File Note 131: The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Marina Warner



Inward Sightings of the Life Force Images References Quote Biography Credits

Inward Sightings of the Life Force

The vision of an interconnected universe in which souls transmigrate from one species to another and one state of being to another, rejoices in the belief that ‘All things are always changing, / But nothing dies’, as Pythagoras declares towards the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.¹ We humans exist in interdependency with the entire organic world, not least including trees, flowers, plants of every kind. The structural morphology of life itself, visible from the leaflet to the root ball, the bud to the trunk, echoes its patterns in the human body, in the circulation of our lymph and blood, the synapses of our brain and the network of our nerves. 

Ovid’s dramatic poem includes many stories that assume the contiguity of forms: nymphs are turned into trees, young men into flowers — think of Daphne, Hyacinthus and Narcissus.² Daphne attracts the lust of Apollo, god of the sun, poetry and music, and he pursues her relentlessly; in terror she cries out for help, and the gods hear her and change her into a laurel (fig. 1). Gian Lorenzo Bernini made a famous sculpture showing twigs springing from Daphne’s fingers, bark sheathing her limbs, and leafy branches sprouting from her flying hair. Within the constraints of still, chilly white marble, Bernini embodies a burgeoning tree and makes time appear to unfold; pursuer and pursued seem to be in movement. Daphne’s metamorphosis proclaims the continuity of her spirit and her life as it migrates from one body to another. 

There are many other stories of this kind that accept as a matter of fact the possible transition between the plant world and the human, when the resurrection in the form of a flower or a tree offers a reprieve from a state of extreme crisis and a passage into a different temporality, stretching over a longer arc, implying a zone beyond Earth’s impermanence, a time of steadier, more serene, rooted existence. In the story of Adonis, the continuum that joins human bodies to trees and vegetables and flowers and stones flows over several mutations. His mother, Myrrha, who has been changed into a myrrh tree as a punishment for seducing her own father, gives birth to Adonis from a cleft in her trunk (fig. 2). Once grown up, his beauty is such that he inspires a great passion in the goddess of love, Venus. But he goes out hunting and is gored by a wild boar; anemones then spring from the drops of his blood. On his feast day in Athens, women burned perfumes in his honour and made miniature gardens of lettuce — the spices and leaves may have had hallucinogenic effects.³

The affinities between phenomena, intuited by so many belief systems, have long been side-lined in the hubristic Anthropocene; they are, however, returning vigorously in our era of environmental disaster.

The remarkable, rich exhibition The Botanical Mind is a time- and globe-spanning array of art, ancient and contemporary, sacred and secular, juxtaposing religious mysticism and psychedelia, world religious thought and Surrealism, cybernetic experiments and collective social rituals in a series of intersecting rooms and across an eclectic range of media, including a memorable selection of Amazonian textiles. The show conveys a common search for ways to embody, in paint, pencil, film, tapestry or other medium, the expressive vitality of the plant world and its many symbolic meanings. The artists chosen have pursued inquiries into profound questions: about the nature of that power that makes things grow, about the variations and repeats in natural forms and patterns, about the structure and processes of consciousness. The quest took the curators to the margins, if you like, to explore the exotic and the esoteric, the metaphysical and the hallucinatory, the work of ‘outsiders’, and ‘organic intellectuals’ (Antonio Gramsci’s phrase), but the show makes a powerful case against such a model of centre and periphery, as the urgent need to act now to realign human relations with the environment has changed traditional — so often dismissive — attitudes to ideas about the occult, consciousness, living matter, in short, animism. 

Illuminated pages from The Red Book (1915–30), C.G. Jung’s astonishing early work, born of a profound experience of personal crisis, offers a touchstone at the start: Jung roamed far and wide in search of a language to express invisible forces and inner states, and drew on a syncretic lexicon of the world’s philosophies. While the curators do not explicitly claim they were guided by ideas of a collective unconscious and universal archetypes, their selection and arrangement certainly reveal the persistence of sacred geometries and fundamental aesthetic forms across widely disparate epochs and cultures.

