The Rise of Flower Paintings and Preservance of Beauty

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In the 17th Century, Holland’s fascination with flowers led to the emergence of flower paintings. This was led by scientific revolutions that had a huge impact on Holland, leading to an intense interest in botany and horticulture. Establishments of botanical gardens in the Netherlands along with booming international trade in exotic cultivators was seen in this period. The Netherlands saw flowers as precious items, especially tulips which were considered priceless rarities. They soon become a luxury item, which is why so many Dutch painters included tulips within their work. Tulips gave painters an intriguing uncertainty, their patterns, and colours abruptly changing. Taylor (1995) says “flowers were luxury goods” going on to describe how they would only be bought by the rich.

Painters such as Jan Breughel the Elder immersed themselves in flower painting and gained huge acknowledgment for it. Brueghel was one of the first artists to paint flowers in the Netherlands, leading to a new genre of art. Each flower was painted with meticulous precision, appearing real and beautiful. Successful Dutch paintings were based on the degree of realism. Critics such as Souter (2016) explain how these dutch flower paintings “exhibit exceptional skill”, conveying the painter’s ability to paint from life with great detailing. Rachel Ruysch was praised for her skillful realism. Critics such as Robinson (2019) describe Ruysch’s work as “remarkably realistic” Robinson (2019), impressed by fine details within the petals, brittle leaves, and even tiny insects that you may not notice on first glance.

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Flowers were portrayed in their bloom, each shown to their best advantage. Despite this, the flowers comprised together would bloom at different times of the year, conveying unnatural arrangements. Sooke (2016) explains that these paintings “do not reflect reality”. Painters were so focused on making each flower beautiful to look at they did not consider how true the paintings would be, or yet they did not care. Sooke (2016) believes these paintings are construction of impossibility. Similarly, both Breughel and Ruysch began to paint arrangements of flowers that would bloom during different seasons, which was said to give her paintings an “unreal, magical property” (Lesso 2019).

Early flower paintings from this era convey flat and symmetrical arrangements. The backgrounds of these paintings had a tendency to be dark and plain, drawing every part of the viewer’s attention to the display of flowers. Ruysch was so important in the advancement of flower paintings during the 17th century, being described as “the most important female still-life painter in Western Art” (Bell 2002). The artworks Ruysch created were extremely prized, leading to her being one of the highest paid still lifer painters in Europe. As critic Kennedy (2002) explains, the professional painting was typically male-dominated, therefore seeing such a successful female artist was uncommon.

Since Dutch paintings, flower art has progressed to many extremes. The art of flower is no longer limited to beautiful paintings in vases. Many artists use installation, photography, sculpture and various other mediums in order to keep flowers relevant in the contemporary art world. Artists no longer feel the need to only portray flowers solely in their bloom, various artists consider the less beautiful aspects of flowers, including the death and decay, an inevitable part of nature. Contemporary artists such as Azumo Makota and Anya Gallacio are prime examples of this. Both Makota and Gallacio use the destruction and decomposition of flowers in their art, conveying an extreme contrast to the dutch flower paintings.

Gallacio’s fascination with flowers is derived from the rotting and dying. Gallacio (2012) says “I like the mixture of celebration with death or decay”. Her interest in this holds a huge contrast to traditional flower art, where flowers would typically be shown in their bloom. “Red on green” contributes to the Tate Britain’s art of the garden exhibition, which consists of 10,000 fresh roses. These roses are cut, each one laid out and left to rot over the course of the exhibition. Dunne (2008) compares this layout to a “grave-like image” emphasising the ideas of death throughout Gallaccio’s work. For a minimal opening of time, fresh roses are displayed, bright red and silky. Towards the end of the exhibition it shows dried up, dull roses, lacking the vibrancy and colour from the beginning. It is an intriguing aspect to consider that each day a viewer sees the exhibition, it will look different. Going to view Gallacio’s work at the beginning when the roses were bright and blooming could have a completely different impact on the viewer than if they went towards the end. It has been described by critics that her process “transforms” installations (Smee, 2004).

Gallacio’s installation “preserve beauty” shows over 500 red gerberas, compressed between the wall and a sheet of glass. Similarly to “red on green” over time the flowers start to decompose and rot. These processes are beyond the control of the artist or the viewer, even Gallacio is unaware of how the installation will change and transform throughout this window of time. By naming this piece “preserve beauty” Gallaccio tests what art defines as “beauty” especially with regards to flowers, which are typically seen as beautiful. Critics have said that the focus on time in Gallaccio’s work “mirrors a sense of the viewer’s own life cycle in the constantly changing present” (Fries, 2009). The flowers can be seen as a microcosm of the lives of the viewers, emphasising the inevitability of change over time. Dunne (2008) says how there is a “certain level of cruelty” within these artistic ideas. He said that Gallaccio’s art was “calculated destruction”. Gallaccio purposely leaves the flowers to rot and die, however, the death and decay of flowers is inevitable and also, natural.

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