Floral fashion, in clothing and furnishings, has had a recent resurgence. But while fashion comes and goes, the use of floral elements in art never seems to go out of style. Francesca Emms looks at flowers as an enduring part of our artistic repertoire.
Floral art in New Zealand has its beginnings in science. In the 18th and 19th centuries, botanical artists were crucial members of any voyage of exploration, with the task of categorising and recording the exotic flora of the New World. Back ‘home’ there was a deep interest in exotic plants, and books about New Zealand flora were especially popular with people who planned to resettle in New Zealand, or had family members there.
Dr Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art at Te Papa, is an art historian who specialises in New Zealand’s colonial art. She’s interested in the classification of botanical art. ‘It sits between,’ she says. ‘Is it science, is it art?’ She tells of Gisborne resident Sarah Featon, the painter behind the first full-colour art book published in New Zealand, The Art Album of New Zealand Flora (1887). Mrs Featon painted the watercolours for the plates and her husband Edward wrote the text. The couple produced the book to disprove the myth that New Zealand had no flowers.
While it was labeled an art book, and the paintings leave no doubt as to Featon’s artistic talent, she went about the project with a scientific approach. She collected specimens to paint, and consulted botanical books to make sure her depictions were accurate. A favorite was Flora Novae-Zealandiae. Published in the 1850s, it included Joseph Dalton Hooker’s descriptions of the plants discovered in New Zealand during the Ross expedition, and works by Scottish botanical illustrator Walter Fitch. Featon painted with the book by her side to make sure every detail was correct. The original artwork was sold to the Dominion Museum (now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) where they are still held in the rare books collection.
The contradictions in the gender narrative about floral art fascinates Dr Rice. In the 19th century females were ‘allowed’ to produce botanical art. But their work didn’t often make into the art texts, despite being ‘often very beautiful works of art.’ Botanical art also gave women a degree of freedom. Expeditions into the countryside were perfectly respectable for ‘lady painters’ to search for botanical specimens. Marcia Page, a director of Page Blackie Gallery, says ‘There is a great New Zealand tradition dating from the early days of colonialism of women painting flowers, with artists such as Emily Harris, Sarah Featon, and Georgina Hetley.’ She says that painting was considered a very respectable thing for a woman to do, watercolour being perceived as particularly genteel.’
Floral subjects are certainly not just for women. ‘Flowers have always been popular,’ says Page. ‘Just about every artist I know has painted still life at some stage – artists like Philip Clairmont, Colin McCahon, – they all turned their hand to it.’ Most artists will reflect autobiographical influences in some way, Page says. ‘Reuben Paterson’s work is influenced by Maori and Pacific culture. And Karl Maughan is the son of a landscape gardener.' In contemporary floral art, Page points out that scale and media vary widely. Reuben Paterson is working in glitter, Ann Robinson in glass, Judy Darragh in acrylic – ‘Basically anything goes.’
Billie Culy’s photographic work is a nod to the traditional floral still life, layering flowers, foliage, and paint over printed photographs. Culy says, ‘Flowers are beautiful, and we all see beauty. As humans we all have a connection to nature, regardless of gender.’ She says she’s drawn to floral motifs because she grew up with beautiful gardens and flowers arranged by her mother, ‘so to me flowers have connotations of love, and warmth, they will always bring something to life.’ She also likes the way flowers can represent ‘a place, season or environment.’
Dr Ann Shelton, of Massey University’s School of Art, says plants and flowers have gone in and out of favour with contemporary artists, having been enduring art historical symbols. Their return to popularity, she suggests, ‘is about acknowledging we have misunderstood our relationship with nature. It's about a recognition that plants are a powerful force in human lives and their further neglect will be at our peril.’
Her own work with plants has come out of an interest in the place of plants in human knowledge systems, which elevate and neglect certain plant properties and histories.’ Her works, large-scale, hyper-real photographs examine how humans interact with plants and how plants wield their power, sometimes unpredictably. Earlier this year her exhibition ‘the missionaries’ explored the relationship between colonisation, nationalism and plants in Aotearoa. Her series ‘jane says’ relates to her interest in plant histories, and specifically women’s use of plants for fertility and birth control. A performance accompanying the photographic exhibition, quotes from the historical research behind Shelton’s work.
From botanical drawings, art in their own right but intended for scientific use, to contemporary murals and performance art, New Zealand’s floral art is diverse as the flowers themselves. Use of floral motifs in New Zealand isn’t confined. Like a weed, it just keeps growing.
First published ArtZone #76