IN PRAISE OF FLOWERS
Here in Rome, spring is changing fast into summer. A few weeks ago, nature rested in anticipation of the explosion that followed. For a couple of days the sky has now been boundlessly clear blue and the street around the corner, constantly lined with parked cars, has after its dreary everydayness been transformed into a fairy-tale land while the crowns of cherry trees are blooming. From the beginning of the street to its distant end the trees are gleaming with white and bright pink flowers, creating a continuous corridor of dazzling indulgence. Unfortunately, the abundance lasts only for a week or two, then the street becomes just as dreary as it usually is.
Likewise, our balcony baffles me with intensely yellow lemons and freesias, cerise-red cyclamen and multi-coloured pansies, while freshly green leaves are bursting out in the park below. Unfortunately, I am not an avid gardener taking excellent care of flowers and plants. I would like to be like that, like my wife is and my parents and grandfather were. Though, maybe my father was more like me. He mostly left responsibility, as well as the hard and tiresome gardening to my mother, while he himself enjoyed the results, or sat indoors browsing in seed catalogues and floras.
When I several years ago lived in Paris I used to at this same time of the year stroll in the iris-garden of the Jardin des Plantes. It boasted with an incomprehensibly wide variety of blossoming iris. I often sat there for a long time watching the flowers, maybe I came to think of how it once was told how they got their name.
When Iris, who served as the messenger of the gods, walked down to the ground along her rainbow, the soles of her feet became coloured by its sheen and when she stride across the earth´s flowering meadows iris flowers sprang up in her tracks. In his Metamorphoses, this ancient book that still is fresh as dew, filled as it is with glorious landscape - and flower depictions, the ever-so elegant Ovid tells us how Iris, on behalf of Juno, descends to earth to seek out the god Somnus in his palace, in order to ask him to let to let Alcyone dream of her husband's impending death:
Juno had spoken. Then Iris dressed herself in her cloak
of a thousand colours, she painted the sky with the arch of
and made it as she had been told for the cloud-wrapped
palace of Somnus. Picture a long, deep cave, not far from Cimmerian
bored in in a mountain, where indolent Sleep has his hearth
and his home.
The iris's complicated corolla fascinated early Renaissance grand masters like Hugo van der Goes and Albrecht Dürer who excelled in reproducing its diverse colours and shades.
In Jardin de Plantes I also came to think about Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759 - 1840), le Raphaël des fleurs, who was employed as “plant painter” by Académie de sciences and later as professor of “plant imagery” of les Jardines du Roi and Muséum national d´histoire naturelle.
Considered to be quite ugly and uneducated, throughout his life his writing and spelling remained awkward, Redouté was nevertheless a charming man, employed as a drawing teacher for Marie-Antoinette, the empresses Joséphine and Marie Louise, as well as France's last king – Louis Philippe I. He passed undisturbed through the Ancien Régime, la Terreur, Napoleon's Empire and the reintroduction of monarchy, quietly painting his more than 2000 exquisite flower aquarelles, well at ease in exquisite parlours, academies and in his cosy home with wife and two daughters.
Every Redouté watercolor is perfect. Of the 162 rose plants he reproduced in his masterpiece Les Roses, each rose is depicted differently in terms of colour, angles and shadows. The depictions are exquisitely detailed, crisp and endlessly diverse with an occasional shimmering dew drop or a butterfly, varied leaf twists and a clear light falling from different angles. You never get tired of watching them.
It is a grand, aesthetic pleasure to be immersed in all this perfection. I understand why such a fastidious connoisseur as Napoleon's wayward wife Joséphine wanted Redouté to depict all plants in her perfectly groomed flowerbeds and the large greenhouses within her rural estate Malmaison, so she could enjoy the sight of them even when autumn and winter had obliterated them.
That was the reason why I went to Malmaison, just outside Paris, but the greenhouses are now gone and the gardens a sad shadow of their former selves. The "Palace" was not at all as I had imagined. The interior gave an impression of being some kind of counterfeit backdrop, cheap and overcrowded.
However, let us now enjoy Redouté's paintings. He provided brilliantly detailed depictions of the exotic plants that botanists and explorers brought to France from distant lands. The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, during which Redouté were active, constituted a Golden Age for botany, not only in France but throughout Europe.
