We like flowers. How edgy of us. But we do! We can’t pretend otherwise to maintain our too-cool mystique (don’t laugh!). This declaration is not only born of the UK’s current obsession with gardening amidst the Stay at Home (and now Stay Alert?) guidance. It is more directly fuelled by the ubiquity of flowers as rich symbolic entities in visual culture across the world. Few other forms – natural or otherwise – have, all at once, been doodled over notebooks, commodified for national holidays, represented religions, denoted nations and dynasties, and even garnered status as the near-official symbol for love itself. And, branching from the Ancient Egyptian to the Neo-Assyrian Empires, through the Roman Empire and beyond, flora formed part of the visual language of art long before art or art history were themselves recognised as formal disciplines. So, while beauty is perhaps what springs to mind when we think of them, flowers have maintained profound symbolic significance, globally, for millennia – and they sustain that power today. For this reason, we want to give you an insight into symbolism itself and its relationship with flora in the history of art. Then, to really explore its continued hold on artistic practice, we want to show you how symbolism is entangled in the floral works of some of our own artists.
Flowers, Symbolism and Symbolising
Symbolism – not just the act of encoding meaning in another form – was in fact an art historical movement in itself; driven by the likes of Redon and Moreau in France, and Rossetti and Burne-Jones in the UK (to name a few). Above all else, the Symbolists explored ways to express ‘the idea’ rather than any living, breathing thing. Such ideas bred artistic production of a surreal and moving kind. As our last blog Exploring The Imagination: Part 1 introduced, these artists soaked up the multi-sensory stimuli around them, allowed it to buzz and whirr inside their heads, and then pumped it out anew in the form of line, colour, texture and feeling. To use Symbolist poet Gustav Khan’s terms, these artists “objectif[ied] the subjective (the externalization of the Idea)” (1). So, when it came to the natural world, their ethos was quite simply to reject the conventions of Naturalism (the representation of nature as close to as we see it as possible), and focus instead on how best to articulate, through art, those ideas that inspired their imaginations. Even when rendering nature itself, the Symbolists focused on the moods and ideas any aspect of the natural world could evoke, rather than on mimetic representations of scenes from life. Flowers were no exception. If we consider, for example, Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers (1889) – their indelible yellow hue overtly expresses an “idea symbolizing ‘gratitude’” (according to the artist). It acts symbolically – it visually represents an immaterial notion – rather than just painting the visible form of the flowers themselves.
And, we want to note too, symbolism (in a representational sense, rather than the movement) is not only intentionally ingrained into a work of art by the artist themselves. Interpretation on our part, as viewers, is just as poignant and valid as the scheme of the maker. It doesn’t matter, for example, how ardently Georgia O’Keeffe rejects some of the perceived symbolic connotations of her work (such as her works fondly referred to as the ‘vagina flowers’), viewers will nevertheless continue to freely recognise signs, and draw meanings from the visual world as they see fit. So while ‘reading’ symbolism in art can at times feel misplaced, false, and even meaningless (the common place idea that there is ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ meaning in an artwork) meaning, simply put, is made differently by each
So, as introduced, flowers have a uniquely illustrious history in art, as symbols for a nigh-on infinite plethora of emotions, meanings and values. We really could talk all day about this – walking you through the varied and powerful place of flowers in art history (however unpowerful that actually sounds…). But, alas, we lack the time and space in a single blog post to do so. And therefore, to begin with, we’re going to examine the work of two of our own artists – Simone Webb and Audrey Yeo – whose floral compositions have symbolic potential that we are itching to unpick.
Don’t judge a flower by its… uh… cover? Or its colour at least. The deep, blush pink of Webb’s Liberty II, foregrounding two pale pink roses, might – on the surface – seem to evoke the visual language of Rococoesque frivolity and maybe even love. Not to mention the inherent connotation any flora bears to life itself. Yet, we look a little closer and those delicate petals are dissolving into decay (not particularly romantic). Liberty II, then, harnesses living, breathing, love-filled conventions of the rose motif and directly subverts it in order to symbolise, in the words of Webb’s own statement, the “delicate melancholy [of] organic time”. Organic material, from flowers to fruits, has long since been used to symbolise the transience of time in this way. The propensity of flora for deterioration means that it naturally works well in this role, and the power of the flower is multiplied by its associations with beauty: beauty, too, will perish in time. But also, we cannot ignore the notion its name recalls – ‘liberty’. The symbolic connotations of this work thicken, as it represents the idea that in the despondency of decay – the loss of life and beauty – an ultimate ‘liberty’ is reached. Webb creates a symbolic synthesis of life, beauty, decay, time and ultimate liberty.
In Yeo’s 14, from her series A Botanical Glimpse, she captures the head of a dandelion, casts it in a resin cube, and suspends it from a wire. In doing so, she captures the essence of symbolism itself: a fragment, here – dangling precariously in isolation – stands for a whole. This flora crosses that infamous, artificial boundary between art and science: its contradictory aesthetic that fuses thick translucent block with a quality of delicacy, intimacy, and beauty at its purest, recalls organic amber. Here, art is science and science is art – a fragment of the natural world has been frozen in time and space, to capture our attention, and stare at us right in the eye. This speaks to Yeo’s own critical engagement with anthropocentrism (the human-centred world). She intends to centre a fragment of flora as a method of bringing the natural world into focus; to cognitively realign the human-centric view to an ecological view of human/nature synthesis. Accordingly, Yeo employs the symbolic capacity of scale for the same ends: in this case, the small provocatively symbolises the mighty. Nature is everything, and we – as humans – are simply part of it.
So, we have acknowledged that symbolism – predating the Symbolists themselves and inevitably outliving each of us – is a truly fundamental facet of our artistic relationship with things. Flowers have a near-endless capacity for bearing the connotations we thrust upon them – from beauty and love, to decay and time. And it’s probably for that reason that they have become such a ubiquitous visual symbol to humanity – besides our love of nurturing them, adorning ourselves and our homes with them, and eating them (and far more beyond). We hope you have enjoyed reading about how some of our own artists have engaged with flora, for symbolic (as well as aesthetic) ends. Thank you for turning up here, and we will catch you at the next blog post!
1. G. Kahn. (1886). ‘Response of the Symbolists’. In: C. Harrison and P. Wood. Art in Theory, 1815 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998). P.1017.