Flower Myth is the title of a new exhibition at the renowned Fondation Beyeler near Basel, exploring the significance of the flower motif in modern art.
The old adage, "when a rose is not a rose", is exquisitely illustrated on canvas by artists such as van Gogh, O’Keefe and Klee as well as in photographs and installations.
There are about 150 works in the exhibition Flower Myth: van Gogh to Jeff Koons, highlighting the transformation of flowers when they - according to the curators - "meet the radical art of modernism".
"We were interested in showing the development of the flower [motif in art] from the late 19th century to Jeff Koons and some contemporaries," Ulf Küster, one of the two curators of the exhibition, told swissinfo.
Küster maintains that flowers have always fascinated artists owing to their pureness, and provided a wonderful way for them to express themselves.
"Any painter reveals his true self by painting flowers," Küster explains.
The exhibition was set up in cooperation with the Danish Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, where it was a great success during its five month run which ended in January.
Life and death
"The Louisiana Museum was more focused on classical modern art and contemporary art [while] we focus more on classical modern art. [We added works by] artists like Paul Klee or Max Beckmann who made very interesting statements in terms of flowers in the history of art," Küster says.
While considered first and foremost for their beauty, Küster says the works in the exhibition also show flowers’ dark side - the swift transition from life to death.
Küster says they chose Flower Myth as the title for the exhibition because a Paul Klee painting by the same name perfectly conveyed the essence of the show.
"We think this painting is a metaphor for reproduction and fertilisation. It is the beginning of the reproduction process that leads to new life. But new life means death as well, so that’s all about [the essentials of] life," Küster remarks.
He added that nature and life were constantly changing while art tried to preserve a moment for eternity. And by painting flowers - part of ever-changing nature - artists attempted to eternalise their image.
Küster says there are many aspects to a flower – the transient beauty and the ominous side – that the exhibition aimed to display.
"It was clear that we wanted to [show a large number of works by] one of the artists who really painted flowers as an artistic self-portrait – and that was Vincent van Gogh," he says.
According to the curator, the perception and representation of flowers has changed over the centuries and painting a flower motif did no longer serve to demonstrate artistic brilliance.
"What has changed is that decoration became very important in the 20th century by artists like Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol," Küster says.
Whereas 19th-century masters – Edouard Manet or Paul Gaugin – painted still lifes to depict the natural beauty of flowers, 20th-century expressionist painters portrayed flowers for their decorative qualities.
Post-impressionist painters started painting flowers in a more abstract way, as Fantasy on a Potato Blossom by Alberto Giacometti, Shell Flowers by Max Ernst or Vase of Flowers on a Table by Pablo Picasso illustrate.
Küster thinks that pop artist Andy Warhol went even a step further creating the flower as a pop icon. He says that the big series Flowers was unique as a work of art and for its screen print technique.
"But Andy Warhol’s big series [Flowers] shows the way to reproduce things, the reproduction in an artistic way, in a series," Küster says.
The Beyeler exhibition also looks at how the new media - photography, video and installation - tackles the flower myth.
"We had to include photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Imogen Cunningham and Wolfgang Tillmans in the exhibition ... because photography is a medium developed in the 19th century just to keep the moment for eternity," Küster explains.
Küster says that photographers working with black-and-white images, such as Karl Blossfeldt, were mainly interested in the form, presenting flowers in a different light.
Some of the installations are bleak.
Cemetery – Vertical Garden by María Fernanda Cardoso, is made of white plastic flowers arranged in the form of a hanging garden. The work refers to funeral rites, violence and untimely death in Columbia.
The dark side is also revealed in Ever is over all, a video by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.
A smiling woman is happily walking down a street in slow motion, smashing car windows with a long lance-like flower. The urban scene sharply contrasts with a rural landscape where everything still seems alright with the world.
swissinfo, Katalin Fekete in Basel
The exhibit Flower Myth: Van Gogh to Jeff Koons was set up by the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen in cooperation with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen.
It runs until May 22.
More than 170 works offer visitors the opportunity to explore the development of the flower myth and the representation of the flower motif over the last 200 years.
Artists employ various media, ranging from painting, graphic art, photography to video and installation art, to represent the beauty and the transitory nature of flowers as well as its destructive potential.