“I think that nothing is more difficult for a true painter than to paint a rose, since before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” – Henri Matisse
“Love Bomb considers the real and the virtual worlds we live in… We live in a world where real news and fake news can often be indistinguishable. To me Love Bomb looks at one of the great questions of the twenty-first century: what is truly real in our lives?” – Marc Quinn
Are flowers in art boring and predictable? Aren’t flower paintings just imitations of nature? In the film The Devil Wears Prada, the iconic Miranda Priestley sarcastically quipped, “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.” And after all, until recently in art history, still lifes occupied the lowest tier of art. Yet, flowers have always been a fascinating means for artists to explore deeper questions of humanity. This exhibition reevaluates the role of flowers in art and takes a broader view of their role while also situating them for individual artists.
A GERMINATING SEED
From Ancient Rome and their garden murals to the still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age to Contemporary art, flowers have been symbols layered with meanings and questions. When used as works of art, there is something a bit unnatural about painted flowers, given that these botanic wonders spring from nature. A painted flower “lives” much longer than the organic material. This idea has fascinated artists who mined this gap, whether by grouping flowers and plants that would not normally be in season or bloom at the same time or including nods to the transience of life amongst an immortal painted arrangement.
The flowers themselves can be evocative of the person’s, and by extension their respective nation’s, prosperity and wealth. Each object could trace the trade routes and paths to wealth for the owner. Think forcing flowers in a greenhouse or bringing in exotic orchids. Moreover, there was the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. The owner’s wealth could even be expressed in the pigments used (some colors were more expensive than others) or their ability to trick the eye (trompe l’oeil) as in the Roman murals.
Still life paintings were also one of the few ways women could become artists as many were forbidden to study the nude life models. Nevertheless, their still lifes commanded high prices and acclaim. Rachel Ruysch’s works sold for more in her lifetime than Rembrandt’s works did in his and her fame continues to this day.
THE ROOT OF PAINTING
Flowers can be instructive to artists to think about figural structure, composition, color. They provide insight into the basic building blocks of a painting. From there, artists can investigate the essence of painting – the material qualities of the medium, the interplay of color and shape. We can see this in the works of the Impressionist as they painted outdoors (“en plein air”) or with the Bay Area Figurative artists that made representational art the new avant-garde in the face of Abstract Expressionism.
Flowers can even be the inspiration into deeper questions into humanity, into the very essence of being. What do our short lives mean in the grand scheme? Where does humanity fit into the natural world? Floral still lifes are not just pretty pictures but an expression of the artist’s capabilities, to make more real the real objects before them.
Like their spiritual forebears, Nell Walker Warner and Gertrude Jekyll gained acclaim through flowers and plants. Jekyll has been a touchstone for gardeners since the 19th century and Warner has been called “America’s foremost painter of flowers” and “possibly one of the ablest painters of flowers studies America has ever produced.” Perhaps they have not yet achieved their deserved importance because of the “feminine” and “decorative” associations of flowers but this exhibition hopes to move the dial on the conversation of floral still lifes. For more about women and California Impressionists like Walker, visit our exhibition California Here We Come: The California Impressionists.
Paul Wonner painting a still life in his studio
The exhibition includes artists from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, showing the range of approaches that they have had to flowers. From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art to Contemporary Art, artists have gone beyond simple but beautiful representations of flowers to investigate the purpose and limits of painting, consumerism, and even the temporality of life.
Some of the most famed floral works are by Pop Art provocateur, Andy Warhol. Warhol’s appropriation of a photograph of flowers radically transformed what could be considered art and for what purpose. Flowers have played a long role in Warhol’s career and the exhibition examines his series of Flowers (hand colored). Warhol drew from a wallpaper catalogue, Interpretive Flower Designs, fascinated by line and composition of the images. The use of a wallpaper catalogue plays on the tension of the natural world and a manmade world. For more about Pop Art, visit our exhibition Pop Art: Can’t Buy My Love.
Donald Sultan was part of the “New Image” movement and is known for his use of unconventional materials to create sculptural paintings. Flowers have also played a role in his body of work. By using unusual materials like tar, Sultan interrogates how these natural wonders have been depicted through history and how to destabilize our understanding of their meaning. Here, the yellow tulip glows against a tar black background, a luminous light of geometric shapes that seems to recall and question the idea of tulips including the Dutch tulip mania.
Marc Quinn has been an influential member of the Young British Artists or YBAs. The provocative works by the YBAs look to new radical approaches in art making and Quinn lead the charge in combining art, science, and technology to explore corporeality, decay, and preservation. Still lifes and flowers naturally lend themselves to these explorations. The work in the exhibition seems to turn the idea of Golden Age Dutch still lifes on its ear, creating a riotous collection of exoticism. Approaching the work, we know the impossibility of seeing these flowers together and at this size but their magical transformation seduces us, bluring the lines of reality and fantasy. Quinn proves that flowers are not antiquated subjects of art history but avatars for contemporary concerns:
These are not idle questions but something we have grappled with since ancient times, often with real consequences. After all, Roman Emperor Domitian once served all black food which left his guests fearing that they would be executed. And, Emperor Elagablus was said to have smothered his dinner guests under a blizzard rose petals. Today, we just have other ways to be fooled and other ways to discover the truth.
Flowers for spring? We should be so lucky and with artwork, we can have flowers any time of the year, providing us with beauty and thoughtful examinations of the nature of painting and humanity.
“I always notice flowers.” – Andy Warhol