I want to lure you into my secret garden to get drunk on virtue. To choose for Eros as the life force that overcomes all degradation and despair. In the face of the unexpected and sorrowful, my work creates newness in beauty.

Being a child in an industrialist family in which there was a great love for art, music and literature from all over Europe influenced my passion for making beautiful images. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs, but the demise of the early capitalists’ factories and subsequent bankruptcy during my childhood often led to family tragedy. Despite the vagaries of financial crises, I remember there was still a lot of joy and celebration of life and positive energy. I grew up surrounded by the intense experience of both emotional highs and lows. This dense, culturally rich childhood gave me a bountiful, albeit turbulent background in which the pleasures afford by wealth were eroded by economic calamity.

From the outside our family looked perfect – the epitome of middle-class stability and propriety. But privately, there were economic crises and a lot of emotional turmoil. The loss of our grandfather was significant, and of course we felt the devastating impact of the Second World War. My father was stationed in the RAF in Britain but this was followed by a stay in psychiatric hospital. I know it is not often talked about, but there were a number of suicides in the family and other mental health problems. I think knowing about these influenced my decision to become someone who looked underneath the veneer of respectability and was prepared to explore and perhaps come to terms with this turbulent, yet very supportive, emotional legacy.

In the early 1990’s I became known as a photographer of family portraits, using myself and my family as models. I photographed far from perfect moments, capturing times when the family experiences life behind closed doors. I not only depicted crying children, scenes of jealousy or illness, but I also placed flowers in these domestic theatres. For me they represented hope and a bulwark against the memory of and fear of death. Maybe they are often placed on coffins at funerals as they are full of life and colour- a way to celebrate being alive in a time of grief.

As a vivid backdrop to these familial dramas, it is worth knowing that my grandmother had thirteen statues of Holy Mary placed in various corners of her home, always surrounded by flowers which she’d grown in her garden. The women in my family were passionate about flowers - both my mother and grandmother had very beautiful gardens and early signs of my current interest in depicting flora were noticed and appreciated. When I was a girl, women were educated to be good housewives and hostesses and this partly meant bringing in fresh herbs and flowers in from a well cultivated plot. Despite being brought up to be a domestic goddess I am deeply committed to feminist ideals which encourage women to find paid work and leave the house. At the same time, I am someone who loves to make my house a beautiful, welcoming place. For me, they are not incompatible ideals. Feminists can make their homes beautiful, too! My work is a never-ending dialogue with such intricate, often opposing, domestic philosophical narratives.

Over time I wanted these intimate themes of domestic bliss and emotional turmoil to become deeper and more resonant for me in my photographic practice, and now flowers star as the main characters on my shimmering, reflective stage. I see the world mirrored in my flower-filled theatre. Simultaneously, the domain of the domestic is as much an arena to be imaginative as a place of work. Beauty is a very strong thing for me as an artist and as a mother and wife. My mantra is - You choose for love and Eros – as fecund women and artists we create new life. And of course, any family’s domestic dramas mirror ancient tales of jealousy and bloodshed. The intensity of Greek melodramas can be found in everyday sibling rivalry, intense parental conflict and childhood disappointment, not just in soap operas or plays by Euripides.

In my lush photographic scenes flowers take centre stage. I construct my floral still lives on a big mirror, using hand blown glass objects I designed myself, carefully arranged on rich draperies of silk from my travels to India. The blooms and sculptures seem to float on water which invisible hands gently set in motion, and we catch a glimpse of unblemished naked women’s bodies among the lush foliage. I deliberately select imperfect tulips from the grower that are not flawless enough to be sold in florists – always suggesting an unattainable moment of stasis before decay and rot set in.

I want to encourage my audience to be transfixed by what I see as the flow of life. I long for them to enjoy beauty in all its facets. I am like the first gardener in Eden, arranging roses in full bloom and brightly coloured flawed tulips in my very own visual dramas, using a Rembrandtesque play of light and darkness alongside sumptuous, fine details and distorted reflections to seduce the viewer.

After my journey to Indonesia a few years ago my sensual two-dimensional dioramas are beginning to tell another story; one alluding to slavery and injustice. No longer can we say ‘The Golden Age’ without thinking of the suffering of those who worked to make Dutch merchants so wealthy and self-satisfied. Oblivious to the mistreatment of others, these histories of exploitation and cruelty are deeply embedded in my work. Despite their vivid colours and lush arrangements, these are scenes of derelict dreams, and sullied memories.

I want to lure you into my secret garden to get drunk on virtue. To choose for Eros as the life force that overcomes all degradation and despair. In the face of the unexpected and sorrowful, my work creates newness in beauty.

Margriet Smulders

(This text is written together with © Siobhan Wall 10.1.2020)