Consider his depiction of a Metrosyderos from one of Malmaison's greenhouses. It is a tall plant, it may be up to three meters high, its natural habitat is in Australia and New Zealand. It is does not appear so distinctively in the reproduction below, but Redouté has with great skill and patience produced how the small, fuzzy flowers sit closely lined up in a spiral twisting around the stem. Every little flower straw, every pistil is painted so it together with all the others form an almost transparent mist, while the lancet-like leaves shift in different light shades.
As in all his flower paintings, Redouté make use of an air perspective where objects closest to us have darker shades than those wich are is farther away. He thus achieves a strong sense of depth, a three-dimensionality that makes us perceive the shape of the Metrosydero's flower wreath. It is popularly called Bottle Cleaner and as such it is perfectly rounded. In his teachings Redouté pointed out that in any plant reproduction you must strive to achieve three criteria – scientific precision, measured composition of the entire image surface and perfect colouring and shading of each individual detail of the aquarelle.
Redouté depicts Heliconia and Parrot Flowers, which exotic peculiarities fascinate me every time we are visiting our second home in the Dominican Republic.
When I look at these exotic flowers I am reminded of Redouté's great admirer, the American bird painter John James Audobon (1785 - 1851), who wrote about Redouté:
His flowers are grouped with peculiar taste, well drawn and precise in the outlines and coloured with a pure brilliancy that depicts nature incomparably better than I ever saw it before.
In his depictions of birds Audobon is at least as skilled and fascinating as Redouté. Audobon depicted how hummingbirds swarmed around intricate flowers and leaves, just as I have seen them do among the plants around our home in Guavaberry. Audubon is known for his efforts to depict every bird within its habitat and his plants and flowers are almost as exquisitely rendered as those of Redouté.
Often, Audobon adds dramatic effects, such as how a pair of mockingbirds are defending their nest against a viscous, threatening rattlesnake.
And I can almost hear the chattering of a flock of Audobon's parrots.
His corpse devouring black vultures, zoopiliotes as they are called on the island, are so spotlessly and beautifully crafted as if it were an odalisque painted by Ingres instead of the dirty and smelly scavengers vultures really are.
Redouté was also a scientist as may be noticed through how he in every detail describes a banana plant and its fruits. He does not only intend to satisfy his customers' taste for exoticism and aesthetic perfection, but does in collaboration with well-known botanists complement his watercolours with in-depth texts about the peculiarities of the plant species, their scientific classification, habitat, kinship and benefits.
The same goes for Redouté's depictions of European fruits, such as these appetizing peaches and cherries.
While depicting domesticated fruits and berries, Redouté does not at all overlook wild specimens like strawberries and raspberries, which he renders with the same scrupulous and impressive attention. As a keen stroller through the wilderness around our Swedish home I am of course annoyed by the ever present raspberry bushes that with their hooked, small thorns cling to and scrapes me, though it cannot be denied that their berries are delicious, filled as they are with fresh summer sweetness.
Thus, it is not only refined garden plants and exotic flowers that Redouté depicts with loving care, even fungi and weeds he is able to provide with a distinctive greatness. He perceives the beauty of the unappreciated dandelion and when I look at his depiction of it I am reminded of the Swedish troubadour Carl Anton's homage to this flower in a summer song he called About Dandelions and the Smell of Tar. A translation of a few lines could be something like:
I let all my dandelions live and grow,
though I know they are weeds and ought to be killed.
Though it´s nice to remember how small suns were aglow
in the meadows that winter has chilled.
Redouté's flowers bring me back to my childhood meadows. As I write this, I remember how I as a twelve-years-old boy was lying within a flowery slope just below my parents' summer cottage. The sun warmed, insects swirled around, the fragrance of greenery was all around me and I thought, as if I was carrying out some sort of experiment for the future: “I shall remember this moment.” And I actually do remember. After more than fifty years I can still evoke that particular moment. The experiment succeeded. How I lay there watching everything growing around me, as in Dürer's aquarelle of a tuft of grass. “As above so below” – the immensity in the diminutive. William Blake´s magnificent and unforgettable poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
Aand a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
and Eternity in an hour.
