Spring is finally springing, so here’s a history of floral still lifes— from the Renaissance to bouquets in the stratosphere.
Even if you aren’t a visual artist, there’s no way you can evade the emotive inspiration that comes from flowers. For centuries, humans have exchanged flowers as an expression of the entire emotional range, from “I love you” to “I’m so sorry.” Putting a vase of them in a stale room makes your lungs breathe easier and is proven to lift your mood and reduce stress significantly. They act as signals of changing seasons, a homeopathic cure to most maladies, and they’re the nucleus of a family dinner. And, of course, flowers bloom everywhere in all types of art.
This week in San Diego, the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is celebrating the rich history of garden art in their examination of works of from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods via the lens of landscape architecture. Most of the early still life paintings used bouquets as their subject, such as Jahn Brueghel the Elder’s Bouquet from 1603. At first blush, Bouquet appears lively and spirited, but upon closer look, several of the flowers are shriveling and bending away from light, reminding the viewer of mortality, the brevity of beauty, and that ‘still life’ is not really still at all.
Still life continued to play with the concept of life and death through the metaphor of flowers (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) until a few centuries later, when flowers were back in the public’s eye during American Modernism in the early 20th century. Georgia O’Keeffe’s groundbreaking soft and subdued portraiture of blossoms were unabashedly vaginal, and put the magnified female body into an empowering perspective. Her work was sexual without at all indulging a pornographic gaze, and she is often referred to as the mother of feminist art due to her work with flowers.
In the summer of 1964, Andy Warhol took a transcendental departure from his work based solely on mass media for a series called Flowers. While the artist had previously been absorbed in the American fascination with celebrity, consumerism, and counterculture, the silhouettes of flowers offered a refreshing deviation from the plastic world he displayed. Other contemporary artists of the time used flowers as a foil to the industrial, commercial world their art reflected. Alexander Calder’s iconic moving sculpture, also called a mobile, got a floral makeover in 1974 with Crag with white flower and white discs. Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic photography in the 1980’s series Flowers depicted the pert grace of Calla lilies and poppies with the same frankness that he captured more controversial subject matters.
Today, in whatever period of art you want to call it, the still life of flowers is still very much moving with the times. In 1997, Jeff Koons’ triumph Puppy, a 43 foot-tall topiary dog made of only blossoms, fascinated viewers because of its excessive take on landscape design. Puppy was also the hinge of a terrorist plot at Spain’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in which three members of the Basque Nationalist Separatist movement, ETA, disguised themselves as gardeners and planted bombs in the flower pots surrounding Puppy. The attack was ultimately thwarted and no explosives went off, however the legacy surrounding the cheeky and bright sculpture remains sinister.
Taryn Simon also combined the lightness of floral art with the weight of political tension in her 2015 piece, Agreement Establishing the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation, Al-Bayan Palace, Kuwait City, Kuwait, May 30, 2006, Paperwork and the Will of Capital. The project is half sculpture and half prints, but all incorporate flowers that have been either pressed into dehydrated death or stuck in time in a disturbingly fleshy and rich bouquet, taxidermied out of their ephemeral nature.
The most futuristic flower art we’ve yet seen is Azuma Makoto’s undertaking to launch a bare bouquet and bonsai tree out of our atmosphere and 90,000 feet directly up into the stratosphere. The project felt hopeful and buoyant during the age of space exploration.
What are some of the best ways you’ve seen flowers incorporated into art? Leave us a comment below.