Do real artists still paint flowers?

Patrick Cullen explains the enduring appeal of paintings requiring only to be looked at

I showed some paintings of flowers I had done recently to a friend. He said he quite liked them but they appeared to create a problem for him. He seemed to feel that flowers were no longer a subject for serious artists, more one for Sunday painters. Yes, he agreed, there had been wonderful art in this genre in the past, but surely art progresses, certain things cease to be part of the zeitgeist. Shouldn’t a contemporary artist address subjects relevant to the times we now live in?

This set me thinking. Two things: when and in what sense were flowers ever relevant? And what kind of pressure do we artists put on ourselves in order to live up to that title: a serious artist? What if I’d been a song writer or a poet and had shared something new I’d written, would the question of whether it was art or not have even crossed my friend’s mind?

There is a problem with the English use of the words “art” and “artist” which has different consequences for those working in the visual arts than for those artists who don’t, e.g. writers, musicians etc. A writer, novelist, playwright, poet etc., would usually define what they did by one of these terms. Musicians, composers, singers, instrumentalists (pianist, etc) similarly. Unless they have the massive ego of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, they would probably not chose to call themselves an artist (or Prince for that matter). This leaves the judgement as to whether what they produce is art to others, and frees them of any responsibility to always aim that high. But painters, sculptors etc. are automatically enlisted as artists and what they do art, because of the two distinct uses of these terms in our language. Art is both a highly qualified description of work in any creative medium implying a level of importance or seriousness and possibly aesthetic beauty. It is also used as a value free description of everything painters and sculptors etc. make. The same anomaly applies to the word “artist”.

This linguistic quirk puts painters and the rest in a subtly different relationship to “Art with a capital A” than their writer or musician counterparts. This had something to do with how my friend related to my flower paintings. If, thereby, a bit more pressure is on painters to live up to the artist epithet at all times, another pressure must surely result if the way “serious art” is defined in our culture undergoes a shift as it has of late in the visual arts. If we judge what our society deems to be important art by the winners of our leading art prize, the Turner, then surely many painters, let alone a painter of flowers, must have wondered from time to time if what they do is still regarded as art at all. After all only two painters have won it in the last twenty seven years and only a handful have even made the short list, this for the prize named after Britain’s supreme painter.

But wait a minute. In 2005 the Turner Prize did actually short list Gillian Carnegie, someone who not only applies paint to canvas but works in a broadly realistic manner. If that wasn’t enough she even paints flowers and rather beautifully too. Somebody was surely having a laugh. Given the Turner’s knack for controversy perhaps it was done with half an eye for the publicity that it provoked. But why should it have created such a stir? Because contemporary artists are assumed to be in the business of challenging such things, “deconstructing” or subverting the idea of painting anything that presents such an obvious, clichéd idea of beauty as flowers. And of course, as it turned out, according to the judges this is exactly what Carnegie had been doing all along even whilst painting them rather reverentially. To quote one of them, Louisa Buck: “What looks like conventional paintings are anything but. They are actually conceptually rich; they interrogate painting; they make us think about how and why we look at it”. And in the Tate catalogue for that year’s prize: “Carnegie works within traditional categories of painting … yet while apparently following the conventions of representational painting (she) challenges its established languages and unsettles its assumptions.” The critics agreed. Marcus Field in the Independent: “Her flowers are not to be confused with straightforward representations of the amateur kind, but are academic investigations of a much higher intellectual order.” Or Karen Wright, sometime editor of Modern Painters: “She’s a painter who talks conceptually … she works in traditional genres but what she does is unload and reload them.” (Only Charles Darwent was scathing, announcing it as further proof that painting is dead.)

Nobody was able to describe convincingly how these innocuous paintings achieved all this, but the message was clear: whatever Carnegie thought she was up to, her work was chosen because of all the challenging, conceptual talking, interrogating, investigating, unloading and reloading etc., it succeeded in doing. Putting aside the question of how much academic investigation a painting can really undertake on its own, there can be little doubt that without all that intellectual baggage, real or imagined, Carnegie would not have caught the judges’ eye. Implicitly, had she been reckoned to have painted flowers in a more straightforward way, celebrating their beauty and fragility in the manner of a Bonnard or a Manet, rather than at one and the same time challenging and subverting such notions, she wouldn’t have had a cat’s chance in hell of making that shortlist. Which should not really surprise us given the current dominance of all things conceptual; what is interesting is how much in the process is being dismissed as amateurish or as not serious art.

