Art Basel Miami | Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern

Incas wallpaper panel, 1818, Joseph Dufour et Compagnie (founded Mâcon, France, 1801–23), manufacturer, Block-printed on handmade paper, Courtesy of Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz

Philodendrons are one of the most exotic plants in the Western hemisphere, with their beautifully ornamental and decorative leaves that have inspired countless artists and designers from Henri Matisse to Karl Lagerfeld. Native to South and Central America, these flora take canter stage at The Wolfsonia-Florida International University in “Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern”, now on view through February 28, 2016.

The beautifully curated and luxuriously installed exhibition, which was on view during Art Basel Miami Beach, provides a Pan-American cultural exchange, exploring their influence on material culture, including visual arts, architecture, film, and fashion to the agricultural, industrials, and medical sciences. “Philodendron” reveals the way the plant has helped to hare Western ideas of the tropics, becoming an evolving symbol of Latin American culture and beauty.


Courtesy of The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, FL

Featuring approximately 150 objects including paintings, sculptures, mosaics, wallpaper, textiles, design drawings, furniture, fashion, film, photography, and scientific artifacts, “Philodendron” includes pieces from the Museum’s collection as well as original works and reproductions from the American Museum of Natural History; Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro; Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Getty Museum; and The Museum of Modern Art, among others.

The exhibition begins with a special commission in the museum’s lobby titled “Forest for the Trees”, an immersive installation of live plant specimens by the Columbian-German landscape architect team Mauricio del Valle and Veronika Schun, which is shown in dialogue with works by Pepe Mar, Naomi Fisher, and Claudia Jaguaribe.

Burle Marx_Still Life with Philodendron I

Still Life with Philodendron I, 1943, Roberto Burle Marx (Brazilian, 1909–1994), artist, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of Paula and Jones Bergamin Collection

In the galleries, the exhibition opens with the roots of the tropical plant craze as early as 1693, when botanists began to identify the more than 900 species of the Philodendron genus for governments seeking natural resources to fuel colonial empires. Botanical illustrations, landscape renderings, herbarium specimens, field notes, and photographs collected during scientific expeditions, as well as objects made and used by indigenous peoples of South America.

Western artists, designers, and architects such as Frederick Edwin Church, Henri Matisse, and Dorothy Draper embraced and transformed these symbols to represent national and even gendered identities, adapting and popularizing tropical iconography as symbols of the foreign, the primitive, and the “other”.


Courtesy of The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, FL

“Philodendron” then traces the plants’ influx into mass media during the 1930s, as tropical imagery became incorporated into cruise advertising, home décor, and paperback romance novels. From the 1940s through the ‘60s, the philodendron’s popularity blossomed, as they became symbols of sensuous decadence and found themselves appearing everywhere from set designs of Hollywood cinema and glamorous hotel lobbies to the open floor plans of modernist homes, where the houseplants blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces.

The exhibition concludes with a contemporary section that features artists like Gabriel Orozco; architects such as Herzog & de Meuron; industrial designers; and fashion brands from Versace and Margiela to American Apparel, ensuring that the philodendron retains its position as an iconic design motif in modern day life.

ErdemLondon Fashion Week Spring Summer 15 London September 2014

Look 3, Spring/Summer Collection 2015, Erdem Moralioglu (Canadian, b. 1977), designer, Erdem (established London, 2005), manufacturer, Cotton and silk, Courtesy of Erdem

Here we see the reference to references from the past, in works like Erdem’s “Look 3” from the designer’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection, which drew inspiration from nineteenth-century botanical illustrations, Victorian conservatory architecture, and the 1951 adventure classic The African Queen—reminding us, once again, of the power of a simple plant to influence our ideas of glamour and grandeur with its dynamic form and its vibrant color palette.

“Philodendron” is a brilliantly conceived and exquisitely executed show, one that will engage and delight lovers of art, beauty, and botanica.

“Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern”, is on view at the Wolfsonia-Florida International University, now through February 28, 2016.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.