In his famous poem inspired by the ruins of Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth echoes Pythagorean-Ovidian wonder at the invisible forces of creation when he recognises

a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused
a motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

He is expressing the particular Romantic philosophy of the sublime in the ordinary as he proclaims the animate quality of all phenomena; ‘all things’ are, the poem implies, ‘thinking things’, and this perspective shapes panpsychism and the contiguity of organic and inorganic matter. However, there’s a difference: Romantic poets and artists attended to wonders as visible and palpable, hymning daffodils and waterfalls as the specific vehicles of the spirit. By contrast, artists in The Botanical Mind look to floral and arboreal imagery to create symbolic and figurative images: those mandalas, ladders, seeds, buds and blossoms that in Jung’s visions are ciphers to encode his own psychical experiences, maps of his personal epiphanies. The many artefacts in the show, from Tibetan wall hangings to the experimental film sequences in When We Were Monsters (2020) by Steve Reinke and James Richards, present investigations beyond outer appearances into internal structures and processes mostly inaccessible to the human eye (figs. 4-5). The figural, not the representational, dominates: Bruce Conner’s Inkblot Drawing (2000), with its delicate, serried sequences of upright twig-like wands, presents a psychic self-portrait, as in a Rorschach test (fig. 3); patterns in the woven textiles of the Shipibo-Conibo (fig. 6) may even act as musical notation, in an analogous way to Incas’ quipus, a form of writing in knots.

The symbol of the ‘Cosmic Tree’, invoked in the exhibition’s subtitle, provides a structural fulcrum to the show: as Martin Clark describes in the catalogue, plants are sessile as opposed to motile, and in this steadfast rootedness, such religious symbols as the Tree of Life (present in many different cultures) offer a central pillar promising permanence and wisdom. The historian Stephen Greenblatt has proposed that the authors of the Bible were directly taking on their neighbours’ beliefs and writing against certain prevalent axioms in cultures surrounding them, for example in Babylon, Assyria and Egypt. There, goddess worship flourished alongside rituals based on natural cycles and phenomena (think of all the vegetable and animal symbolism in Egyptian cults, Osiris as corn god, and the sacred cobra). Whereas in those cultures, a flowering and fruiting tree was the focus of the highest veneration, in the Book of Genesis, the meaning of the sacred tree(s) in the Garden of Eden is inverted when God forbids Adam, and Eve specifically, to eat its fruit, and the serpent/devil becomes the agent of the expulsion from paradise — and damnation of all who come after. Nevertheless, in spite of the strictures of Genesis, the Tree of Life as an archetypal sacred motif asserts its beneficence across time. A work such as Delfina Munoz del Toro’s La Raiz [The Root] (2020) luminously conveys the bounty, wisdom and vigour of this conjunction, showing a snake twisting up the slender stem of a tree, which is growing from swollen, luxuriant roots embedded in the teeming rainforest floor, where several more serpents lie coiled (fig. 8). With the Yggdrasil or the world ash tree of Norse mythology, or the flowering, dancing fabrics of India, such as the palimpore in the show (c. 1740), or Scottie Wilson’s lyrical drawings, as well as many of the plates in Jung’s Red Book, the symbol of the tree as strength, wisdom, protection, fertility and stability over time, continues to flourish. 

Jung did not only see the upright, sessile form as a way of expressing durability and ascent; he also perceived the record of growth kept by the rings in a tree trunk as a form of natural mandala. He commented, ‘If a mandala may be seen as a symbol of the self, seen in cross-section, then the tree would present a profile view of it: the self depicted as a process of growth.’¹⁰

Arboreal imagery is filled with a double valency: not only rooted and sessile, but also efflorescent and expansive. For a tree’s stability does not prevent arborescence: branching and burgeoning, unfurling and fruiting have lent themselves to charts of relationships, to genealogies and correspondences implying vitality and change over time, not stasis. The Botanical Mind glories in works of art inspired by the axes and patterns of the plant world, which express irrepressible generativity through divergent, spiralling, cyclical and explosive forms. Again, as with the unity of life intrinsic to interspecies metamorphoses, these patterns and structures connect to a concept of time that refuses discontinuity and presses the deep past to touch the present and the future in an assertion of presence. The Cultivation of The Cosmic Tree, a richly coloured illumination made to illustrate one of Hildegarde of Bingen’s visions, is a still image on the page, but it gives every impression of restless and purposeful movement: the trees are growing, the waves tumbling, the winds blowing and the whole orb whirling. Even the divine hand, unrolling a scroll, seems to have been caught mid gesture, so dynamic is this scene of creation. 

