Flowers are helplessly symbolic. Cut fresh stems, slotted into cool water-filled crystal vases, endure as perilous effigies of our existence. Beside hospital beds they give solace; on vacant family dining tables they scatter joy. Passed from one hand to another they commit to kinship; loosely tied to metal railings, they ask for remembrance. In their loveliness is tenderness, in their tenderness brutality.
During lockdown, the windows of luxury stores across the city were defined not by their darkened, emptied interiors but the unkempt withered stems, burnt petals and dried vases standing within them as capitalism stalled. Grandiose floral arrangements adorning the fronts of unoccupied hotels dropped to nothing; muscular green plants commandeering the entrances to multinational corporations drooped and expired. Flowers became the prolific idols of 2020’s unyielding spring.
A plant is a city. The stem is the support, the roots are the underground system for nurturing and nutrients, the leaves feed on sunlight and through transpiration allow the loss of water vapor to cool the plant. Through respiration it converts sugars and starches to energy, which help it to stay alive. It is difficult not to find a parallel with the increased sense of community we have forged in the past months – caring for a plant, like living in a civilised society, requires compassion. Our repeated acts of kindness, from washing and clapping hands, shopping for neighbours, even distancing ourselves from each other, are ways of tending to our own ecosystem – of keeping things alive.
‘Nature educates us into beauty and inwardness and is a source of the most noble pleasure,’ Karl Blossfeldt, teacher at the Royal Arts Museum in Berlin said upon publication of his book Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) in 1928. Filled with stark, graphic portraits of flora, the catalogue was intended to be a guide for industrial and commercial designers but is today celebrated as an example of early modernist photography and aesthetic philosophy. Urformen der Kunst helped its readers to look at the natural world with a new eye, linking flowers to fences, petals to patterns and stamen to spires. It is precisely in nature’s engineered beauty that we find not only the inspiration to build, but the courage to live.
Despite her most famous works being of lilies, orchids and petunias, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe once admitted ‘I hate flowers. I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.’
Flowers need to be captured by the artist, with the paint brush or the camera with haste before vanishing into the annals of last summer. Commissioned by Vogue, Irving Penn devoted himself to photographing one particular species each summer between 1967-1973: tulips, poppies, peonies, orchids, roses, lilies, begonias. Full of juicy colour, captured on a lightbox in various states of undress, his photographs rest between Blossfeldt’s brutalist studies and O’Keeffe’s anatomical expressionism: ‘I can claim no special knowledge of horticulture… I even confess to enjoying that ignorance since it has left me free to react with simple pleasure just to form and colour, without being diverted by considerations of rarity or tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection,’ he said.
Planted in a forlorn greying month, a lily shoot slowly emerges months later in the soily dusk, pushing its way up towards the moon – stretching, craning its neck for space. A thick green stem intermittently sprouting into almond shaped leaves begins to grow and soon a fleshy bud appears, swelling in size over a matter of days, its veiny lines drawing a path to spring and all things new. Buds gush open without ceremony. The lily stands erect, proud and bright; its petals pricked with tiny pink spots; its stamen moist with paprika coloured pollen. With each confident gust of wind, the stem sways and regains composure, like a drunk friend on a summer afternoon. The lily stays for two weeks before it begins to sag. Its stamen is soon clean of magic elixir; one by one the petals tumble to the ground. Now the lily resembles an antenna, its emptied tips heralding the arrival of autumn. In their perpetual vitality all flowers are metaphors for hope. A promise of renewal.