Why You Need to Know the History of Flowers in Art and Photography
Flowers have had a presence in art for millennia. In this article, we’ll have a look at the history of flowers and some photographic principals that can be drawn from the historical use of flowers in visual culture.
Over the course of visual arts, colors have become embedded with a rich symbolic history.
The pairing of colors and flowers in both nature and art has influenced the reading of floral imagery throughout history. For example, the Ancient Egyptians often painted artistic renderings of the blue and the white lotus. However, the blue lotus was used as symbol of rebirth whereas the while lotus represented innocence and modesty.
In Renaissance artworks, a red carnation was symbolic of love. A pink carnation, on the other hand, stood as a symbol of marriage or betrothal, while in Japan, yellow chrysanthemums have historically signified the Emperor and Imperial family whereas white chrysanthemums indicate purity, truth or grief.
Melding color psychology with floral symbolism touches on our perceptions of visual art history. This is especially relevant if you are presenting your images as a conceptual artwork or as a gift with a heartfelt message layered in meaning. If you are looking to convey peace or emotional depth, try photographing blue flowers.
Incorporating yellow flowers into a photograph stimulates an energetic reading and sympathy is conveyed with white floral blooms.
You can also alter the color of flowers completely in post production, or strip it of its colorful meaning by working in black and white. This draws greater attention to a flower’s form rather than its biological pigmentation.
The language of flowers
Over time, cultures have linked flowers with specific ideas as a means of communication. Flowers like the lily and rose are used as symbols in the Hebrew Bible. This is especially the case in the Song of Solomon.
An age-old art form in Japan, the practice of Hanakotoba involves the pairing of flowers with meaning in the hopes of conveying emotion without the use of words. And for the first half of the 19th century, floriography was hugely popular in France, Britain and in the United States. Although many floriography dictionaries differed in meaning, some consensus on particular floral associations has prevailed in Western popular culture today.
Red roses (and their thorns), for example, continue to symbolize the duality of pain and pleasure in romantic love. The red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance of the fallen in war and white lilies, often used at funerals, signify sympathy and purity.
By utilizing the popular associations of flowers in a given culture, you can communicate ideas to a viewer through the photography of floral blooms.
Physicality defines the physical features that make up a floral bloom. For example, the textural qualities of a bloom influence our ability to visually feel the make-up of a flower. Aspects like the heaviness of a flower head can add visual weight to an image and the direction of a bloom can convey movement.
Varying dimensions of the flowers in Still Life With Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert cultivate energy and directionality, while the whimsical dimensions of the iris petals in Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises burst with movement and spontaneity. The repetition of Renoir’s Bouquet of Roses reinforces the soft quality of the rose heads, each vying for a place within the artist’s rendering, while Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia Blossom features a single magnolia, emphasizing the delicate membrane of a lone flower.
Research into flower usage in art history will help you to achieve the right balance of physical characteristics within a floral photograph.
According to Tate.org “abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colors, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.”
Abstract flowers in art are exemplified by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. A leading figure in American Modernism, O’Keeffe pushed the boundaries of art by combining abstraction and representation. O’Keeffe’s close-up paintings of flowers allowed viewers to appreciate intimate forms from a fresh perspective.
In the same way, photographing abstracted flowers cultivates a sense of intimacy. Abstraction provides the opportunity for viewers to experience the properties of flowers through the eyes of the photographer.
You can achieve floral abstraction through the use of various photographic techniques. Camera movement, cropping or creative macro photography are some of the ways a photographer can create intriguing abstracted floral imagery.
With thousands of types of floral blooms spread around the globe, flowers have caught the eye of artists for millennia. Familiarizing yourself with the history of flowers in art can be beneficial in a number of ways. A knowledge of colors and their use in conjunction with flowers is a useful tool in conveying emotional depth.
Knowing the history of flowers in art and culture can open more channels of communication between the photographer and the viewer. Training the eye to assess the physicality of different flowers allows for well-considered image-making.
And abstraction can introduce a unique perspective to your floral photography.