomic order of the display … into a jumble of colour and shape'.18 Kahan's gentle subversion of the museum's methodical systems is further apparent in Large Glass Garden #4, where the written labels that accompany each specimen can be seen in the foreground but not deciphered, while one small blurry pink square, glimpsed amid the jungle-like reflections above, turns out to be a half-obscured 'EXIT' sign, an ironic note within this ambivalent space. 19

The original intent of the glass models may have been to impose order and clarity upon the natural world, but having passed through the alchemical processes of photography and oil painting, they emerge in these compositions as strange, almost surreal specimens, inhabiting their own silent landscape that both invites and thwarts our gaze. As Stephen Haley has observed of Kahan's images:

Glass reflects glass and what we see is multiplied, fragmented and confounded … as reflections and refractions commingle; once through the glass panes of the cabinets, once more through the objects themselves, and then finally through the glass lens of the camera.20

The mesmerising interplay of models and reflections is evident in both Large Glass Garden #4 and Big Jungle, but the contrast between these realities (object and mirror image) is used to achieve different visual results.21 In Big Jungle, the parallel lines of the display case form a grid that anchors the viewer's attention to the surface of the painting. The clarity of the reflected plant forms makes it difficult to determine the real from the unreal, reminding us that the real plants are themselves simulacra of nature, offering a paradoxical truthfulness that is still inauthentic. In a related canvas, Vertical Jungle, 2014, the composition has been cropped close to focus only on the glass vegetation, muting our sense of the surrounding room and creating a flattened and floating space – rather like the reflections on a pond, where all is surface, with no sense of depth.

In Large Glass Garden #4, on the other hand, the display case is clearly located within the museum interior, and the repeated vertical and horizontal lines of the case now recede into seeming infinity. This juxtaposition between the reflections' flattened abstraction and the three-dimensionality of the vitrine is picked up in other paintings, such as Floating World, 2014, where the top and bottom of the composition are deliberate contrasts. In the lower section, the display case contains a retreating landscape of samples and specimens, but hovering above, the riotous reflections simultaneously proclaim the museum's inability to control the exuberance of nature's creations.

Two other works that examine this confluence of interior and exterior worlds through the image of the museum display case are Reflected World with Bananas, 2014 and Reflected World with Figs, 2014. These paintings amaze and entrance the viewer with the profusion of plant life depicted – the various leaves, blossoms and fruits of the central vitrine are endlessly reflected across an array of glass ceilings and wall cabinets that transform the museum into a labyrinth in which illusion and artifice prevail. Paradoxically, the solid walls of the museum are fractured and flattened by the intersecting reflections so that the fragile glass models take on a deceptively over-sized reality and power. This is even more evident in the earlier work, Large Glass Garden #1, 2012, where the weighty purple plant fills the lower half of the canvas with a sinister vegetative presence that dominates its shadowy, insubstantial surroundings.

Alongside these 'landscape like' works, several of Kahan's vertical compositions focus on individual specimens within wall cabinets, such as Hanging Garden 1, 2014, and Hanging Garden 3, 2014, but they also possess a disturbing tension that undermines any sense of miniaturisation or domestication. The upright compositions push the forms forward, highlighting their exact replication of the smallest details of the plants but at the same time reaffirming their essential artificiality. The crystalline leaves seem to expand and fluoresce with their own innate energy, defying the museum to constrain them within its structured but sterile precinct. In these images, the display case is more implied than depicted, shown to be as much a theoretical as a physical framework whose premises and limitations are being inexorably dissolved.

This undermining of the power of the museum vitrine is evident again in the seductive canvas, Forbidden Fruit, 2014, whose rich, glowing colours and enlarged berries and pods call to mind the fundamental connections between botany and sexuality.22 Initial scrutiny reveals the glass supports propping up the brittle glass stems – suggesting the burgeoning fruits are forever frozen in time, forbidden to reach their natural fulfilment. However, by allowing the sides of the cabinet to overlap confusingly with the walls of the museum, Kahan gives the impression that the plants have managed to break loose from their setting, coiling and expanding throughout the museum interior like the briars in Sleeping Beauty.

