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Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern

Erica Ando

Roberto Burle Marx, Still Life with Philodendron I, 1943. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Paula and Jones Bergamin Collection

OCTOBER 16, 2015–FEBRUARY 28, 2016

We often speak of people migrating across cultures, lands, and time. Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern traces the journey, from Central and South America to Europe and North America, of what we know today as common houseplants. Philodendrons, recognizable for their curvy, heart-shaped-leaf varieties, have been widely integrated into art and design, quietly infiltrating our visual consciousness. The exhibition spans four centuries and three continents, and includes approximately one hundred fifty objects, including visual art, design, mass media images, and scientific artifacts. Rather than simply tracing the plant’s migration, curator Christian Larsen questions why philodendrons captured pan-cultural imaginations and how they have been used to play out representations of the self and the other. Ubiquitous in the United States during and immediately after World War II, philodendrons are revealed to mirror shifting national, cultural, and sexual identities. Within this narrative, Miami emerges as a theater of cross-cultural negotiations in which philodendrons play a large role.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, indigenous people used philodendrons for material and medicinal purposes. A simple green and red feather headband made with philodendron fibers by the Amazon’s Karajá people shows a nonaesthetic application of the plant. Nations trying to wrest themselves from the influences of colonization adopted philodendrons as romanticized symbols of their natural origins. The 1883 official portrait of Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II, photographed in a studio surrounded by tropical plants—rather than, for instance, sitting on a throne—identifies him with his native land.

Despite Enlightenment obsessions with collecting and classifying, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the means existed to transport and then sustain the heat- and humidity-loving plants in Roberto Burle Marx, Still Life with Philodendron I, 1943. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Paula and Jones Bergamin Collection European collections. The technological ability to exhibit live tropical plants established a sense of mastery over primitive cultures and their land. At the same time, the concept of the noble savage proliferated, as illustrated in the French wallpaper panel Incas (1818) that depicts the primitive other, uncorrupted by civilization and surrounded by a lush forest of exotic plants.

While the philodendron symbolized the primitive, it also stood in for the female. Henri Matisse was captivated by philoden- drons, which the exhibition suggests had more to do with his fascination for exotic women and locales than with his stated interest in the plant’s curvilinear forms. In his etching Intérieur au feuillage (Interior with Leaves, 1935), round-edged philoden- drons appear to overtake the composition. The tropics suggested untamed female sexuality, not only in fine arts, but also in popular culture. The cover of a racy paperback, Tropical Passions (1955), depicts a woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy, embraced by a tanned, naked man in a tropical jungle.

It’s no coincidence that tropical plants and philodendron motifs pervaded American homes during World War II. The craze for things Latin American was propelled by diplomatic efforts to create strong “Good Neighbor” ties with the region. Characterizing Latin America as pre-modern and idyllic, cultural exchanges sponsored by the Roosevelt administration imported notions of primitive art and craft, and with them, philodendrons. In the postwar years, as the American middle class gained wealth and the dream of homeownership became reality, architecture and home décor magazines promoted images of stylish modern homes decorated with potted philodendrons. In Julius Shulman’s photographs of modern southern California residences, the uncanny repeated appearance of philodendrons perpetuates a casual yet glamorous image. The postwar years found women tied to this domestic realm as they assumed happy housewife roles, with philodendrons symbolizing the paradox of women’s identity—natural and sexual, but denatured and domesticated.

Much of the American rage for philodendrons originated in Florida, and particularly, Miami. David Fairchild, a prolific plant explorer for the US Department of Agriculture, settled in Coconut Grove and contributed to the cultivation of the area’s tropical image. Miami’s iconic architecture announced the city’s role as gateway to Latin America through integrated philodendron motifs. Francisco Brennand’s designs for the blue-and-white tiled facade of the former Bacardi Imports headquarters (1962) utilized stylized philodendron forms. Morris Lapidus’s famous hotels, Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, incorporated live plants and philodendron patterns in their interiors to announce Miami’s tropical status to sun-hungry tourists.

Contemporary visual artists—particularly Miami artists—use philodendrons and their layered meanings to examine cultural and sexual identities. For example, Cesar Trasobares’s Malanga (Top View) (1982), a portrait of the artist covered with large philodendron leaves, subverts the gendered expectations of Latin men. Commissioned installations by Pepe Mar, whose The Somnambulist’s Garden (2015) critiques the myths of primitivism and the noble savage, and Naomi Fisher, whose works explore women’s roles within the nature-culture dichotomy, exemplify the ways artists currently use philodendrons to address centuries-long stereotypes.

The Wolfsonian’s lobby is transformed into a philodendron jungle by Mauricio del Valle and Veronika Schunk’s Forest for the Trees (2015), with some of the plants raised from David Fairchild’s 1930s Caribbean expedition findings. We enter and leave the exhibition through this cultivated jungle, the full circle of discovery, exploration, and propagation beginning and ending with live philodendrons.