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Strange and wonderful

Place on paper the word ''orchid'' and multifarious images occur: of extreme rarity, of exotic, weird, pure colors, of flower-forms that seem to have alighted like butterflies along the extent of stems arching with unpredictable delicacy and grace out of a dull concoction of leaves, roots, rough moss and tree trunk. . . .

Orchids everywhere seem synonymous with unusual opulence, with riches, high worth and purity both natural and human. Yet the fact is that orchids flourish successfully in their millions (categorised into thousands of ''tribes'' and ''subtribes'') all over the world, with the sole exception of Antarctica.

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The hybridisers may have found orchids particularly responsive to the adventurous excitements of their art, arriving at extravagant variations on the orchid theme. The strange, sometimes deceiving, ways orchids attract their chosen pollinating insects may fascinate us. The eccentric, even bizarre, formations, markings and disguises may dazzle and amuse us and leave us awestruck. Orchids are masters of disguise and ''imitation,'' resembling all manner of creatures and people. Yet, for all this, vast numbers of the orchid family are unassuming plants, their inconspicuous beauty quite the opposite of the showy stereotype.

When Cho Gessen painted the handscroll from which a detail is shown here, in the eighteenth century, he selected, in line with a tradition stretching back three centuries, an orchid that was far from showy: one with a pale green, subtly scented flower, growing indistinctly among grasses. His brush and monochrome ink depict it distinctly, and show it to be a plant that lends itself to that unifying of different needs in Japanese art which is amazing to modern Western thinking, intent on specialization. In this calculated but instinctively natural arrangement of three groups of the orchid, the scholarly rubs shoulders with the imaginative, the artistic with the botanical, the traditional with the freshly new. The painter is not so concerned with accurate observation that he is insensitive to the poetry of the flower, and he seems to have expressed both its profound symbolism and its gentle insignificance without contradiction.

The closeness of Japanese ink-painting to calligraphy, eloquently evident in this image, is similarly hard for the Westerner to appreciate, because it does not entirely divide word from image, pictorial from written meaning. Paul Hulton and Lawrence Smith have observed that the orchid, as depicted in Chinese and Japanese ink-painting, ''symbolized the quiet, retiring life of the scholar, but its real attraction lay in its perfection and simplicity of form. . . . Its delicate, curving lines have much in common with the best Japanese calligraphy, especially with the liquid, cursive hiragana syllabary which is unique to Japan.''

This painting is a tribute to the orchid which perceives only its light and delicate felicities, its forms as if written on air, its tenderness and poise. Here is none of the strangeness found in more spectacular orchids, only naturalness. It pictures the orchid so aptly, however, that it seems to have touched the essence of all wild orchids, whether they are found growing in a limestone cliff crevice in Thailand, in Vermont woods, in a neglected ditch in a Glasgow wasteland, clothing an entire June meadow with yellow and purple on the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea or living more or less entirely on the rarefied air of the high Andes. Though it can hardly be proved, it seems likely that Cho Gessen's soft and fluid ink, the varying emphasis and flight of his brush, may epitomise even the darkly secret character of two of the strangest (and certainly the shyest) orchids of all: orchids that spend all their days completely under the soil. Who knows what dreams of light and pleasantly wafting breezes they may have?

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