A new exhibition at Somerset House explores the mushroom’s history in art, design and why the humble fungi fascinates us still.

The stalk is long. The body is golden. Tufts of grass surround it, but we can see the earthy roots burrowed deep into the ground – this mushroom is begging to be picked. The watercolour painting above, Hygrophorus Puniceus, is, surprisingly, by the writer Beatrix Potter and is just one of the works by 40 artists, designers and musicians that appear in Mushrooms: The Art, Design And Future Of Fungi, opening at Somerset House on 30 January.

Francesca Gavin, the exhibition’s curator, found herself drawn to depictions of mushrooms after seeing them so often while she was looking at art. “There was this wave of artworks that were using them as a motif. I wanted to work out why this was,” she explains.

It turns out mushrooms have a long history in art. Think of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s large, colourful paintings where fungi come alive with eyes. (Somerset House has obtained rare drawings of these in progress.) In Cy Twombly’s series of prints, the mushroom appears over and over in childlike doodles, detailed sketches and photographs. Potter’s collection included over 300 illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, which formed a significant contribution to the study of natural history and are used by mycologists today.

Seana Gavin, Mindful Mushroom, Courtesy of the artist.

They’re also very of the moment. “Recently, there’s been a lot of research into their psychedelic use, as well as a huge interest in them anthropologically because of Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom At The End Of The World,” explains Gavin. But why are we so fascinated by the appearance of mushrooms? “They’re a symbol of something poetic and otherworldly. They’re a bit weird. And that weirdness is appealing. They can be interpreted in so many different ways,” she says.

Tapping into this surrealism is Seana Gavin (the curator’s sister) whose collage Mindful Mushroom, left, depicts a mushroom-human hybrid. While British designer Tom Dixon harks back to nature with a prototype chair made from mycelium, the thread-like roots mushrooms use to find nutrients.

“Foraging has become much more intertwined with contemporary culture, as we look to find these peaceful moments in the modern world,” Gavin adds. There’s even a burial suit that is designed as a less toxic way to be buried – you literally become mushrooms. We’re all for it.

Mushrooms: The Art, Design And Future Of Fungi is at Somerset House, London, from 30 January to 26 April; free; somersethouse.org.uk

Artwork: Art work: Beatrix Potter Hygrophorus Puniceus, Pencil and watercolour, 7.10.1894, Collected at SmailHolm Tower, Kelso, Courtesy of The Armitt Trust; Seana Gavin, Mindful Mushroom, Courtesy of the artist.

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