MATTHIAS HARDER. “A Gentle Force – Flowers in Contemporary Photography”, 06.09–06.10

Eliška Bartek – Wilfried Bauer – Jessica Backhaus – Amin El Dib – Stephan Erfurt –

Hans Hansen – Gerhard Kassner – Sofia Koukoulioti – Christian Rothmann – Vera

Mercer – Miron Schmückle – Margriet Smulders – Luzia Simons – Michael Wesely

 

Beauty and transience, love and death. No other living thing appears more frequently in

symbolism than the flower. And in art history, the history of the flower picture is one of the

most exciting and complex themes. This exhibition brings together for the first time diverse

approaches within contemporary floral photography.

 

Vera Mercer has photographed flowers against neutral backdrops since 2005. Reducing

their natural colorfulness with the aid of digital processing as a compositional moment, her

final images are reminiscent of the tinted black and white photographs of Pictorialism. Mercer

sometimes takes single flowers as her subject, such as a lone amaryllis standing erect in its

axis. At other times the artist showcases couples, like a pair of white rose blossoms bending

out over the vase’s edge with their weight.

 

In the early 1990s Wilfried Bauer realized a black and white series that is as tender as it is

melancholic. In rural northern Germany the artist discovered a field of withered and dried

sunflowers. Although they were merely intended for harvest and further processing in cattle

feed, in Bauer’s photographic eye the flowers posed an ideal metaphor for death.

In contrast to Bauer’s austere flower arrangements is the opulence of the still lifes by Dutch

photographer Margriet Smulders. Often photographed at extreme perspectives to create

illusive pictorial spaces, her images reference Flemish and Dutch baroque painting. In the 17th century Holland was the most important trade center for flowers – many of them

precious – and its bourgeois affluence often found expression in the so-called “flower

pieces.” Smulders doubles her blossoms and stems, branches and vines in water and glass

surfaces, rendering them immemorial.

 

It is the rose in particular – which Smulders presents as striking and enigmatic – that stands

for the dualism of love and death, for instance as the eternal bond between two lovers lasting

well beyond their earthly existence. This is how we may see the roses that appear in the

Venetian cemetery photographs by Gerhard Kassner, which take both a melancholic and

distanced look at the allegorical tie between loving and suffering. That most of the flowers

are or could be artificial underlines this dualism.

 

The lily is another flower associated with death, although for the cult of the Virgin Mary it also

stands for purity and innocence. Here the lily is colorfully illuminated: Eliška Bartek

experiments in her Swiss studio with different colored light upon white lilies that she then

photographs at close distances. Bartek’s sophisticated use of light takes us on a sensual

excursion into the realm of the lily and its possible meanings. Flowers’ colorful magnificence

– be they natural, cultivated or, as here, contrived – is tempered by the fact that we humans,

alone, are able to perceive color in nature.

 

We encounter a fusion of several motifs in the works of Michael Wesely, whose extreme

time-lapse images make the process of floral deterioration manifest. Their reception

demands more attention than usual, to decipher the fragments within the images. Here, we

can observe how tulip stems lose their elasticity during an exposure time of several days’

length; a great deal of beauty may be found in the principle of transience. In the works of

Amin El Dib on the other hand, a different aspect of decay confronts us. His black and white

sequence reveals in full format the swollen stems of cut flowers coated in slimy vase water

residue. Observing the gruesomely fascinating photographs, the dying flowers’ rotten odor –

and the smell of death – virtually wafts into our nose. Vanitas has many faces; this one here

is a grimace.

 

Jessica Backhaus reveals yet a different aspect; she casts a distanced, ironic gaze on the

inflationary use of flowers as decorative form by doubling the motif. In a domestic setting, a

flower painting set against a blue background and framed in gold hangs on a wall covered in

floral pattered wallpaper. This, in turn, is captured by the artist into a photographic image.

Sometimes the photographers stage themselves in self-portrait-like situations. Miron

Schmückle for example, bears against his own naked body a single blossom or flower

branch. However, the image below the head and above the pubic area is cropped, so that

the mere presentation of a blossom grasped between fingers is transformed into a gesture

both religious-symbolic as well as sensual.

As we know, the flower is a biological pollinating unit of flowering plants; from a botanical

point of view, flower blossoms serve primarily to attract pollinators and thus secure

propagation. By extension, many of the photographs here on display may be seen as a study

of sexuality.

 

A handpicked bouquet of wildflowers assumes a basic understanding of nature. This is

clearly expressed by Greek photographer Sofia Koukoulioti with her flower series Wild

Flowers. As she traverses the Greek wilderness, for example on the island of Leukas, she

“picks” wildflowers and other plants with her camera, arranging her photographs of them into

a large bouquet. There are no exotic or cultivated flowers here, but blooming grasses; one

could be witness to the natural born love affair between flowers and insects. Koukoulioti

captures her subjects with an ease and affection well beyond kitsch, countering realism with

deliberate defocusing and abstraction.

 

Christian Rothmann also avoids concrete description of his objects with intentional

obscurity. Flowers are photographed through frosted glass plates or with incorrect depth of

field camera settings, transforming the plants into dreamlike apparitions.

Stephan Erfurt likewise strives to capture the atmospheric as the essence of the flowers. In

the mid-1990s for Merian magazine he used a Polaroid camera to create close-up and

mostly format-filling photographs of blossoming flowers on the small southern German island

Mainau. Like Rothmann’s pictures, the subtle interflow of colors of Erfurt’s unique Polaroids

seem almost like paintings.

 

Sometimes we are astounded less by a photograph’s symbolic content or atmosphere, and

more rather by their method of production. For example Hans Hansen, one of the most

important German object photographers of the last decades, who has taken up flowers as a

theme. In Hansen’s studio, nothing is left to coincidence; his color photograms of flowers, for

instance, of a lone poppy or clematis, are painstakingly created and singular in their form.

Photograms are photographs taken without a camera. Realized in absolute darkness, they

are made by placing objects (here flowers) directly onto photosensitive paper or film, and

exposed briefly to light.

 

Brazilian artist Luzia Simons uses a modified scanner to achieve incomparable depth in her

floral image series entitled Stockage, which consists primarily of tulip arrangements. What

stands out in her “scanograms” is the fallen pollen captured on the scanning plate and the

pictures’ matte black background, against which the flowers float as sculptural forms,

somehow three-dimensional.

 

It is in the most diverse contexts that the blossoms of flowering plants, grasses and trees

appear here: in their essential form, as classical arrangements, in the studio or intact in

nature. In full bloom or dried, in forms blurry, abstract and distilled or as a picture of a picture

from scanned flowers or as simple wallpaper pattern.

 

Christian iconography seldom plays a role in contemporary flower still life photography, yet

there are occasional art historical and allegorical references. From Orient to Occident, the

flower is generally understood as a symbol of life energy and joie de vivre. The notion of the

sublime also comes into occasional play, though it has nothing to do with the nature’s

physical proportions, whose infernal might could bring us to shudder. Rather it is the gentle

force of these photographic creations, which captivates us with narcissism and vulnerability,

with reduction and opulence, with sublime beauty and Vanitas, with a millisecond and a few

days’ exposure time. It reveals to us what we have forgotten how to see and to treasure:

nature’s beauty and its arresting representation.

 

Matthias Harder

 

06.09 — 06.10
“Ў” Gallery

12:00 – 20:00, daily

06.09
Opening

“Ў” Gallery, 19:00