Another image, this time of a single seemingly gigantic bloom triumphing over the museum's attempts to contain or control it, is offered by Large Glass Garden #2, 2012. The elegant waterlily flower almost seems to reach out towards us, and only slowly are we recalled to its unnatural manufacture by the light shining through its semi-translucent petals. The background shimmer is now recognised as reflections in the sides of the cabinet, whose invisible containment is nevertheless challenged by the sheer vitality of the glass flower. Indeed, in all these works, it could be argued that it is the museum display cabinets, quite as much as the extraordinary glass botanical models themselves, which are the true subjects of Kahan's on-going enquiry into the Glass Flowers. She uses the simple but symbolic structure of the museum glass case to explore the human desire for order and perfection – and also, its ultimate futility. 23

Associate Professor Alison Inglis
University of Melbourne


  1. Dena Kahan, “About [Dena Kahan]”, http://denakahan.com/about.html
  2. Among the numerous publications on this topic, see: P. Mauries, Cabinets of Curiosities, Thames and Hudson, New York, 2002; C. Paul, The First Modern Museums of Art: the birth of an institution in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2012; J. Kean, The Art of Science, Museum Victoria Publishing, Melbourne, 2013.
  3. See for instance, J. Putnam, Art and Artifact: the museum as medium, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009; C. Robins, Curious lessons in the museum; the pedagogic potential of artists’ interventions, Ashgate, Farnham, 2013; K. McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999.
  4. D. Eklund, Spies in the House of Art: Photography, Film, Video, exhibition installation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 7 February – 26 August, 2012: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/spies-in-the-house-of-art
  5. See J. Engberg, Colonial Post Colonial, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, 1996; J. Barrett and J. Milner, Australian Artists in the Contemporary Museum, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, 2014, pp.39-68; [Australian National University], Engaging Objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous collections, ARC Linkage project, 2012-15: http://rsha.anu.edu.au/engaging-objects
  6. Barrett and Milner, 2014, p.3.
  7. P. Emmett and T. Kanellos (eds), The Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens: a souvenir, Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium, Adelaide, 2010. This unique museum’s fascinating collections of plant material and original interior and display cases have inspired at least two major art installations: Projects for Two Museums by Peter Cripps in 1993; and the permanent installation, Grove, by Fiona Hall in 2009.
  8.  ‘Horticultural Gleanings’, Chronicle, 6 April 1901, p.7.
  9.  ‘Flowers of Glass’, Kalgoorlie Miner, 11 June 1938, p.2.  See also ‘Miracles in Glass’, Shepparton Advertiser, 15 June 1931, p.2.
  10.  ‘A Wonderful Museum’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1916, p.7; ‘Glass Flowers’, Hobart Mercury, 21 December 1938, p.11.
  11. Richard E. Schultes andWilliam A. Davis, with Hillel Burger, The Glass Flowers at Harvard, Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1992, [2004], p.16.
  12. Schultes and Davis, [2004], p.10.
  13. Schultes and Davis, [2004[, p.10; F. Kredel, Glass Flowers from the Ware Collection in the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1940, p.10.
  14. D. Kahan, ‘An Un-Natural History: paradox, wonder and The Glass Flowers’, unpublished MA thesis, Federation University Australia, 2014, p.38.
  15. Kahan first viewed these glass marine models at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England. See Kahan, 2014, p.39.
  16. Kredel, 1940, p.6.
  17. Kahan, 2014, p.39.  She has also written “I like to play with focus and lack of focus in my paintings, where some spatial fields have a clarity of detail and in others objects dissolve into pure colour with soft edges. … in my paintings of the glass flowers, I animate these plant forms via the distortions of the photographic source material” (2014, p.22).
  18. Kahan, 2014, p.20.
  19. Kahan returns to this whimsical device on several occasions (as seen in Large Glass Garden #3, 2012 and Floating World, 2014), where the half-obscured sign is recognisable by its shape and colour rather than lettering.  More of a mirage than a genuine direction to the ‘real world’, Kahan has remarked that these signs can be viewed as: “as an ‘in-joke’ for those requiring escape from the claustrophobic and musty confines of the museum cases and the museum itself – perhaps the flowers themselves” (Kahan, 2014, p.24).
  20. Stephen Haley, ‘A reflection, on glass’, 2006, Dena Kahan website: http://denakahan.com/essay_1.html
  21. Kahan has commented that she often thinks “of the paintings in pairs, which relate to each other in terms of scale and composition” (Kahan, 2014, p.47).
  22. Other contemporary artists inspired by this subject include Fiona Hall and Janet Laurence in works such as Paradisus terrestris (1989-1999) and The Alchemical Garden of Desire (2012) respectively.
  23. Dena Kahan website: http://denakahan.com/about.html