Depicting worlds of ephemeral beauty

«Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers and never succeeding,» the painter Marc Chagall once said. In the eyes of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, flowers provided unparalleled inspiration. Yet flower paintings also became associated with the outmoded, decorative art of bourgeois sentimentalism. «Flowers in Contemporary Art,» an exhibition currently on display at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum, overturns any such bias and reveals the rich symbolism of flowers in art through a selection of works by more than 40 Greek and international artists. The exhibition – jointly curated by Eleni Kipreos, director of the Nees Morfes Gallery, and Stavros Tsigoglou, a medical doctor who is also a writer on art and a curator – evokes a range of moods and impressions. Introspection and at times even sorrow predominate, yet there are also moments of sheer optical pleasure and carefree happiness. Andy Warhol’s fiery red and fuschia mixed-media painting of daisies is set off against Kiki Smith’s feminist floor installation of mutilated iron body parts around the metal petals of a huge flower. The images of a smiling young girl wearing a flower in her hair in Giorgos Vakirtzis’s large paper poster is presented close to «Still Life with a Shark,» an ominous and slightly melancholy work by Lucas Samaras. The works in the exhibition are both a celebration of life and a reminder of mortality. They bring to mind the frailty of human nature, our existential quests but also our deep-seated need for hope and rejuvenation. The depiction of flowers in the works presented symbolize «beauty,» «wear» and «threat,» the three key concepts that Eleni Kipreos addresses in the exhibition. Among the «classics,» one will find the red carnations in the political protest works that Vlassis Caniaris made in the early 1970s or the heavy impasto paintings of the late Thanos Tsingos, whose work has become associated with the depiction of flowers. There are also the artificial tulips in a work by Valerios Caloutsis from the late 1970s, a work that recalls the ecological concerns of the time. One of the most evocative works of the exhibition is Helen Chadwick’s «Piss Flowers,» an installation of an underlying sexuality and femininity from the early 1990s. Peter Land’s pastel watercolor drawing resembles an image taken from children’s book illustrations and is unusual for combining innocence with a sense of the ominous. The exhibition takes the viewer through alternating moods. According to both curators, flowers have become a popular subject in exhibitions on modern and contemporary art. Examples to this end include «Flower Power,» held in Lille two years ago, as well as an exhibition that London’s Tate Gallery held to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society and an exhibition at Basel that traced the depiction of flowers from the time of Van Gogh to the present. The Benaki exhibition continues that trend. It is also the first to focus exclusively on contemporary art. «Flowers in Contemporary Art» at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos annex (138 Pireos, 210.3453.338), to August 27. The depiction of flowers in the history of art During their research, curators Eleni Kipreos and Stavros Tsigoglou gathered plenty of material and decided to co-author and publish, in collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Korres Books, a separate edition that examines the works in the exhibition but also goes much further into how the theme of flowers appears throughout the history of art. Tsigoglou follows the entire course of the genre from the first still lifes of 17th century Dutch painting to works from the 1990s to today by artists such as Gilbert and George, Mark Quinn, Anya Gallaccio, Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. Written in a flowing style and in non-chronological order, which gives it a contemporary edge, his essay deals with an impressively large number of artists and styles. Separate chapters examine impressionism, the flower paintings of Andy Warhol and their appropriation by younger artists, the pop-inspired works by artists such as Tom Wesselmann, Jeff Koons and James Rosenquist, or the theme of flowers in the photos that Robert Frank produced in the 50s. He points out the recurrence of the theme of flowers and eroticism in 20th century Japanese art. Flowers in conceptual photography, body art and the performance arts, the work of the «new British art» scene of the 90s are other subjects that provide an engaging and lively account of the representation of flowers in art. In her survey on the theme of flowers in the history of Greek art, Kipreos observes that unlike seascapes or portraiture, still lifes of flowers occupy a minimal place in Greek painting. Kipreos also refers to the history of floristry and garden design, both in Greece and abroad. An ardent flower enthusiast herself, Kipreos also includes a chapter with the symbolism attached to each of more than 20 flowers.