Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
Still life painting can be traced to the ancient frescoes and mosaics of Greece and Rome, but the modern lineage began with Caravaggio’s Canestra di Frutta of 1599. Caravaggio depicted the foliage and fruit in this painting in a less than ideal way, and it has been interpreted as a metaphor for the church whose doctrine was showing the decay of age. The realistic depiction of fruit and foliage in a tromp l’oeil manner spurred innovations in painting from Madrid to Amsterdam. However, it is the Dutch artists of the 17th century who created a truly independent genre of still life painting.
Ubiquitous still life images of abundant flowers are seen today as the most conventional mode of painting, but a dissection of its history and influence reveals a great deal beyond pure aesthetic beauty or artifice. Bouquets of flowers emerged in Northern European painting, namely Flemish and Dutch circles, in the first quarter of the 17th century as symbols of prosperity. At this time, a merchant class emerges as the first consumer society in Europe, with great wealth being drawn in from all corners of the globe. Along with treasured spices and porcelain, explorers and tradesmen brought exotic plants and flowers, which were often coveted and valued as richly as gemstones. The monied class commissioned pictures by artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder and his peers, both to celebrate this bounty but also to remind them of the brevity of life and the transience of its beauty. Paintings of flowers prolonged the experience of nature, sustaining pleasure indefinitely through seasons or years.
The depiction of earthly pleasures and abundance were refined for a cultured audience. Still life pictures by Ambrosius Bosschaert and his circle show a dynamic symmetry in the compositions and scientific accuracy in the depiction of each blossom, but the pictures represent a dreamlike impossibility and the images were pure fantasy. Contrary to the warty truths depicted by Caravaggio, Dutch painters created a world where every flower is shown at the peak of its bloom, a venerable fireworks display where the first blossoms of spring coexist with the hearty petals of late summer. Following Caravaggio, these sensual displays emerge from pure darkness in these paintings, with hot pink and white forming a jeweled counterpoint to the black that is waiting to retake the scene once the flowers wilt and die. And in this dichotomy, there is a lesson for these morally conscious rich: death is always near, and what is given can easily be taken away. Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short.
For collectors of the wealthy class, these pictures were not just pure fantasy or a proxy for the church, these images also reflected the developments in science and philosophy which is steeped in a reverence for nature. Scientifically accurate depictions of flowers would accompany live specimens from their gardens, existing alongside botanical prints and books of poetry in elite homes. Each flower would not only be cultivated for its form and color, but for its perceived symbolic properties. Lillies are purity, tulips represent love, amaryllis is pride and roses desire.
It is the symbolism of flowers that pervaded art in subsequent centuries of art history. In the 19th century, the Pre-Raphaelite artists used the abundance of nature as chief source of inspiration as well as a backdrop for allegory. The richness of paint emerging from darkness or drawn over pure white presented effects of color that allow eyes to wander within a matrix of intense color. In Victorian times, flowers are seen as a language of love, but also as coded messages that could not otherwise be spoken aloud in a conservative and proper society. Floriography, or the language of flowers, flourished in England and the United States in the 19th century. Floral arrangements were often seen as coded messages and would even have charged sexual undertones.
In the late Victorian Era and into the 20th century, floral themes in design flourished. Under the encouragement of John Ruskin in England, Arts and Crafts crystalized into a movement. Pattern derived from flowers and applied floral motifs were central to designers and architects across Europe including William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Otto Wagner. The application of pattern and ornament enhanced and embellished buildings and interiors, but it also set the groundwork for a departure and for the formulation of a universal approach to design, which came to be known as Modernism. With forebearers in Austria like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier in France, a simplification of form to its geometric essence gained ground across the globe, and a new universal language in art and design without ornament or applied decoration took hold.
As a growing field of Modernist architects and designers applied broad principles as outlined in Le Corbusier’s treatises and by principles espoused at the Bauhaus, personal idiosyncrasies and regional styles vanished. To the benefit of global uniformity, individual expression was frowned upon. Few designers in the years surrounding World War II saw the creative and expressive potential of pattern and decoration in design. Piero Fornasetti stands alone among designers of the 20th century who found inspiration from all periods and styles that came before him, from Neo-Classicism to Modernism. By removing any idealistic barriers, a true artist emerged with a boundless energy able to contribute greatly to the history of design and interior decoration of the last 100 years. In the Fiori della notte (Flowers in the night) series, Fornasetti creates furniture that acts as a backdrop, a stage set, for living. Fornasetti takes the ubiquitous painted bouquet of flowers, which throughout art history was shown arranged on top of tables or other furniture, and applies instead it directly to surfaces of his creations. The effect is as theatrical as it is surreal. Now, the painted image exists in the dimensional space of the user and its perpetual bloom, with its poetic nostalgia and its sensual delights, can exist in suspended animation forever.
In fact, it seems that when I was a child I asked a neighbor woman not for sweets or toys, but for a box, and perhaps that is how my interest in compact shapes came into being. In fact, the objects that I have created over forty years, even if their decorations overflow with imagination, are all tied to extremely simple and clean shapes.
— Piero Fornasetti