Tapping in to that concealed vigour of plant life inspires many of the artists’ acts of attention. F. Percy Smith’s 1927 film of a plant he calls ‘The Strangler’ does away with traditional boundaries between animal and vegetable as his camera tracks the delicate prehensile shoots uncurling and throttling its ‘victim’, as eerily tentacular as an octopus. A very different, recent work, Adam Chodzko’s innovatory video O you happy roots, branch and mediatrix (2020), homes in on the hidden dynamics of a patch of shrubby growth in Camden Art Centre’s own garden and, using a live feed to the screen in the gallery, deciphers messages in the shapes and shadows among the foliage. A fantasy about encrypted meaning and private language, the film catches the sense that in the rhythms of plants’ movements as they grow, they might be communicating — if only we had the key. It’s significant that one of the last experiments conducted by Charles Darwin, in 1887–88, was to record ‘The Power of Movement in Plants’ (later published under that title). With his botanist son Francis assisting, he placed different potted specimens under observation, attached glass filaments to the sprigs and by a complex process of projection onto glass panels, plotted their growth. The resulting diagrams — showing ‘the circumnutation of seedlings’ — as the plants orbited in relation to the light, were drawn by George Darwin and show interlaced, crisscrossing lines, resembling the plotting of constellations. ‘If the dots had been made every 1 or 2 minutes’, Darwin commented, ‘the lines would have been more curvilinear, as occurred when radicles were allowed to trace their own courses on smoked glass plates’.¹¹

The sinuous line in aesthetics reproduces that motility of botanical life that the human eye cannot discern. The tradition began in antiquity as an ornamental mode of covering space, for example the backgrounds of sarcophagi or the walls of a villa, and this formal patterning also refuses stasis, giving a kinetic energy to the surfaces over which it spreads. The Arabs, whose infinitely ingenious decorations inspired the term ‘arabesque’, added to the irrepressible vitality of the mode. Whereas the Greeks and Romans had pretty much obeyed the rules of natural growth, showing root and branches, flowers and leaves springing from a stem, Islamic artists, in their traditional commitment to aniconic imagery, preferred to stress the inner meaning of the botanical vision, its connection to the intrinsic life force and to time. They consequently ignored natural norms and drew a bud opening from a leaf, or a fruit hanging from the stamens of a flower. Islamic arabesque is far more than a gorgeous amalgam of arcs and curves, spirals and curlicues; as Henri Focillon remarked, ‘a sort of fever seems to goad on and multiply the shapes; some mysterious genius of complication interlocks, unfolds, disorganises and reorganises the entire labyrinth’.¹² Arabesque rhythms also pulse beyond the frame of the image: the efflorescence could continue ad infinitum, it is implied, if the artwork were not bounded. The designs offer a celebration — a hymn, a prayer, a blessing — in the form of beauty, a beauty founded in crystallised abstractions of natural vitality, as branching and blossoming imagery and curling script become geometric patterns and imbrications of ever-widening circles and radiating sunbursts and repeating fractals. Works of this intensity of permutation are acts of homage to creation itself: floral arabesque tessellation adorns so many mosques and hallowed places because the artists are working within a long tradition that seeks to touch the invisible energy of creation, the life force itself.

This same energy was exhibited independently of Muslim aesthetics, in the astonishing tapestry, for example, woven by Elena Valera Vasquez in the tradition of the Shipibo people of Peru, the textiles bearing sacred geometries of the Huni Kuin (Kaxinawa) people, and the bodily ornamentation, on skin and beadwork of the Yawanawá community in Brazil (fig. 7). 

The exhibition returns again and again to the mystical concept of correspondences across all creation. In two rooms, ‘As Within, So Without’ and ‘As Above, So Below’, the curators explore mirroring models of microcosm and macrocosm, which was fundamental to Neoplatonism and to astrology, medicine and scientific inquiries until the early modern era. This belief system returned to the principles of repeat patterning found in the aesthetic of the arabesque. Several works in the show manifest correspondences between vast and tiny phenomena. This intense exploration of scale at distant ends of the gauge sharpens a sense of the sheer variety of plant forms and reveals enthralling harmonies in the created world: Karl Blossfeldt’s close-ups of plants’ intricate organs establish an aesthetic of uncluttered intensity to which Brancusi and Hepworth would later aspire. In the Stereoscopic slide show from the Whitehouse Collection (mosses and field trips) (2018), created by Andrea Büttner, photographs show men and women on all fours crawling through the undergrowth of a meadow, scrutinising the life they find there. These images punctuate a sequence of intense full-colour studies of tiny plant forms, taken and projected at hugely magnified dimensions, which reveal the infinite complexity of their bells and stems and bracts and seedpods. These images, the fruits of the combined duo of the Whitehouses — Harold a botanist specialising in mosses and liverworts, Patricia a pioneering scientific photographer — strike me as emblematic of the artists’ and curators’ whole endeavour: to expand our eyes and by doing so expand our consciousness.

