The Secret Lives of Plants 

Gallery of Everything (London), May-Jul/24

Situated in the heart of Marylebone, The Gallery of Everything is the commercial space of the nomadic Museum of Everything, which is dedicated to exhibiting the work of artists from beyond the mainstream. The Gallery of Everything maintains its original domestic layout, but unlike other converted houses, it does not conceal its past. The atmosphere evokes a sense of mystery, akin to stepping inside a cabinet of curiosities, signalling to visitors the rarity and exceptional nature of the objects on display.

Exhibition view. Works by Madge Gill (left and right) and Josef Kotzian

The exhibition borrows its title from the controversial book, published in 1973, ‘The Secret Lives of Plants’, in which the authors claimed that plants are beings with emotions and are able to communicate with other creatures like humans. The five artists in the exhibition are framed within the tradition of Mediumistic Art, a genre in which the creative process is believed to be influenced by a higher entity or spirit. The work displayed in this exhibition illustrates how plants have served as both inspiration to artists and as the vehicle for this mode of expression.

Across both floors, Anna Zemánková’s drawings depict imaginary plants with patterns and shapes found in both vegetative and animal life. These motifs recur throughout her work, sometimes enhanced with meticulous embroidery for texture and detail. Despite their abstract nature, viewers can nonetheless discern simplified and exaggerated depictions of flowers and leaves. Zemánková worked compulsively in the early morning before returning to her daily tasks.

Detail of a drawing by Anna Zemánková (c.1960)

Repetition, obsession, and an overwhelming desire to create characterised the artistic processes of each of the artists on display. Anna Hackel and Madge Gill believed that spirits possessed them to make drawings and their work draws on this confidence and direction: Gill through repetitive, dark, ink-hatched gestures and Hackel through the glorification of organic elements by means of a symbolic imagery resembling heraldic coats of arms.

Although these artists’ works are connected to botany and plants, at the same time, they diverge from natural reality. Josef Kotzian’s drawing resembles botanical illustrations intended for scientific study. While his piece exhibits the precision and visual description typical of such drawings, it depicts imaginary plants that resemble magical beings rather than real flora.

At the back of the gallery, several ceramic flowers are protected in boxed frames. Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s passion for horticulture and exotic plants finds expression in his ceramics, which are characterised by their delicate, repetitive, yet unique design elements.

Ceramics by Eugene von Bruenchenhein
Exhibition view. Works by Anna Zemánková

The works are confident, assertive, and expressive, reflecting a sense of purpose and freedom during the making. There is a freshness associated with this kind of attitude that seems to celebrate the authenticity and joy of the act of creation itself, distant from much of the cynicism of mainstream contemporary art.

Labels such as outsiders, outlaws, Art Brut, and others have recently been gaining attention from mainstream cultural circles. The current Venice Biennale of 2024, ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, features works belonging to these categories, including examples by Gill and Zemánková, who have faced marginalisation in the past, but who are now gaining significant momentum in the mainstream.

Ana Teles for London Art Walk
May 2024