2007, Cibachrome, 181 cm x 240 cm
Beauty and transience, love and death. No other living thing is used more frequently as a symbol than the flower. In art history, the history of the flower picture is one of the most exciting and complex themes. This may seem surprising yet even contemporary art photographers are turning more and more to this centuries-old motif.
Margriet Smulders plunges her unusual floral arrangement Bloody Roses into shades of crimson but we can also find a few pink rose petals and in complementary contrast green stems as well. Smulders brings a new element to the traditional visual topos: she photographs flowers neither in nature nor close up as single blossoms in a vase but rather arranges them in illusionistic installations. The spaces she fills with water and glass are more than mere attributes. They build the stage for a sensual spectacle that remains uniquely positioned within the realm of contemporary floral still life art.
Yet alongside the beautiful and sensual there reigns something morbid in these large landscapes. The notion of vanitas slowly sneaks in, that recurring motif in the history of art and photography through which the composition becomes an allegory for mortal decay. In Smulders’ still lifes we encounter not only flowers but also fruits. Pomegranates open to reveal angular seeds whose red colour could fade to black, thus becoming the deep red fluid in the picture's foreground. Similar to the rose, this fruit symbolises love and temptation, blood and death. In a figurative sense, its multitude of swollen seeds stands for fertility. Here, the moment of fullest bloom may be understood as sensual climax, prior to potential fertilisation. After all, blossoms are, biologically speaking, created to attract pollinators. Butterflies, honeybees, bumblebees and beetles are meant to land on or crawl into them in order to eventually fertilise them. Thus flower still lifes can also be understood as a symbol for sexuality in nature.
Some roses have such magnificent blossoms that in Smulder's image they nod over as if the burden of their beauty had become too heavy. Branches reach up from outside into the picture, pointing towards the origin of the flowers; in a sense, towards the roots of beauty. At the same time, the dualism between love and pain already exists in the rose plant itself, with its thorns and overwhelmingly red blossoms. The danger of bloody injury mingles with the association of its heavy scent into a mélange both beautiful and chilling – and creates the prevailing mood of this photograph by Margriet Smulders.
Her still lifes which are created in formats up to ten meters wide, remain mere excerpts of what seems to be an even greater reality beyond the picture's frame. With her large formats she portrays the flowers in close to original dimensions so that visually, they also stand for themselves. The unusually arranged visual spaces reflect to create thematic doublings and optical refraction. The amorphous glass structures in the water sometimes give the impression of ice formations, intrinsically disconnecting this and the other still lifes from both time and reality. Within the reflection, the blossoms dissipate into a soft blur.
Despite being so symbolically charged, Smulders’ ornately orchestrated photographs remain less akin to a traditional floral symbolism than to a notion of wild overgrown, unadulterated nature. At the same time, the artist here seems to want to subdue the colour red and the rose in all their symbolic meaning. She is not alone in doing so; other photographers have also raised visual monuments to the rose as both object and symbol. Most notable is Irving Penn who took minimalist photographs of roses against a neutral background in commission for Vogue magazine in the 1960s. He is followed today in form as well as content by Fabio Zonta, as well as by Berlin photographer Gerhard Kassner who has used the rose as a symbol for both love and suffering in his photographs of graveyards in Paris and Venice. The floral grave decoration thus combines mourning with a blessed memory of the deceased. This is where the classic floral image ends in exchange for the still life as nature morte, a newer term referring to a variation of this genre in art history.
Time and again, the velvety petalled rose is associated in the array of love, innocence and transience with the Virgin Mary. In earlier centuries for example, the biblical figure was depicted in a rose garden. According to legend, the rose had no thorns prior to the Fall of Man. Mary's exemption from original sin led to the Madonna of the Rose who was not hurt by the flower's thorns. The red colour also recalls the Passion of Christ. In antique mythology Aphrodite (or Venus) was also known as the Rose Goddess, whose blossom grew from her own tears and the blood of Adonis, her murdered lover. One could maintain that Aphrodite/Venus became the Divine Goddess, Mary, who even today is associated with the rose motif as in the Rosary. According to belief, each Hail Mary becomes a rose in the hands of the Madonna. And yet the rose motif is even older than the Greek and Christian religions as a symbol of love and death: a few thousand years prior, Persian coins imprinted with rose motifs were placed in the graves of the dead.
Margriet Smulders’ photographs could and should be seen within this historical context. The dark tonality and the representational precision of Bloody Roses are formally reminiscent of paintings by Rembrandt or Caravaggio. We can also draw a thematic comparison to the baroque still lifes of 17th century Holland and Flanders which have now been translated by the Dutch photographer into contemporary timelessness. An underlying play with flowers and fruits, water and glass, surfaces and visual depths is equally subtle as vexing. Her opulent, sensually morbid orchestrations in natural yet intensive colours both fascinate and disturb. With her Bloody Roses and other works, Margriet Smulders entices us into visual worlds that are at the same time enigmatic and enchanting.