Henri Focillon discusses the persistence of certain forms over time under their own autonomous energy, even as their contexts differ and circumstances change the meanings they convey. One of the most revelatory strands throughout The Botanical Mind correspondingly explores how profoundly and continuously plant life and forms have provided means to think about the greatest mysteries of life and consciousness. The resonance between forms from the past and contemporary artworks move along two dominant revelatory vectors: on the one hand, artists confront the natural world of plants and trees and find there material for a visual language to apply to their concerns, and on the other, they deliberately cultivate altered states — or submit to them unconsciously — and then, as their inner eye opens, set down what the experience reveals to them, with organic, arborescent forms recurring. The Botanical Mind shows how these two lines of approach — broadly speaking, outward looking and inward looking — cross over and fuse, and how the imagery interestingly often resorts to similar aesthetic forms. Another microcosmic-macrocosmic interplay results, between the dynamics of outer, perceived phenomena and the interior circuitry of the individual human mind. The two streams meet and flow, for example, in the personal visions of Surrealist artists such as Edith Rimmington and Ithell Colquhoun (fig. 9), both represented by magnificent but little-known paintings, and by mediumistic artists, receivers of the invisible, such as Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz.¹³ Their singular visual languages involve complex geometrical permutations and spiralling blossoming forms, and they resonate across time and cultural boundaries with the complex abstract conjugations of the Amazonian beadwork and weavings, or with the orbs and spheres of Hildegarde of Bingen’s visions. 

Such artists are examining their inner world with an inner eye and, as in Paul Klee’s axiom, making visible the invisible.¹⁴ Attempting to render the mysteries of the life force and consciousness, the works in The Botanical Mind reveal a cross-cultural recognition of affinities between natural organisms, and unfold the development of a language of forms founded in arborescence, the formal energy that runs like DNA through all matter, inert as well as active, in atoms and the galaxies, rocks and blooms, mulch and rhyzomes, forests and brain cells.


1 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), Book 15, 370.

2 See ‘Plants: Trees & Shrubs, Flowers’ in P.M.C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 260 83.

3 Marcel Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology, trans. Janet Lloyd (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

4 See Peter S. Stevens, Patterns in Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997) for an intensive study of natural forms, and Drunvalo Melchisedek, The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life, Vol. 1 (Flagstaff, AZ: Clear Light Trust, 1998), for their occult significance. 

5 William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798’,  Accessed 19 February 2021.

6 Among the Trees (2020) at the Hayward Gallery, another exhibition closed down by the pandemic, included analogous acts of homage to the spectacle of forests and individual trees: for example, Giuseppe Penone’s twin masts, soaring 12 metres high, Tacita Dean’s ancient craggy oak from her childhood village, and the lyrical birch wood turning with the seasons in the closing film of the show by Jennifer Steinkamp. See Marina Warner,

7 Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story That Created Us (New York: Vintage, 2018).

8 Gina Buenfeld comments: ‘We had hoped to borrow one of the British Museum’s facsimiles from a series of Assyrian panels dated 865–860 BCE, excavated from the North West Palace of Nimrud. The narrative scene unfolds around a sacred tree flanked by King Ashurnasirpal dressed in ritual robes, and eagle-headed protective spirits – winged deities, primordial beings. It is thought that the tree symbolises life, and the winged disk above, Ashur, a god of the Assyrian pantheon associated with solar iconography. Personal communication 27 January 2021.

9 See Marina Warner, ‘Signs of the Fifth Element’, in The Tree of Life: New Images of an Ancient Symbol, exh. cat. (London: South Bank Centre, 1989), 17.

10 C.G. Jung, ‘The Philosophical Tree’, in Collected Works, eds. Herbert Read, Michael Foreman and Gerhard Adler, trans. R.F.C Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), Vol. 13, 316.

11 Charles Darwin, assisted by Francis Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896), 6. 

12 Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, trans. Charles Beecher Hogan and George Kubler, with intro by Jean Molino (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 18–19.

