The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 12.

When I first started elementary school, I was enrolled in a class for “gifted” students in which we studied a variety of topics one at a time, each in immersive depth: a week on octopuses, for example, or an entire month on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not entirely sure what the philosophy behind the program was, but I remember loving it. One of my favorite units was on artist Georgia O’Keeffe. At the age of six or seven, I could identify her paintings immediately and talk about the abstraction and the New Mexico landscape and the colors and what the skulls might symbolize and on and on and on, but being six or seven, I completely missed the … shall we say subtext of O’Keeffe’s florals, which were my favorite. Years later, when I was in college, I was deeply flustered to discover that most people read those extreme close-ups as, at least in part, a celebration of female genitalia and sexuality. Suddenly that was all I could see, too. For good or ill, the pretty, pretty flowers of my childhood had been irrevocably eroticized.

Wandering through the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show, I felt embarrassed for my teenage self all over again because, honestly, how do you not see it? Orchids, in particular, with the outer petals and inner petals, frills and tendrils, bright blushing colors, damp from the tropical humidity, all opening themselves toward the sun—it’s like a botanical burlesque show.

And it’s not just human projection. The whole purpose of the flower is to attract pollinators—that is, to facilitate the plant’s reproduction cycle, the organs of which are contained within the flower—and so the flower is, in fact, quite sexual. You have to wonder if that has something to do with the fact that orchid mania really took hold in Britain during the Victorian era. Not to be too Freudian, but maybe sexual repression makes one more inclined to get extravagantly excited and passionate about flowers.

Meanwhile, I seem to be demonstrating a repressed adolescent need to mortify my mother (hi, Mom!), so let me circle back around to the exhibit. The Botanical Garden heavily emphasizes the big inspiration for its 2009 orchid show: the work of Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx, “Latin America’s most influential twentieth-century landscape architect.” (Burle Marx died in 1994. The show was designed by a Miami-based landscape architect for whom the icon was a dear mentor.) It’s all gorgeous, of course—bold and vibrant, celebrating the tropics to which most orchids are native—but the big-picture emphasis—using flower beds to create geometric shapes, for example—seems weirdly off-point for orchids.

More than perhaps any other flower, orchids are truly intimate, best appreciated at close range, where you can see all the delicate striping and speckles; the vivid colors and iridescent sheens; the stunningly elaborate structures, like something Dr. Seuss would have created. On a landscape architecture scale, those details—the very details that make orchids so special—are all but lost. Maybe it’s just my childhood O’Keeffe indoctrination coming through, but visiting the exhibit, I wasn’t particularly interested in the forest, per se. I kept pushing in, standing with my nose inches away from a single fragrant blossom. After all, the first, innocent thing I learned from O’Keeffe still stands: beautiful things often become even more beautiful if you take the time to study them closely, at their own level, where they can whisper their secrets.