Monday, February 21, 2011

Wilted tulips and vanitas

click photo to enlarge
In a post the other day I lamented the attitude of some towards flower photography, and suggested that painters had long recognised what many photographers have never grasped: that flowers can be a great vehicle for grappling with the basic elements of composition, representation and symbolism - colour, light and shade, tone, line, mood, etc.

Masters of this approach to flower painting (and to the still-life in general) were the artists of the Dutch and Flemish schools. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century the still-life attained the status of a recognised genre in the Netherlands, and in the subsequent two centuries, through painters such as Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621), Hans Bollongier, and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)  its popularity spread throughout this region of Northern Europe.

One particular branch of Dutch and Flemish flower painting were the works known as vanitas pictures. Their purpose was to remind the viewer of the meaninglessness and impermanence of earthly life, and the certainty of decay and death. A vanitas painting might include a variety of flowers that were past their best, decaying, curling and dropping petals, perhaps some bitter fruit such as lemons, a few transitory butterflies, and to make the point more forcibly, a human or animal skull. It has been suggested that these works served as a coded substitute for Protestants who rejected the paintings and iconography inspired by the Roman Catholic church. Regardless of their true purpose they are works that invite the viewer's eye to linger on them, to search out the details, and to think about the artist's intention in assembling the disparate parts.

My photograph of a vase of tulips that are past their best, green leaves and stems yellowing, blooms opening, distorted and dropping petals, is a poor substitue for one of the paintings discussed above. But perhaps it does show what painters have long known - that flowers offer interest and character not only in the fullness of their beauty, but also as they deteriorate, discolour and decay.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 100mm
F No: f11
Shutter Speed: 3.2 sec
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off