A sophisticated simplicity as the immediacy of Redoutés bluebell:
Like Redouté´s Lily of the Valley:
There will soon be lots of those flowers in the grove below our house in Bjärnum. A fragrant excess that also brings me back to my childhood. How I with my mother on our bicycles rode out and into a forest grove to pick large bouquets with Lilies of the Valley. How many they were, how easy it was were to pick them up. You just had to pull the slender stems and they came straight up, their abundance never came to an end, there were thousands of them.
We brought them home and their strong fragrance filled the apartment, though not as heavy and intoxacting as the one spread by the Lilium Candidum, one among the true flower aristocrats, far from my childhood´s Göinge meadows we find such lilies on frescoes from Egypt, Mycenae and Crete. The Greeks described the song of the muses as soft lilies and told us the myth about how the great, white lilies were born. When Hera throw Hercules, Zeus bastard, far away from her breast and how her milk dispersed across the night sky, creating the Milky Way, while the drops that fell to the ground became lilies. This while Jewish myths tell us that lilies came from the ground where it had been hit by tears shed by Eve when she was expelled from Garden of Eden.
The lily has since then been depicted as a flower of motherhood, virginity and death. They are also symbols of the strength and confidence that can found in faith.
However, it was perhaps rather the Lily of the Valley that Jesus spoke of when he stated:
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:28-34).
Lilies are truly magnificent and so is the glowing amaryllis, born when the young shepherd Alteo shot an arrow straight into the heart of the nymph Amaryllis and the wound opened up like a gleaming star. The Greek word, αμαρύλλις, amarýllis means “sparkling”.
Amaryllis is a winter flower, which after being hidden in cellars is awakened from the dark and then opens up in all its glory. As in the Swedish 18th century poet Carl Michael Bellman's beautiful song About a Fishing Trip. For sure was the classically-educated Bellman well aware of the fact that to Theocritus and Virgil, “Amaryllis” was tantamount to a frivolous shepherdess:
Through the still bracken,
soft airs swell;
Iris, all dightly,
vestired so brightly,
wood and dell.
A morning song that makes me remeber early, mist-covered mornings when I went down to the lake in the hope of catching a pike, just as in Bellman´s song. Though I have never caught any.
As domesticated and refined as the amaryllis became over the years, even more than that has the tulip become by being bred, crossed, assorted and cultivated in Persian and Ottoman palace gardens. Its name comes from the Persian word for turban. For centuries, the turban has for many Muslims been considered as a sign of high social standing, knowledge and piety. The Prophet carried a turban, whether it was black or white has been the subject of many learned disputations. Perhaps the turbans adorning Ottoman headstones may be considered as tulips as well, resting in themselves awaiting the Day of Judgment, when they will open their petals to receive the heavenly grace.
Tulips have by Sufi poets been described as images of the human soul, which like a goblet is ready to receive heavenly grace, often likened to wine, as by Shams al-din Mohammad Hafez:
Cypress and Tulip and sweet Eglantine,
of these the tale from lip to lip is sent;
Washed by three cups, oh Saki, of thy wine,
my song shall turn upon this argument.
Spring, bride of all the meadows, rises up,
clothed in her ripest beauty: fill the cup!
Of Spring's handmaidens runs this song of mine.
Classical European writers do not seem to have known anything about the tulip, it appeared during the Renaissance and soon became an object for admiration and desire, which in Holland evolved into a formal hysteria, the so-called Tulip Mania, reaching its peak 1633 - 1637. During the last year a bulb of a specimen called Semper Augustus sold for thirty thousand guilders. For that price you could buy three sturdy houses in Amsterdam's most prominent neighbourhood, the amount is said to have amounted to two hundred average annual salaries.
The Crown Imperial grows wild in Asia´s interior and was early on brought to European gardens. It is said to have gotten its name due to its resemblance of Byzantine imperial crowns.
Of course there are several legends surrounding this strange flower. One of them tells us that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, all flowers bowed their stems in reverence to the Son of God, only the proud, white, Crown Imperial remained standing straight. However, when Jesus rebuked it, the Crown Imperial blushed out of deep-felt shame and its disgrace has since then forever remained trough the colour of its flowers.
