May 09, 2012
David Lyndon Brown is the current Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellow writer in residence. He studied at Elam School of Fine Arts from 1969 and was under the tutorage of Colin McCahon. He has taught expressive writing to various groups including the elderly, mental health patients, recovering addicts, Maori and Pacifica and the the University of Auckland’s Centre for Continuing Education. He is using this fellowship to work on a new book without distraction or diversion.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
Robert Herrick (1648)
Images of arranged flowers have been with us since 2500 BC when the Ancient Egptians depicted floral offerings in burial ceremonies, processions and simply as table decoration. The lotus, sacred to Isis, was ubiquitous but the Egyptians also revered delphiniums, narcissi and roses.
The Greeks and Romans favoured greenery in the form of wreaths and garlands using laurel, ivy and oak leaves and as far back as 207 BC the Chinese recorded images of bamboo, peach and pear blossom, symbolising longevity, the tiger lily, the pomegranate and the orchid, symbolising fertility. The most honoured of flowers was the peony. Considered the king of flowers, it symbolised wealth, good fortune and high status.
Floral painting took off in Europe in the 16th Century, particularly in Italy and the Netherlands, due to a horticultural explosion introducing hitherto unseen breeds and species. The tulip was imported from Turkey.
The purpose of this historical preamble is to emphasise the length of time that human eyes have observed images of flora – from a picture of flowers in a vase decorating the wall of a villa in Pompeii, to Breugel and Caravaggio to Georgia O’Keefe and Mapplethorpe to Emma Bass.
Historically, when we encounter flowers in an art setting the response is highly prescribed. How beautiful, we sigh. It is as though we are primed for beauty and our reaction is virtually automatic. Bass has subverted that tradition. For all intents and purposes these artfully lit, poised, formal, floral compositions are exactly that – but look closer – the flowers here are starting to wilt, discolour, petals are withering, dropping, leaves are curling at the edges – these bouquets are infected with mortality.
We need to do a double take, to re-evaluate. Despite a preconception of beauty, we are suddenly confronted with temporality, imperfection and, yes, death. And don’t forget, flowers are the sexual organs of plants. When we look at a floral still-life we are in fact looking at a flagrant exhibition of genitalia. This consideration makes the thought of degeneration all the more poignant.
In an era of glossy finishes, air-brushing and Photoshop the least imperfection is considered scandalous. Fruit, vegetables and flowers are expected to be immaculate, taste or perfume notwithstanding. But surely the beauty of these living objects lies in their transience – the fact that they will fade adds to their attractiveness. As Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem: ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’; as Persian weavers wove in flaws because it would be arrogant for mortals to aspire to perfection; so Emma Bass, by deftly subverting an ancient tradition, reminds us that we are human.
David Lyndon Brown April 2012.