Suffusion of a Floral Kind

Odilon Redon. ‘Violette Heymann’. Pastel on paper. 72 x 92 cm

Flora infuses so much of artistic creation that if one were to surround himself with books upon books and painted panels and canvases and then close his eyes, he would actually smell all those flowers compressed into words and folded in pigment. He wouldn’t smell the paper or the paintings, that combined smell of ink and book shops, wood and oil, he would smell roses and narcissuses and wildflowers. He could stuff all those books and paintings into a juicer and out would come not pulpy manifestos dripping ‘T’s and ‘I’s, heightened here and there with a blob of Persian Blue or Indian Yellow, but clear, perfumed flower juice.

I remember having read Emerson say that ‘flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world’. I was overjoyed at reading these words. My drawings and paintings are incomplete without flowers because they contain so much symbolic value, it’s boggling!

One of the most important symbols they stand for is, of course, man’s own mortality. Flowers enact that bloom-to-gloom journey so deftly and with so much exaggerated beauty (they’re such actors!) that it is insanity to not use them as a symbol for our own such invariable journeys, especially when ours come clanking with a heap of other things such as education, money-making, fiery brawls in the name of love, dinner concerns, hospital bills, anniversaries and anti-aging creams. We resist death till our last breath, flowers don’t.

Flowers, so authors, artists and bards have proven, are a neater and more presentable way of showing the loose-locked, haggling mortality. Fragility, vulnerability are themes that come with the package. But the best thing about flowers is that they also, like us, have a darker side. So it’s not just rosy-cheeked, wide-eyed maidens, susceptible to aging and dying, whom they represent but also temptresses with poisonous properties, old as evil, bringing death in their wake.

Gardens in literature are not exclusively happy places, that much is certain. Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ and Wilde’s ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ feature botany trailing metres of woe behind it. Poetry, too, testifies to that but the references are numberless, I wouldn’t know where to begin! In art, Chagall’s infatuated, levitating brides-in-white and flying fiddlers traverse skies spread with flowers or hover like drunk bees on summer nights around giant bouquets. And Odilon Redon’s chalky flowers manifest themselves out of dreamy, smoky backdrops of colour clouds. Innocence and purity poised against time. The passing by of things. Love fading. No, flowers are not happy props, nor gardens happy places.

Marc Chagall. ‘Bouquet with Flying Lovers’. Oil on canvas. 130.5 x 97.5 cm
Georgia O’Keeffe. ‘Black Iris’. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 75.9 cm
Abraham Mignon. ‘The Nature as a Symbol of Vanitas’. Oil on canvas. 79 x 99 cm

But by the side we have also such darker allusions to flora as found in Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – gardens planted with menace, poison lurking unabashed, dressed in deceptive, flowery garb. The symbolic role of flowers broadens. The flower achieves the position of a mermaid song. Georgia O’Keefe’s ravenous botany leers and gapes. Abraham Mignon’s stagey and almost dangerous floral still lives stretch their tentacles. And then, there’s Mondrian.

How can one describe the flowers painted by this enigma? What I can gather from what I’ve seen of his work and what I’ve read about him is that he had a very, very polarized relationship with flora. He claimed to hate flowers, painting them only because they sold, and yet that quivering sincerity with which he painted them suggests otherwise. His lilies, chrysanthemums and amaryllises are like sad spectres made to pose singly in the light. Why is it that the lilies, especially, seem almost ashamed? That strange, watery way in which they stand there, quietly drooping and bleeding is more touching than some of the techniques of verisimilitude applied in paintings of great sacrifice or heroism.

Mondrian. ‘Lily’. Watercolour on paper. 25 x 19 cm

And yet why, despite this near translucence displayed by the flowers, did Mondrian distrust them? Was it because he felt that in all their lovely pathos, they would overpower his senses and steer him away from the grid-work and geometry of logic? Or because, more like the cold-blooded Doctor Rappaccini from Hawthorne’s story, he had dissected them and discovered that there was nothing but a bare-boned, stone-faced mechanism behind their beautiful facades?