Otherwise, the peony has been the imperial plant above all others. The Chinese have been breeding masters of everything from dogs and goldfish to plants. For more than 1500 years, peonies have in China been cultivated as ornamental and medicinal plants. Shrub peonies were only allowed to be grown in imperial gardens and were thus called Emperors of the Plants, this while perennial, “fragrant” peonies could be cultivated by mandarins and imperial officials and were therefore called “Imperial ministers”. The practice of cultivating and refining peonies soon spread to Japan, where, unlike the case in China where "bulky, well-filled" peonies were favoured, the Japanese preferred those peopnies that were "simple and half-filled".
Otherwise, it was the chrysanthemum that became the Japanese favourite flower above all others, cultivated in a large variety of shapes, colours and general looks. The Japanese imperial seat became known as the Chrysanthemum Throne and Japan's Imperial Seal has the shape of a stylized chrysanthemum, while one of the Shinto religion's five sacred festivals is the Chrysanthemum Day, Kiku no Sekku, dating back to 910 CE.
The refined Japanese high culture and the almost unimaginable brutality of the Imperial Army and the Japanese occupying authorities during World War II astonished the US Army. After they had bombed Tokyo to pieces and through their atom bombs wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans finally forced Japan to surrender. The US victors gave the anthropologist Ruth Benedict the task of explaining of the "Japanese national mentality". The result was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, a book that never has been out of print since and which has been both hailed and criticized. The latter reactions are based on the issue whether it is possible to make generalizations about a “national character”, especially if the author is not raised within the distinctive culture s/he describes and is thus not thoroughly knowledgeable about all aspects of the unique language and customs that are coming under scrutiny.
However, a Japanese author who became fascinated by and reacted strongly to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was Yukio Mishima. He agreed with Benedict about the synthesis she made of aesthetic nature worship and ritual, violent action, regarding them as expressions of a unique Japanese pursuit of self-realization and patriotism. Consciously and systematically Mishima made an effort to transform himself into a tragic and romantic heroic figure, who ultimately, through the shocking effect caused by a public, ritual suicide, would be able to “wake up” the Japanese people and make it realize what its true destiny really was.
Through his grotesque seppuku, through which a samurai cuts up his stomach with a knife and afterwards is beheaded by a loyal apprentice, Mishima wanted to provide his compatriots with a heroic example that could help them to avoid disappearing into a grey, everyday mist of mediocrity, characterized by a falsely perceived well-being based on apathetic consumerism. Through his melodramatic self-sacrifice, Mishima tried to realize an "anti-civilization" drama in accordance with what he assumed to have been the "unifying and consciousness-creating" rites of an agricultural, nature-worshiping people.
On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four his disciples entered the eastern Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Forces. After back-binding the regiment´s commander Mishima delivered a speech from his balcony, trying to convince the utterly surprised and perplexed soldiers, who watched him from below, to rebel and restore the Empire. After being booed at, Mishima returned to the commander´s office. In front of the gagged and bound officer he then committed a somewhat bungled seppuku. It all turned out to be pathetic flop, completely different from the masterpieces that several of Mishima's novels actually are, through their exquisite language, psychological insights and sensitive, highly visual descriptions.
Mishima´s stories are a blend of Western and Japanese inspiration, spiced with their author's self-disclosure as a riven, homosexual aesthete, being plagued in a limbo characterized by inner contemplation and an intense longing for powerful, redeeming action. Like in the movies of his compatriot Nagisa Oshima, Mishima´s literary output features an exquisite, aesthetic mix with brutality, often with sado-masochistic exaggerations. Mishima's remarkably intense writing is indeed a symbiosis between the chrysanthemum and the sword.
From the Far East comes also the highly refined camellia, which was brought to Europe in the early eighteenth century by a German missionary named Georg Josef Kamel. In the Jardin de Plantes, Redouté depicted several specimens of this extremely popular flower. While working as a gardener in the same place Friedrich Jacob Seidel was drafted to Napoleon´s Imperial Army. Seidel fled to his native Germany, with three of Joséphine´s camellias in his rucksack. Back in Dresden Seidel established, together with his brother, a successful business with the camellias as the base. In 1820 the Seidel catalogue listed six types of camellia. The firm still exists, it is now based in Grüngräbschen and specializes in the breeding and sale of rhododendron and azalea.
