Man has always seen in other kingdoms, animal and plant ones, ideals that in his own are difficult to find in its pure state: the nobility of the dog, the beauty and freshness of the flower as love symbol… But if we pause at the latter and defoliat it without compassion, soon is revealed the illusion of these utopian images.
Unlike the leaves, that age with dignity, according to Georges Bataille, flowers wither like old and snobbish overly made-up widows, and they die a ridiculous death on their stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds (The language of flowers). The period of floral splendor is so brief that the poets make that instant eternal, before the marvelous corolla rots bizarrely under the sun.
It seems perhaps more interesting to focus on that fragility, on the flower as a metaphor of failure, on its rapid return to the mud after having aspired to the poetry of an ascending urge.
Marc Quinn, for his ideal garden (Garden, 2000) gathered flowers of the most varied species, freezing them with liquid silicone in its moment of highest maturity, arranging them in a glass tank destined to preserve its brilliance forever.
The mystic Eden of all religions (Yanna, Book of Genesis’s Paradise…) converge in this image, while at the same time it reminds us of the Roman frescoes of the Livia’s Villa (evergreen garden, in which each flower symbolized a god) .
Formerly it was the divine power to build artificial paradises, to gather in them all the species of the orb, to preserve them exuberant and to take the elect ones to that promised land. Today, paradise and eternal life remains a postmortem reward: flowers must die frozen to live eternally, almost an allegory of the cosmetic obsession to reach the grave as a beautiful corpse of synthetic skin.
On the other hand, the most beautiful flowers are faded in its core by the hairy stain of the sexual organs, continue Bataille. This contrast between their external fragile beauty and the harshness of the interior is one of the aspects that most interested Nicole Gagnum, an American artist who has dedicated to the floral theme practically all her projects, using all kinds of techniques and languages (painting, drawing, photography, video and installation).
In the photographic series Amapola (2006-12) is where the dance between opposites, as she describes it, can be specially noticed: between the petals of silky smoothness that struggle to unfold and the hairy calyx whose sepals are yielding to the pressure of the bud. The sequence of images captures with macro objective the complexity of the erotic drive, the mixture of attraction and repulsion that fuels the libido.
Gagnum interprets the flower blooming as a centrifugal movement, outward and inward simultaneously, drawing poetic parallels with female eroticism, to show without showing, its undressing while hiding, with the sensual unfolding together with incessant folds in oneself.
In the video Return (2005) this spiral choreography materializes in the body of a dancer whose serpentine movement pivoting on its axis we see from a zenithal point, giving us the impression that the sinuous twist of arms and torso impels the slow opening of the skirt-corolla, and then with the reverse movement the skirt is folded again and the body-gynoecium restores the position of the dream.
In her hibiscus paintings the petals flutter like skirts of dervishes, retracting themselves in sensual and surrounding mystique, as well as in the drawings, where only stigmas, avid for pollen, are tinted with color.
Robert Mapplethorpe also explored the ambiguous nature of sexuality and the beauty embodied in a flower. Patti Smith wrote in her poetic tribute to his friend: “He came, in time, to embrace the flower as the embodiment of all the contradictions with which he delighted. Its purity of lines, its sleekness, its fullness. Humble narcissus. Passionate zen. The flowers symbolized him as much as his processes. And the eye became a body, the dark heart of a rose. The sinister shadow of an orchid. Or the indolent poppy in the ear of Baudelaire (The coral sea).
Or that other rare flower, Jack in the pulpit, that probably captivated Mapplethorpe by its unique combination of phallic elements and ribbed folds, but also because the Catholic reminiscence of the name allowed him to slip other levels of reading.
The truth is that we never see only flowers when we look his beautiful still lifes: the erotic hunch and the carnal pulse vibrate in each nervation, in the hairy buds, in the pistils peeping between petals of unchaste lilies, in the orchids offering themselves…
In his photos, whether showing flowers or naked bodies, the perfection of form radiates a serene magnetism, subversive as well as classical beauty.
Mapplethorpe carved with light and contrasts. He was a photographer with the soul of an sculptor, like Karl Blossfeldt, who also taught us to look at the flowers in a different way.
This humble professor of forge always carried a camera made by himself when going out for a walk. It was not wide fields of poppies or lush rose bushes that caught his attention, but wild plants, that he called proletarian plants, popularly known as bad weed.
With scientific precision he inventoryed and photographed them, but the resulting visual record is not that of a botanist but that of an involuntary artist: close-ups of flowers and plant forms that cast no shadow at all and resemble forged sculptures, Art Nouveau arabesques, nature whims that simulate dancers, or that reveal inverted pentagrams and other secrets hidden in essential forms. Blossfeldt would be claimed as the precursor of such different movements as Surrealism and New Objectivity. By the way, he also inspired the false herbarium (scraps assembling) with which Joan Fontcuberta (Herbarium, 1982-85) questioned blind faith in photographic truth and at the same time confronted Blossfeldt’s naturalistic idealism with the current impossibility to think about a non-artificial nature.
Symbolist writers and Decadentism movement had already dispelled the myth of the floral attributes as ideal and pure, but they had condemned it as accursed and decayed, so that them lost their essential duality: for Baudelaire, flowers embody the femme fatale or are mournful and sickly, as monstrous are those that Eissentes cultivates in his artificial paradise (A Rebours, Huysmans).
Baudelaire’s misogyny and Huysmans tedium are projected in their respective floral universes, while Gagnum’s flowers reflect a feminine gaze on the feminine … Georgia O’Keeffe, however, always denied the sexual interpretations of her paintings: when people see erotic symbols in my pictures, they are talking about their own affairs, she said.
It may be true it that between the artist’s intention and the spectator gaze everything can happen, between the one who pollinates and the one who extracts the nectar fits a whole world, but to sip a juicy flower is always a delight.