[11 March 2011]
Beleaguered by foot upon foot of snow week after week this winter, vast swathes of the Northeast are finally thawing out as Spring looms. The green tendrils of sprouting bulbs burst through the topsoil and the sun clutches at the sky to shine on for a few more minutes each day. Yet there are many who feel Spring can’t come too soon. For those who can relate, you might find the Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS) could appease your angst. They have unveiled their annual Flower Show, running from March 6th thru 13th 2011, with its overarching theme Springtime in Paris.
Previously unbeknownst to me, PHS’s annual gala is known as the “Largest Indoor Flower Show in the World” and takes over the cavernous Pennsylvania Convention Center in central Philly. The PHS membership roster must swell this time each year as flower fanatics shell out for renewals to come on Member’s Preview Day, the day before the official public opening. When the doors opened at noon, I found myself quite distant from the front, gawking at the lengthy entrance line, chugging along for almost twenty minutes before finally reaching the exhibit hall.
Here I found myself staggering to a halt, amidst others equally astounded; sacré bleu! was the collective thought. A massive replica (of the bottom) of the Eiffel Tower stood in front with gardens and ornate carousel animals formed from blossoms on either side. The pathway led towards a rotating carousel where instruments lay as it doubled as a stage. The main floor had three divisions, the planned exhibits, a competition gallery and a merchant section. In the first, various sponsors arranged lush, extravagant, artistic and carefully orchestrated sets featuring glimpses into Parisian life. Painstakingly detailed, many of the sets also utilized authentic building materials, from slate to stone, and not just foam. Homes and boudoirs, cafes and kitchens, gardens and fountains, fields and furrows, catacombs and even a laboratory were aesthetically recreated to incorporate copious flower species.
Not being a horticulturalist, a botanist, a guerilla gardener or even someone who uses the word jardin unless looking at the Monet painting, I found Springtime in Paris engaging for a multitude of reasons. Colorful flowers from unfamiliar species are immediate curiosities of course but the exhibit goes well beyond. Costumed Parisians dally about, whether it be a playful mime or painters wearing berets concentrating on a model. Music emanated from above or sporadically a band took stage for a couple of numbers. Merchants and food vendors were plentiful but there was not enough time in the preview to get through it all. Fortunately PHS allows same-day readmission if a break or a bit of fresh city air is needed from the olfactory buffet.
Most of all, outside the flowers, the sheer artistry and creativity in some sets are worthy of admission. The “Urban Graffiti” exhibit earned a double take. Spotlights silhouetted assorted objects on a platform into highly recognizable complex “shadow puppets”. Another display recreated graffiti from the catacombs with more abstract depictions or uses of flowers. Movies also got a part, with one interesting quartet of sets mimicked An American in Paris while video monitors played the scenes and another area featured the Pixar film Ratatouille.
Ribbons dangled everywhere in the competition section awarded in a variety of species grouping contests as well as complicated thematic challenges posed to groups. A few of my thematic favorites included the artistic interpretations of French paintings, particularly the Degas and Renoir (the first place winner didn’t seem deserving somehow). Another wall contained intricate dioramas unfortunately impossible to view because of the escargot-paced queue. But its reverse held novel “paintings” made entirely out of pressed flowers, some so complex I mistook them for real paintings.
Unlike perennial botanical gardens, the Philadelphia Flower Show is a unique yearly event. PHS certainly has its work cut out for it with this massive project. Though sometimes themes may be hit or miss, Springtime in Paris ties the unique artistry, immense constructions and bountiful flowers together admirably. Anyone within striking distance of the City of Brotherly Love and hankering for Spring would do well to visit this ephemeral City of Lights.