It was particularly the white camellia that through Empress Joséphine´s great interest became a very popular fashion flower all through the 19th century. An enthusiasm that increased even more through the Alexandre Dumas´s (fils) popular novel The Lady with the Camellias about the beautiful, reformed courtesan Marguerite. Through elaborate machinating the father of the main protagonist, Armand, succeeds in convincing the by now very honourable Marguerite that his son deceives her with another woman. Marguerite thus avoids the unfortunate Armand, who finds comfort with the woman his father wants him to marry. Too late Armand realizes that his father has fooled both him and his beloved Marguerite and returns to her only to find that Marguerite is dying from tuberculosis. The novel inspired a wealth of dramas, ballets, movies and above all Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata.
La Dame aus Camélia´s blend of desire, innocence and tragic death lead me to Redouté's depictions of gentians.
Their dark blue, mysteriously dense colour seems to return in Dante Gabriel Rosetti's painting of Proserpina, Mistress of the Underworld, who in one hand holds a cracked, glowing pomegranate.
The colour of the fruit is acclaimed in the Bible. The High Priest's mantle is coloured like the flesh of a pomegranate and the same hue covered the walls of the inner sanctuary of King Solomon's temple. The crown of this wise king also reflected this fruit and he considered it to be a sign of the Grace of God. In his Song of Songs, Solomon likened the colour of the cheeks of his beloved to the inner of a pomegranate.
In his collection of poems, Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which D.H. Lawrence wrote while living in San Gervasio outside of Florence and during his sojourns in Taormina, at Ceylon and in Australia until he published it in 1923, he does intensely, in great and inspirational detail describe flowers, animals and birds. He succeeds, like Ovid, to blend in lush depictions of nature with classic mythology, as well as parables and legends of his own invention. However, his selection of poems did not include Bavarian Gentians. It is possible that he originally intended these dark verses to be part of his Birds, Beasts and Flowers, though for some reason Lawrence changed his mind and the poem was found among papers he left behind after his death in 1930.
Perhaps Lawrence's qualms were due to his stormy relationship with the temperamental Frieda von Richthofen, who was born in Lorraine and not Bavaria. Frieda had left husband and children to be with Lawrence. Even though he had initially been passionately captivated by Frieda, "My Queen Bee", Lawrence gradually changed into becoming an almost unbearably self-centred and unsympathetic family tyrant. A famous scene unfolded on Lawrence's publisher's lawn when the famous author forced Frieda to bend down on her knees to pick up a butt-end he had thrown to the ground while humming a folk song with the wording: "If you have lived with an artist, all other men are so boring.” All patience disappeared from Frieda and her suppressed anger exploded, she grabbed a clay pot and crushed it against the skull of the surprised Lawrence.
Nevertheless, their relationship continued until Lawrence's death and despite his egoism and recurring bitter moods and misanthropy, it cannot be denied that Lawrence was a great poet and it is undoubtedly his love of Frieda which he is describing in the posthumous poem:
Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torch-like with the smoking blueness
of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps
give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic and pierced with the passion of dense
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding
darkness on the lost bride and her groom.
I have become quite tired of sitting and writing in my murky magazine and am now going out into the spring sunshine.
Abbs, Annabel (2018) Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley. London: Two Roads. Bell, Gertrud (1995) The Hafez Poems of Gertrud Bell with the Original Persian on the Facing Page. Bethesda MD: Ibex Publishers. Bellman, Carl Michael (1990) Fredman´s Epistles & Songs, translated by Paul Britten Austin. Stockholm: Proprius Förlag. Benedict, Ruth Fulton (1989) Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Mariner Books. Lawrence, David Herbert (1994) The Complete Poems. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. Nathan, John (2000) Mishima: A Biography. Boston MA: Da Capo Press. Ovidius Naso, Publius (2004) Metmorphoses: A New Verse Translation by David Raeburn. London: Penguin Classics. Taylor, Judith M. (2014) Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders of the Past. Athens OH: Swallow Press. van Druten, Terry (ed.) (2013) Pierre-Joseph Redouté: Botanical Artist of the Court of France. Rotterdam: Teylers Museum Publishers.