As children we fall in love with trees. Fall for the gallant rightness of the trunk, the generous acceptance of those branching arms, the green leaves that keep our secrets. We all think our relationship with trees—or with a particular tree—is unique. It’s true. Trees stand straight like we do, early husbands and wives in dreaming.
The wounded chestnut tree in Jane Eyre is a symbol of the wounded man Jane loves. John Derian, the decoupage artist and style maestro, often recalls his youthful, formative reveries, born in the limbs of the trees he climbed. And in Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson—nature’s poet laureate—Merlin, the mentor of King Arthur, is trapped in a tree as if he’s become a tree, spellbound by evil Vivien in a moment of weakness. “And in the hollow oak he lay as dead, / And lost to life and use and name and fame.” He is not lost, only dormant. This is Tennyson’s image for the profound sentience of trees. Our botanists have only begun to understand the knowledge that lives within these beings.
My husband and I have a small place in south Jersey that we bought because of its trees, 13 of them. The oaks have been sculpted by generations of gales coming off the Delaware Bay. The long low boughs of the black gums almost graze the grass. And after storms, branchlets fall to the ground, decorated with lichen by designer elves. How can an artist resist such prompting?
John Derian often recalls his youthful, formative reveries, born in the limbs of the trees he climbed.
“I feel the flow of the tree around my hand / placed against the trunk.” So wrote the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone in 1968. I don’t know if Penone has read Tennyson, but when he writes of the “caged energy of the growth of a tree,” the affinity is electric. In his own freer verse, Penone creates outsized odes to trees. Until October 25 at Fort Mason, a historic site in San Francisco’s Golden National Recreation Area, two monumental cast-bronze Penone sculptures speak to the strength—and death—of trees. Ideas of Stone (2004) lifts to the sky, a leafless tree carrying boulders in its boughs. The Logic of the Vegetal (2012) is a massive uprooted trunk, as grave as a slain god. Work by Penone, now 73, is also on view in Chaumont-sur-Loire, France, where his drawings, engravings, and sculptures celebrate a new book, Arbres, by Henri-Claude Cousseau (until November 1).
In London, at the Hayward Gallery until October 31, “Among the Trees” looks at tree-inspired art created over the last 50 years. Eva Jospin’s Forêt Palatine (2019-20)—a life-sized forest made of cardboard—is astonishing. And in Ditchling, the John Newling show “Tillage” is comprised of art created from materials found in the town of Ditchling—leaves, sticks, grasses. Tilling, says Newling, is what artists do.
The photographer Catherine Opie usually focuses on themes of beauty and gender, but in “Rhetorical Landscapes” she turns her lens to the Okefenokee swamps of Georgia and Florida. Opie’s magisterial photos capture in deep detail a forested, watery, and endangered world, primordial home to owls and alligators. At Lehmann Maupin until September 26, the exhibition also includes digital collages that document the Trump administration’s disdain for a healthy biosphere. Also in New York, at David Zwirner through October 17, the exhibition “Traveling Light” features Harold Ancart’s paintings of trees. They were inspired, he recently told The New York Times, by a drive through a forest in France, and the unforgettable impact of light, color, beaming through openings in the branches.
In a leap of faith, “Future Library: A Century Unfolds” is an ongoing project that will not reach maturity for 100 years. It began in 2014, when a forest was planted in Norway. Over the next 100 years, a book per year, commissioned from a well-known author, will be added to the “library.” In 2114, all 100 books will be printed on paper made from trees in the forest. One hundred years seems like a long time—a fairy tale span—to us humans. But for tree species that commonly live to a thousand, it’s just the beginning.
Laura Jacobs is AIR MAIL’s Arts Intel Report Editor