The Flower Artist
Late in his life, the painter Morris Graves, known for his symbolic and visionary renderings of animals, birds, and snakes, began to paint realistic portraits of flowers, which he arranged on his table or found at the street markets in Seattle. Hermetic, eccentric, having lived alone in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, Graves was, as critic Theodore F. Morris writes, “famous for his commitment to the vision of ‘the inner eye,'” which had resulted in such metaphysical paintings as Moon Chalice, Little Known Bird of the Inner and Millenium Light. I remember the story of him listening in the night outside his island home and drawing — inventing! — animals for the sounds he heard. I remember his “white writing,” which he adapted from the painter Mark Tobey, nests of lacy, squiggling lines encasing the Bird Singing in the Moonlight, or the discordant and troubling red and black pattern above the grasses in Spring with Machine Age Noise#3. Graves was a clairvoyant, someone able to see past the surface, with its colors and sounds, into the way light might affect the song of a bird or modern industry affect the grasses. His images came from another realm, that of dream or focused meditation, rather than the objective world. For an artist “so profoundly convinced that art’s primary purpose was to help advance spiritual consciousness,” critic Theodore F. Wolff states, to paint a simple bouquet of flowers on his table was a dramatic departure. Why, at the end of his life, flowers?
In Summer Twilight, Fruit and Flowers (Peruvian lily bouquets-yellow, two Borneo night-blooming flowers, and platter of apricots), it is the twilight I see first, a radiant aura around the yellow bouquets, the edges of the apricots on their celadon plate, a yellow powdered on the table top under the vases, not so much a reflection — the table is soft, not glossed — as an absorption of pollen. The vases, too, are soft, blue and green and clear and multi-cast with flower-light. The background and foreground are translucent, dappled with changing color as if they were windows hung with rice paper. And then, there are the flowers themselves, hieroglyphic and dreamlike in their reality, arrow-leafed, scalloped, more insect than any body akin to us, shaped like trumpets and dragonflies or something tangled and ancient found at the bottom of the sea.
Though the flowers are recognizably flowers, the table a table, a vase a vase, the paintings somehow highlight the strangeness that is the aliveness of plants, that sense, when we look closely at leaves or flowers or stems that, though they can’t be anthropomorphized, though their shapes and colors don’t belong to us, each one seems startlingly conscious, an individual, a person. As if each flower had developed its colors as one does a self. As if each flower had a secret name. What is astonishing, and what the painting makes us aware of, is that they are here, living in their completely alien, though parallel realm, right next to us. As poet John Yau states in the preface to Morris Graves: Flower Paintings, “In this century, one which has seen the rise of both abstraction and mechanical reproduction, Graves does something wholly unexpected and ultimately profound: he uses paint to restore to flowers their specific identity. He does so by halting at the edge of both abstraction and exactitude, by concluding at the limits of sight…”
A curious notion: the edge of both abstraction and exactitude. Can it be regarded as the same edge? In my study of Graves’ paintings, I have been made aware of many other painters who turned to flowers at critical junctures in their lives, painters who were often known for their Modernist and post-Modernist experiments with materials and form. The Impressionist painter Édouard Manet, in the last months of his life, weak and bed-ridden with syphilis, painted sixteen small and remarkable canvases depicting the bouquets friends brought to cheer him in his illness.
His images came from another realm, that of dream or focused meditation, rather than the objective world. “The vigor of each flower is contained in a kind of gesture, the gesture of the form of the flower, as distinctive as a name, and the light they return to us is as particular to their form and color as the sense of likeness we experience in front of one of the pastels of his friends,” writes Andrew Jorge in his introduction to a monograph of these paintings. Piet Mondrian painted flowers before his signature experiments in abstraction, and then he returned to them again and again, creating his highly abstract Modernist grids in primary colors alongside his shaggy, shopworn chrysanthemums and top-heavy stalks of red amaryllis with blue stems. The “relationship between natural lyricism and geometrical abstraction” — a phrase used by critic David Shapiro in speaking of Mondrian — seems to be less oppositional than creative, the flower, in particular, offering an image that moves between both, movement we see in the work of many other modern painters, including Odilon Redon, who didn’t begin his floating bouquets until he was in his sixties; Georgia O’Keefe, whose larger than life flowers appeared well after her experiments in abstraction; even Pop artist Andy Warhol who silkscreened unnamed flowers, as well as soup cans and Coke bottles. We have been educated to think of the romantic and modern, the abstract and representational, the symbolic and real, as antithetical. Yet photographers, such as Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Robert Mapplethorpe, while at the same time giving us strikingly edgy and un-sentimentalized images of war, machinery, and sex, have also given us some of the most moving, intimate, and, revelatory images of flowers. What drew these experimental artists to depict Dying Sunflowers, chrysanthemums, amaryllis, and Heavy Roses, which are certainly traditional, even stereotypic emblems?
- Wolff, Theodore F. Morris Graves: Flower Paintings. with an introduction by John Yau. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994, n.p.
- Gordon, Robert and Andrew Forge. The Last Flowers of Manet. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Abradale Press/Abrams, 1999. 14.
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