CAMBRIDGE — In her poem “Silence,” Marianne Moore quotes her father: “Superior people never make long visits,/have to be shown Longfellow’s grave/or the glass flowers at Harvard.” The glass flowers — or, more precisely, the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants — are at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The collection consists of 4,300 models, representing more than 780 plant species. Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, father and son, made them between 1887 through 1936. Harvard had commissioned them as teaching tools.
A selection of the glass flowers are on permanent display at the HMNH. “Fruits in Decay,” a new exhibition that looks at an unusual aspect of the collection, runs through March 1.
The glass flowers are marvels: so exacting in detail as to be a kind of botanical virtual reality, only this version of VR is analog and in three dimensions. They’re astounding, of course. But that very capacity to astound raises all sorts of interesting, even unsettling, questions. Surely, no art-making material lends itself to as wide a range of aesthetic outcomes as glass does. That range extends from the sublimity of the windows of the medieval craftsmen at Chartres and Matisse at Vence to the sub-kitsch of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower” at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Blaschkas’ handiwork manages to partake of both extremes. The glass flowers straddle technique and inspiration, craft and art, verisimilitude and imagination. They are, in their spectacularly more detailed way, a bit like the Terracotta Army of Chinese soldiers unearthed in the 1970s. With both flowers and soldiers, representation is an end unto itself. Long before anyone ever heard of the uncanny valley, that’s where the flowers were planted and the soldiers stood at attention.
This exaltation of representation as an end unto itself — the flowers horticultural kin to the replicants in “Blade Runner” — makes them a bit creepy. It also makes “Fruits in Decay” a welcome window on the collection. Decay is as much a part of botany as growth is — maybe even more, since decay gets the last word. That being so, the collection includes models that show plants which are diseased or stunted. This is the case with the 20 or so examples in the exhibition. By focusing on decay, creepiness becomes, in a sense, the point. This form of creepiness — a literal yuck factor — is embraced even as it’s called attention to.
Moore’s friend and fellow poet Wallace Stevens famously declared that “Death is the mother of beauty.” That’s in his poem “Sunday Morning.” Elsewhere Stevens wrote, “Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” It’s this very emphasis on perishability that makes the variously unhealthy pears, peaches, apricots, plums, and strawberries on display arresting, even moving, in a way that hothouse-perfect counterparts cannot be.
A label rather tendentiously refers to the “microscopic culprits” (culprits!) that speed up decay. Well, they’re living things, too, and the names they bear possess a flowers-of-evil poetry all its own: “soft rot,” “brown rot,” “peach curl,” “parasitic fungi,” “leaf spot,” “pear scab,” “fire blight.” One of the mold renderings is astonishing even by glass flower standards: enlarged 250 times, the offending buggers suggest the color and shape of seasick dandelions. Here the straddling between verisimilitude and imagination happily, if also creepily, topples over into the realm of the imagination.
FRUITS IN DECAY
At Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, though March 1. 617-495-3045, hmnh.harvard.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.