Flowers and stone

Flowers my mother lovingly embroidered on linen tablecloths for her glory box — poppies, daisies, cornflowers; flowers arranged in vases; flowers drawn and flowers painted; flowers in gardens, in my garden — roses and dandelions; flowers in graveyards — real ones in wreaths, vibrant then wilting, plastic ones held in jars full of pebbles, gaudily tacky, then fading, disturbingly pallid; flowers of colourfully glazed ceramic; flowers made of metal, flowers of stone. Embroidering, arranging, drawing and painting flowers is women’s work. So is carving them from stone.

Women and the portrayal of flowers — what a fecund collaboration! Flower painting is an art form which has been practised with patient dedication, with passion and flamboyance by so many fine artists : by seventeenth century Dutch artists Marian Van Oosterwijk and Rachael Ruysch, by Georgia O’Keefe in the USA; developed with schematic clarity in paintings and linocuts by Margaret Preston; depicted with accurate specificity in botanical studies by Ellis Rowan and Celia Rosser, and captured by Olive Cotton in her hauntingly beautiful photographs.

Whatever else they may symbolise, in the Still Life, flowers, along with fruit and vegetables, traditionally have attested to both the bounty of nature and to mortality. The skull and the candle also appeared as memento mori. However, the flower, both notionally and beautifully, eminently satisfies the role as we witness it wilt, fade, and fall in a fast-forward demonstration of our human destiny. Flesh falls from cheeks as petals fall from flowers, leaving the comparative constancy of bone in a reprieve from the tumult of fleshly joy and anguish. However, the flower, as a holder of seeds and a harbinger of fruit, also symbolises regenerative optimism.

So many flowers! How could one not be bewitched by their beauty, not be fascinated by the richness of their symbolism? There are flowers ‘of nature’ picked, pinched, purchased, arranged, smelled, admired; planted, watched sprout, bud, burst, bloom, wilt, fade and fall; flowers rejoiced in, and sometimes wept over; flowers pressed, photographed, drawn, painted, modelled, carved, and written of; flowers ‘of artifice’, observed in shops, markets, on restaurant tables, on hats, on graves; and flowers ‘of culture’, wrought in metal, modelled in ceramic or carved in stone in churches and cemeteries, embroidered into tapestries, woven into carpets, painted onto vessels and tiles, tessellated into walls and onto floors, and digitised. Flowers, produced and reproduced in so many ways, in order to thwart their transience. And stone, which is slow to work and slow in its decay into finer particles, is ideally suited to the preservation of the provisional, the ephemeral, the illusory. The French word for floral funerary ornaments — Immortelles — is telling. The stone flower, durably set in time, perpetuates the idea of the flower and its (and our) inevitable fate.

In the Parisian cemeteries of Montparnasse and Perre Lachaise the ground groans with the weight of stone. The graves in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague crowd into the earth, layer upon layer upon layer. The little graveyards in our country towns touch the earth more lightly. But always there are flowers — fresh flowers piled on the mounded earth of new graves, dead flowers, flowers wreathed in anniversary commemoration, plastic flowers, flowers of ceramic, metal, stone. A vivid memory of sheets of scarlet tulips in the cemetery in Helsinki, of tiny violets springing up among the densely packed graves in Prague, and of a solitary faded plastic rose, blown against a barbwire fence after a storm.

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The white camellia has dropped . . . now the cherry blossom has fallen, the wattle birds feed their young on the tiny fruit . . . the narcissus has wilted, faded, turned vague and translucent, but its shadow is sharply defined on the table beneath the vase . . . the dandelion is an aeolian clock . . . the rose petals have fallen . . . the worms writhe at their feast . . . roots stir . . . buds will swell . . . a shadow is carved from stone.

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