13 See World Receivers: Georgiana Houghton, Hilma Af Klint, Emma Kunz and John Whitney, James Whitney, Harry Smith, exh. cat., ed. Karin Althaus, Matthias Mühling, Sebastian Schneider. Lenbachhaus, Munich, n.d.. The influence of  Besant and Leadbeater’s Thought Forms can be seen in Cornelia H. Bogert, With Brushes of Comet’s Hair: A record of Psychic Paintings and their interpretations through Emma Merrill, an artist of New England, and an ancient Persian, with intro by Hereward Carrington (New York: Exposition Press, 1950). 

14 Paul Klee, ‘On Modern Art’ (1924), quoted in Marina Warner, The Inner Eye: Art Beyond the Visible (London: A National Touring Exhibition, 1996–97), 48.

Emmanuel Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (John Wiley & Sons, 2019)

Ciro Guerra (Dir.) Embrace of the Serpent (Diaphana Films, 2015)

Manly P. Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004)

Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives (Columbia University Press, 2016)

C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (Routledge, 1980)

Jim Al Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (Black Swan, 2015)

Tao Lin, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018)

Michael Marder, Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Terence McKennna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (Random House, 2010)

Terence McKenna, Plants as Sacred Guides: New Dimension of the Soul (video footage of a talk addressed to the Jung Society at Clairmont College, Southern California, 1991)

Jill Purce, The Mystic Spiral: Journey of the Soul (Thames and Hudson, 1974)

Richard Evans Schultes, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (Healing Arts Press, 2001)

Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 1994)

Maurice Tuchman and Judi Freeman, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989)

‘From the blue Mundane Shell, reaching to the Vegetative Earth.
The Vegetative Universe opens like a flower from the Earth’s centre: In which is Eternity.
It expands in stars to the Mundane Shell
And there it meets Eternity again, both within and without,
And the abstract voids between the stars are the Satanic Wheels.’ William Blake


The Botanical Mind is a thematic group exhibition bringing together the work of over 70 visionary, Surrealist, modern, outsider, indigenous Amazonian and contemporary artists to reveal the ongoing significance of the vegetal kingdom to human life, consciousness and spirituality. Spanning more than 500 years and including historical and ethnographic artefacts, textiles and manuscripts, it looks both backwards and forwards, engaging with various cultures and wisdom-traditions to reappraise the importance of plants to life on this planet.

Eileen Agar / Anni Albers / Josef Albers / Gemma Anderson with Wakefield Lab and John Dupré / Anna Atkins / Jordan Belson / Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater / Forrest Bess / Karl Blossfeldt / Carol Bove / Kerstin Brätsch / Andrea Büttner / Adam Chodzko / Ithell Colquhoun / Bruce Conner / Das Institut / Mirtha Dermisache / Minnie Evans / Cerith Wyn Evans / Charles Filiger / Giorgio Griffa / Brion Gysin / Ernst Haeckel / Anna Haskel / Friedrich Wilhelm Heine / Tamara Henderson / Channa Horwitz / Textiles by artisans from the Huni Kuin (Kaxinawa) people / Carl Gustav Jung / Hilma af Klint / Joachim Koester / Rachid Koraïchi / Josef Kotzian / Emma Kunz / Yves Laloy / Ghislaine Leung / Linder / Simon Ling / André Masson / John McCracken / Henri Michaux / Matt Mullican / Wolfgang Paalen / Paul Păun / Steve Reinke and James Richards / Edith Rimmington / Daniel Rios Rodriguez / Textiles by artisans from the Shipibo Conibo people / Penny Slinger / F. Percy Smith / Janet Sobel / Philip Taaffe / Fred Tomaselli / Delfina Muñoz de Toro / Alexander Tovborg / David Tudor / Lee Ufan / Scottie Wilson / Terry Winters / Adolf Wölfli / Anna Zemánková / Henriette Zéphir

Curated by Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark.


Marina Warner is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and a writer of fiction, criticism and history. She curated the Hayward Touring exhibition The Inner Eye: Art beyond the Visible (1996–97) and has written novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myths, symbols and fairytales, including:  Phantasmagoria — Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (2008); Forms of Enchantment — Writings on Art & Artists (2018); and Inventory of a Life Mislaid:  An Unreliable Memoir (2021).

Generously supported by The Botanical Mind Exhibition Circle; Neville Shulman CBE and Emma Shulman, Porus Jungalwalla, Paula Lent, Bozena and William Nelhams and all those who wish to remain anonymous. With thanks to Tuplin Fine Art and The Museum of Everything.