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Two different recent publications focused on painted flowers highlight both the beauty of nature’s art and the ostentatiousness of humans
Michael Pearce / MutualArt
Nov 16, 2022
Martyn Rix, Indian Botanical Art – An Illustrated History. Lustre Press
Martyn Rix has produced a fascinating book of beautiful illustrations of the botanical collections amassed by British colonial settlers, drawn and painted by Indian artists. The book suffers slightly from a petulant foreword written by post-colonial scholar Sita Reddy, but her woke endorsement is outweighed by Rix’s authoritative selection of exemplary illustrations from the archives of Kew Gardens and his thoughtful and elegant texts. Rix has investigated the fascinating lives of the artists and the medical men and women who dedicated themselves to the collection of the botany of colonial India with sincere curiosity, and the product of his work, combined with the gorgeous paintings of floral abundance, make a pleasant and lovely volume.
Most of the pictures were produced for medical employees of British companies whose principal interests in India’s flora lay in commercial exploitation. Despite this exploitative approach to India’s botany as the subject of a search for plants with potential in the pharmaceutical market or as agricultural crops or as fibers for fabric manufacture, the result of the investigation was an encyclopedic profusion of lush floral imagery. Many of the artists went unnamed – as work-for-hire illustrators often do – but the ghosts of historical racism haunt their anonymity. Others were acknowledged better, like Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhawani Das, and Ram Das, who produced paintings of medicinal plants for Lady Impey, an early British colonist who lived in Calcutta between 1774 and 1783. These scientific artists were influenced by the decorative floral paintings made by miniature painters in the early 17th century, whose exquisite and delicate images delighted the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahingir.
Rix provides brief biographies of the key players. Robert Wight was a naturalist and botanist appointed by the Madras government to study the flora of the region in 1830. Traveling the coast of the Bay of Bengal and inland, he amassed and recorded an enormous collection of botanical samples to send to Edinburgh. To picture the samples he hired a delightful painter named Rungiah who made a permanent record of many of the specimens he collected, including renderings of Sea purslane and Ochna squarrosum, Tamarind tree, and the curious Sensitive Plant, whose delicate leaves curl up at the slightest touch.
The art makes this small book feel grand. Lush paintings of peculiar plants are gathered together like an intriguing and inviting botanical cabinet of curiosities, and the clever designers have decorated the pages with details of delicate leaves and blossoms. It’s not the high art of the swollen markets, and it’s not the art of lazy entertainment, but this is useful art, and the pictures are extraordinary artefacts of India’s rich history of rising and falling empires.
 
Regina Selter, Stefanie Weißhorn-Ponert, Kurt Wettengl, Stefan Muhlhofer, and Ronja van Rönne, Flowers! in the Art of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Museum Ostwall / Hirmer

Flowers! was produced to accompany an exhibit at the Museum Ostwall im Dortmunder U. which, according to Regina Selter’s essay, “investigates the question as to the relationship between art and the subject of flowers, which have been regarded as the epitome of beauty since time immemorial.” But readers hoping for a lovely tabletop volume of delightful floral paintings, ready to imagine the scents of time-lost bouquets, relishing a display of mimetic beauty, will doubtlessly be disappointed by this dreary volume, which is preoccupied with the disturbing side of floral imagery, not the abundance of nature’s pleasant gift. In this book even flowers are political.
After the emergence of paintings of extravagant floral bouquets as decorative and fitting subjects for bourgeois homes, flowers were often painted, drawn, and printed as symbolic reminders of death and decay in the form of memento mori, and this ironic approach to flowers extended into the 20th and 21st centuries and festered and flourished as part of the post-war disease that infected art. After dealing briefly with a few token modernist paintings of beautiful arrangements – a pretty Valadon, a crude but light Redon, an intriguing Münter – curators Selter and Weißhorn-Ponert concentrate the majority of their efforts on the work of contemporary establishment artists. The darkness of Beckmann and Jawlensky follows a few token niceties, and depressing images of dead sunflowers, predictable cubist brokenness, x-rays, and blurry photos – all death and disease, and distance, and defecation, artificiality and saccharine-sweet sarcasm, all pulled from the mold of the conventional and misnamed avant-garde, all by artists using floral imagery as an ironic contrast cast in tediously didactic messages of radical feminism, as subjects of old-fashioned reactionary deconstruction, and as symbols of their clichéd hostility to the past.
We learn that flowers are used to reveal “the proximity of everyday life, disgust and beauty.” When Quynh Dong scatters oversized ceramic petals across a gallery floor, we can be sure that while the subject here is love, it is artificial and kitsch. When Philipp Valenta gathers banknotes decorated with flowers, of course they are counterfeits. Gerhard Richter’s paintings are based on ill-focused amateur photographs, repeating the deadly themes of vanitas. The American-government sponsored avant-garde beats the rhythm of brokenness and misery and dull political messaging. In it, there are no harmonies of joy, no melodies of love, no unspoiled thought of the extraordinary miracle of life – only an endless and numb hammering at the festering themes of failure. That these activist onanists are exhibited in a space as supremely bourgeois as an art museum is laughable.
Academic essays by guest authors do little to relieve the sad mood and dystopia of anxiety inspired by the images, but they are well-written and worth reading as examples of the consistently grim themes obsessing the art establishment elite. Barbara Welzel begins well enough by quoting Henry Geldzahler, who told Andy Warhol “Maybe it’s enough death now,” when he asked the artist to choose flowers for an exhibition in 1964 after his series of car crash prints. Her essay is a good survey of floral art history and helps to contextualize the nastiness of the contemporary work. But she is followed by Kurt Wettengl, who ties scientific botanical paintings together with environmental activism, capitalist exploitation, and slavery. Next, in an interesting but inconclusive contribution, Stefan Mühlhofer worries about flowers as symbols of political allegiance – the bloody poppies of the Great War, the lily of the French monarchy, the chrysanthemum of Imperial Japan, the lotus of the Indian Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, the sunflower of the German Green Party. In the first of two essays by Stefanie Weisshorn-Ponert, flower symbolism is tied to feminist activism. In it, “I dissent therefore I am” is the theme of Renate Bertlmann’s repetitive ranks of spiked roses, delighting in the horrible idea that the self is entirely absorbed in political activism. In her second contribution, Weisshorn-Ponert bangs the apocalyptic drum of environmental climate change activism, imagining that urban life has so impacted the world that nature has been overwhelmed, and highlighting impending environmental doom through x-rays of plants gathered in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Journalist Ronja van Rönne’s brief essay betrays the balance she might have brought to the flow of negativity with a glib stream of platitudes and pleasantries about flowers that fails to restore any faith in the project.
Gertrude Stein, champion of modernism, is remembered for little today other than her clumsy but effective phrase, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” paraphrasing Shakespeare’s more elegant, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Although most of the artists in the book have done their best to abuse the miracle of floral beauty by staining flowers with mundane politics, cheap style, and posturing political activism, mercifully they have no enduring cultural power. In the clear light of natural beauty, these novelties are shadows. Mimesis is always metaphor, but why should art always mean something miserable?
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