Modernist Mimesis: Art in Bloom at the MFA

Every Bostonian spring contains one especially fragrant weekend. (More precisely: every Bostonian spring out of the past 41.) This is “Art in Bloom,” the time when Boston’s Museum of Fine Art invites local garden clubs to create bouquets inspired by individual artworks in its collection.

This year I only dropped by for an hour — but what an hour! As I wandered from bouquet to wondrous bouquet (taking hurried, blurry pictures), I tried to get to the bottom of my delight, to pinpoint the precise causes of my gasps at the pairing of artworks and floral interpretations. Here are some hypotheses.

At an unhelpfully high level of abstraction, each of the arrangements worked by resembling their parent artworks. Let’s start from the basics — most of the flower arrangements shared the color schemes of their companion paintings. This is a great example:

Color-matching. (Excuse the blur; I was frantically flitting from flower to flower.)

The color palette (orange and complementary blue) is the same in sculpture and bouquet — as is the crumpled-up texture and swirling shape (compare the swooshy twigs and the grooves in the sculpture!) Something about the glossy red flowers feels particularly sculptural to me — and there’s even a leaf-pedestal. We’re already far beyond mere color-matching… Did I say “mere?” Look at how the blue flowers draw attention to the sculpture’s eyes — there’s nothing “mere” about color.

Some of the pattern-matching between bouquet and painting was striking enough that the flowers managed to represent a part of the painting. This shirt-front orchid was a hilarious representational feat:

The visual rhyme: shirt-front orchid.

And this bouquet representing The Passage of the Delaware takes the cake for visual rhyming:

The Passage of the Delaware. (Excuse the blur; I was break-neckedly galloping from bloom to bloom.)

The twig/tree is so well-chosen that in the photograph it seems to continue right into the painting, seemlessly transforming into its painted counterpart. (If you didn’t look too carefully, you might not even have noticed that there was a painted counterpart.) There’s even a blooming sunrise!

At this point, I’d like to ask some silly philosopher-questions.

  1. Are these bouquets art?
  2. Are they representational art?

The answer to both is: yes, of course! (Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.) What’s more interesting is the way the bouquets fall short of complete representationality. I’ve ordered my examples from color-matching to representational-content-matching, as if making a bouquet represent were some astonishing feat. In fact, it’s not that hard to make flowers represent. Take these rose-balloons from the Pasadena Rose Parade:

Rose balloons: representational half-art.

They’re kind of cool, but if they’re art at all, it’s not very good art. Why not? Well, the roses have dropped out of the picture. It’s certainly impressive that these great balloons were made out of dozens of roses, but the roses’ intrinsic beauty does little to contribute to the aesthetic appeal of this work. This isn’t a representational bouquet; it’s a sculpture which happens to be made of roses.

What’s really astonishing about The Passage of the Delaware II (let’s reserve “I” for the painting) is the way it manages to be both a representational work and a gorgeous bouquet. This is mimesis with a modernist twist: the arrangement represents aspects of its parent artwork while drawing attention to its flowery medium. Every one of the works at the MFA was like this: if you took away the partner painting, the bouquets would remain beautiful. By contrast, if you took away the represenational content of the balloon sculpture, almost nothing would remain.

You might object that you can’t take away this representational content. You don’t need perceptual aids to recognize a rose-balloon — but the pink flower in The Passage of the Delaware II doesn’t get to represent a sunrise unless accompanied by the The Passage of the Delaware I. The balloons are stand-alone works; the MFA’s bouquets are derivative.

This is a silly objection, but I think the idea that the MFA bouquets are not stand-alone works is worth exploring. After all, the flowers produce their most interesting effects in juxtaposition with their paintings. The shirt-front orchid is a visual rhyme the way a painted version of the orchid, placed inside the picture, would have been such a rhyme. Perhaps, then, the real artwork is not the bouquet, but the (painting, bouquet) pair. Maybe it’s even a form of installation art, as in this arrangement which matches not only its parent painting, but the entire gallery space:

Installation art?

Concurrently with “Art in Bloom,” the MFA exhibited “Matisse in the Studio” — a show of Matisse’s paintings, together with some of the objects from his studio which inspired them. (I said a few words about it here.) (Apologies for the lack of photos; I was furiously flying from flower to flower.) It’s a striking pairing. In both shows, pairs of objects — painting and three-dimensional thing —are placed in dialogue, mutually influencing and enriching the viewer’s perceptual experience of each item from the pair. In both shows, one of the items is “derivative,” representing the earlier item (or the earlier item’s subject-matter).

The difference lies in which item represents which. In this respect, Matisse is rather old-fashioned. Paintings representing real-life objects are hardly news — it’s the objects which represent paintings which baffle.

Like the flower arrangements, Matisse’s paintings are enriched by the juxtaposition with the objects they represent — the objects from which they derive. Something is lost when parent-object and child-artwork are separated.

If the flower arrangements aren’t stand-alone, then, neither is Matisse.

This isn’t quite right (cue caveats about artist’s intentions) — but enough philosophical silliness! I’d much rather end with flowers.