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Exhibition at Princeton University Art Museum explores the long, surprising career of a familiar form in art
Lee Friedlander, American, born 1934: Lake Park, Milwaukee, 1992. Gelatin silver print. Princeton University Art Museum Museum purchase in memory of C. David Robinson, Class of 1957, gift of his siblings and their families (2008-76). © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

PRINCETON, NJ.- This summer and into autumn, as the leaves turn and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presents Root & Branch, an inquiry into tree forms and branching structures in art, nature and information design. Showcasing objects in all areas of the Museum’s collections across three millennia and from around the world, the exhibition looks beyond the role of trees as providers of oxygen, food, building materials, medicine and fuel to explore their equally prominent role in visual representation as models of order and complexity.

“Trees are the source of an ancient symbolic form, as well as the language we use to describe that form,” said Joel Smith, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum and the exhibition’s curator. “It is easy to forget that one is employing a metaphor when one says that a river, a road or a drawn line ‘branches.’ That’s one indication of how fundamental trees are in shaping our mental image of the world.”

The works of art on view in the exhibition range widely in technique, geographic origin and sensibility, suggesting the deep and global inherence of trees in the visual imagination. An ancient Greek amphora depicts Hercules stealing the golden apples from a tree whose branches morph into serpents guarding the fruit; a 16th-century Javanese oil lamp takes the form of the Tree of Heaven, ascended by a tiny climber; an idyllic rapport between nature and faith is conjured in Rembrandt’s etching of St. Francis Praying Beneath a Tree (1647); and in Nature’s Mystic Revelation of Christ, a 1914 snapshot of trees in winter, bare branches uncannily resemble a standing figure, arms bound and face raised as in canonical representations of the flagellation of Christ.

Given the arboretum-like character of the Princeton campus, Root & Branch offers a fitting opportunity to ponder the ancient coevolution of arboreal forms and the life of the mind. “In narrative traditions and in the visual arts, trees serve a remarkable variety of dramatic functions,” said Smith. “Trees can diagram your family’s history, provide dynamic backgrounds for heroic action, or serve as presiding spirits in scenes of contemplation. A tree can even emerge as a protagonist—think of Daphne escaping the amorous designs of Apollo by becoming a laurel tree. To explore the many incarnations of this single form is to be reminded how far the human imagination can branch out yet remain deeply rooted in nature.”

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