In the past many of the great painters turned at times to the subject of flowers. Each found their particular language but the spirit in which they did so was one of accepting the natural beauty of this subject and celebrating it in a way that brought pleasure. Great originality of approach marked out the best of these but the idea that they should interrogate why artists paint this subject in the first place would not have occurred to them. Van Gogh thought and wrote a lot about painting and waxed passionately about sunflowers, irises, almond blossom, indeed about most of his subjects, but the thought of him ruminating on the psycho-social constructs determining his aesthetic evaluation of flowers or their relevance to the socio-political matrix of his day is ludicrous. He was highly intelligent but not, fortunately for us, that sort of intellectual. He painted flowers because he loved them, intensely, with something approaching a religious fervor. He was so moved by their beauty that he felt compelled to try and distill something of his feelings in paintings. In the process he was doing something much more interesting than “following the conventions of representational painting”. Nor did he confine himself to conventionally beautiful motifs. For clearly painting his feelings in relation to his subject he is sometimes called the first expressionist. Many artists and non artists still feel something like this, perhaps not as intensely as Van Gogh or possessing his genius, but they relate to his instinctive urge to paint in response to the things he saw around him. This is not sentimental twaddle but a profound human urge going back to the cave paintings. Even though expressionism as a term arrived late, all good painting includes a degree of expressionism, in the case of figurative art because it involves the expression of the artist’s response to a subject.

During the age of romanticism Keats feared that science’s explanation of the rainbow would rob it of its power to astonish us. Perhaps he was right and wrong; wrong because the beauty of the rainbow does not depend on our being ignorant of its causes. A child is amazed by the rainbow not because it hasn’t learnt the science behind it yet, but because it’s so stunning. But Keats was right in so far as a lot of knowledge and intellectual thought can come between us and the immediate sensation of seeing something freshly. Because we think we’ve understood it we forget that the miracle of the rainbow does not reside in an idea or a question (how did it get there?) but in its sheer visual impact. Our capacity to be moved by beauty is not really something science has a great deal to say about, yet for centuries it has been the mainstay of humanity’s interest in the visual arts. We tend to scoff at rainbows and flowers (along with sunsets), but these are just the most popular examples of a million natural phenomena, including the human face and figure, which can inspire wonder if our cynicism allows it, and provide subjects for artists. Nor, crucially, need they be beautiful. The best art achieves beauty where least expected. Like a poet an artist must fashion his raw material to create the visual equivalents of eloquence, rhythm and rhyme. Fortunately there’s also no shortage of desire for art that can revive jaded eyes with new ways of looking at the things we see but fail to notice all around us.

The problem with conceptual art is that although at its best it can make us question things by provoking thought in surprising ways, it also tends to divert us from this desire for a direct line to the way another person sees something, as opposed to an idea or concept they may have had. The latter is generally better served by the written word. At its worst conceptualism drags us into a whole lot of academic commentary about the philosophy and language of art. All the praise for Carnegie’s work cited above was invariably of this art about art persuasion. This is what academics do and it has its place, but when artists do it, it doesn’t make for good art. I hope Carnegie is much freer of all this theorizing when she paints than those judges and critics imagined. This is not a plea for art with no intellectual content, but a plea to redress the balance in favour of art that is primarily about looking. Looking intently without immediately interrogating is less easy than it sounds.

Prior to the 20th century most artists, highly intelligent though many have been, did not tend, with one or two notable exceptions, to be overly intellectual in their approach to painting and there is a reason for this. It’s not unrelated to the fact that even as late as fifty years ago you didn’t need A levels to go to art school and there was no written element to the course. The teaching for your diploma in art and design was mainly done in the life room and what was taught there was largely craft based: you learnt how to draw and paint through learning how to look and observe. The reasons for all these things lay in the preeminence of looking over intellectualizing in how people then considered art. Duchamp changed all that of course, but despite the current dominance of conceptualism, it is not typical of the visual art that people throughout history and in different civilizations have tended to value. The beautiful images, icons, paintings, sculptures, precious objects, stained glass and so on that have been treasured through the ages speak not so much to the intellect but directly through the eyes  to the emotions and to the instinctive response of the mind to an aesthetic experience. This kind of art, much older and with a broader appeal than conceptual art will ever have, concerns itself with people’s desire to have a direct and intense communion with an object of beauty in which for a moment the chatter of the intellect is suspended. We have little difficulty recognizing this when we want to listen to great music with total attention, but it’s something as a culture we find harder with the visual. The art that can achieve this may well at times turn to traditional subjects, flowers even, but is not likely to be amateur or conservative, still less clichéd or unoriginal. Rather the reverse. Given our resistance to being astonished by anything, reheated recipes will not do.

Turner himself was rather partial to sunsets. He must have painted hundreds if not thousands; not thank goodness because he wanted to conduct an academic enquiry into some artistic genre but because he wanted the world to see sunsets through his eyes, to see a greater drama, sunsets as heraldic conquerors, blooded tragedians, burning martyrs and pale ghosts. Like Van Gogh, but half a century earlier, he was also an expressionist. His sunsets though closely observed are never dry records of an actual event. His abiding popularity points to a continuing appetite for art that unashamedly celebrates the poetry in nature in a unique and original fashion. That this kind of painting should die is no more likely than the death of poetry itself.

If you paint and are capable on occasions of being amazed by flowers, I defy you not to paint them. They’re bloody hard. How to be original about something painted so often? Yet flowers offer a remarkably diverse motif offering every shape and colour and a whole world of flora “personalities”. They’ll certainly open up your palette. Of course they’re infuriatingly pretty, but if you can find a way through that they are and will always be a brilliant challenge for artists in any era. Let others decide if in doing so you’ve made art, you’re more likely to if you remember you’re first and foremost a painter.