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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Past Exhibitions

Dangerous Beauty: Thorns, Spines and Prickles

18 September – 18 December 2014

This exhibition included artworks and books that depicted the formidable and yet beautiful defensive structures of thorns, spines and prickles that have evolved to protect plants from predation. Featured were drawings, watercolors, prints and books displaying thistles, teasels, cacti, roses, berry brambles, stinging nettles and citrus trees.

How many times have you cursed the hidden dagger in your bouquet of roses, delicately reached through the treacherous bramble to pick the perfect raspberry or marveled at the scale of the monstrous needles covering a tiny cactus? These structures are the first line of defense many plants have against hungry herbivorous predators, but their intriguing characteristics are often overlooked. In this exhibition we took a closer look at the beauty of these frightful weapons and the artworks that revealed them.

The first step in appreciating these defensive structures is an understanding of what they are and how they differ from each other. In the most basic sense, thorns, spines and prickles can all refer to the sharp, stiff, woody defensive appendages found on some plants. Thorns are modified stems, as in Citrus Linnaeus. Spines are modified leaves, as in Echinocactus Link & Otto. Prickles differ in that they emerge from the epidermis, mesophyll or cortex of the plant, as in Rosa Linnaeus. Examples of these structures were depicted in a variety of ways, from detailed scientific illustrations to loose interpretations, but all showing how beautiful these structures can be.

Artists represented were Marie Angel (1923–2010); Diana Carmichael (1926–2010); Louis Claude de Chastillon (1639–1734); Celia Crampton (1941–); Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden (1907–2007); Raymond Dowden (1905–1982); Georg Dionys Ehret (1708–1770); Henry Evans (1918–1990); Alejandro Gavriloff (1914–1993); Lucretia Hamilton (1908–1986); Charlotte Hannan (1925–2013); Jeanne Russell Janish (also Mrs. Carl F. Janish; 1902–1998); Christabel King (1950–); Carl Ignaz Leopold Kny (1841–1916); Paul Landacre (1893–1963); Dorika Leyniers de Buyst (1937–); Chrissie Lightfoot (1947–); Petr Liska (1953–); Stanley Maltzman (1921–); Yoshikaru Matsumura (1906–1967); Roderick McEwen (1932–1982); Joan McGann (1950–); Jeni Neale (also Jeni Barlow; 1961–); Gunnar Norrman (1912–2005); Marilena Pistoia (1933–2017); Frantisek Procházka (1911–1976); Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840); Elizabeth Rice (1947–); Nicolas Robert (1614–1685); Christian Schkuhr (1741–1811); Geraldine King Tam (1920–2015); Gesina B. Threlkeld (1920–); Unknown artist, Torner Collection of Sessé & Mociño Biological Illustrations; Unknown artist, USDA Forest Service Collection; Frederick Andrews Walpole (1861–1904). A selection of rare books from the Hunt Institute Library collection also was included in this exhibition.

Opening reception

On Thursday, 18 September 2014, 5–7 PM, we held an opening reception. At 5:30 PM Assistant Curator of Art Carrie Roy gave a short introduction to the exhibition in the gallery.

Cèilidh weekend

We were open on Saturday, 11 October, 1–4 PM, during Carnegie Mellon University's Cèilidh Weekend festivities. Docent–led tours were available throughout the afternoon.

Cabinet of curiosities

On display during fall 2014 in our Cabinet of curiosities located in the lobby were books from the Library collection featuring plants with thorns, spines and prickles. Humans are often undeterred by these sometimes pain-inducing plant features, finding that their sharpness can serve a purpose or that the plant is useful despite the pricks and jabs one might incur. The Cabinet explored how these plants have been utilized.

Selected Artworks

[+] Click to enlarge