This device is too small to view this website properly

Try to rotate your device

DOCUMENTS     About : Lost paradise, Johan Pas

About : Lost paradise, Johan Pas

October 1st 2000

“Flowers worthy of Paradise, which are not nice Art
In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Poured forth profuse on hill, and dale, and plain…”
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1699)

Flowers worthy of Paradise…

The title of this essay, Lost Paradise, has a double meaning. On the one hand it refers, literally, to the new series of photographic works by Marie-Jo Lafontaine and on the other hand it is an inversion of Milton’s famous 17th century poem. In the epic, Paradise Lost, the English author elaborately describes the run-up, actual occurrence and consequences of the fall from grace. This impressive, but often longwinded masterpiece of English literature, situated somewhere between Baroque and Enlightenment, has confronted generations with the frightening consequences of human vanity and recklessness. It seems like the banishment from the Garden of Eden was indeed the most traumatic experience for humankind.

A friendly, idyllic world of happiness and enjoyment is replaced by the cold, harsh reality of sickness, decay and hard labor. Throughout the ages man has made numerous attempts to break through the fatal irreversibility of this insidious event. The nostalgic longing for harmony and happiness manifests itself in the pursuit of an idealized nature. Consequently, at first glance, such diverse cultural phenomena as Vergilius’ pastoral poetry, the artfully landscaped gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries, the painted landscapes from antiquity through the 19th century and the more recent concern for the deteriorating environment, can possibly be seen as diverse facets of the continuous quest for the lost paradise and the attached hope of regaining lost innocence. The word paradise itself conveys that concept; derived from the Persian ‘paradeisos’, which means walled garden, it suggests that that ideal nature is in fact cultivated nature.

It is probably not a coincidence that, during the exact same period that Milton published his poem, the French landscape architect Le Notre boasted about the fact that Le Grand Trianon in Versailles housed over two million flower containers, enough to change the color of every single flowerbed twice a day! While Le Notre paints the French landscape with real flowers, it is in the Netherlands that the painted flower knows an unprecedented success. The Netherlands’ affluence during the Dutch Golden Century was not counted in gold coins, but in tulip bulbs. The painted flower arrangement alongside landscape painting, which was rapidly gaining respectability, characterizes one of the essential crossroads where nature and culture meet. The 17th century flower still life is therefore far more intricate than would seem at first sight.
Seemingly contradictory factors, such as overt beauty and veiled symbolism, hedonistic aesthetics and moralistic beliefs, in some cases came to an astonishing synthesis. The candid realism of painted nature scenes seems, under closer scrutiny, to be the result of extreme staging and manipulation. This precise and artistic direction of nature results in images layered like byzantine texts.
On the one hand assessors of sensuality and seduction, which evoke the counterfeit flowers, on the other hand vulnerability and ephemerality. The evanescence of earthly, sensory pleasures conjured up by the real flower recognizes its opposite, the eternal beauty of the painted flower. In this sense, every museum with a collection of painted flower still lives (nature mortes) is a place of supreme melancholy: it is after all a mausoleum for a deceased nature as a monument to lost paradise.

Durchdringung van Natur, Kunst und Technik…

In many respects, photography has taken over the sepulchral function of painting. A photograph even more so than a painting, calls attention to the halting of things. This immobilization through the image might highlight the halting of decay and deterioration, but it also implies the absence of life. Every photograph is therefore essentially a nature morte.
So it is no accident that flowers play an important role in the history of photography (1). As the legitimate heir to 19th century lithography, which was responsible for the proliferation of beautiful natural-historical etchings, this new philosophical medium also turns to the most sensual and obliging model, the flower. The Pencil of Nature seems the perfect candidate for the depiction of these vulnerable and short-lived artworks of nature.

Henry Fox Talbot, photographic pioneer and author of The Pencil of Nature, was already recording images of flowers in 1835. Subsequently almost all pioneers and early masters of photography, at some point or another, became involved in flower and plant photography.
Even Roger Fenton, better known for his documentaries of the Crimean War, completed a few peaceful flower and plant still lives.
The most important figure, however, responsible for the breakthrough of flower photography is the 19th century Frenchman Adolphe Braun, author of the momentous Fleurs Photographiees. This 6-part publication, containing a total of 300 albumin prints meant as a source of inspiration for designers and architects, won a gold medal at the 1855 World Exhibition and afforded the artist the quality seal of Nadar of Flowers. As a result, amateur photographers also discovered the merits of flower photography, after which it slowly starts to lose its edge and slides into bourgeois coquetry. The combination of flowers and photography in the late 19th century seems to guarantee cheap clichés and sentimental kitsch.

Modernist photography is rediscovered during the 20’s of the next century via the oeuvre of Carl Blossfeldt, who tried to provide an organic vocabulary of form for designers with, among others, his Urformen der Kunst. His solemn and pragmatic enlargements of near abstract flower buds and sensual plant stems inspired surrealists as well as followers of the New Objectivity. The utopian ideals of Blossfeldt are expressed in the nearly euphoric foreword written by the publisher Karl Nierendorf in the second edition of Urformen in 1935:

“ Die Gluckliche Durchdringung von Natur, Kunst und Technik; NATUR… aus innigster Nahe angeschaut uberlebensgrosz und eindringlich, KUNST… das wolten strenger Forngesetze, selbst in kleinster Keim, TECHNIK… als Brucke zu neuen, unbekannten welten durch das mittel der Photographie wird wieder aufs neue uberraschen und bezaubern.”

Thanks to Blossfeldt’s popular publications, the flower arrangement loses its bourgeois apathy and once again the genre regains a respectable place in modern photography. One of the icons of modernity, for example, is Andre Kertesz’s famous picture of Piet Mondriaan’s Paris studio, with in the foreground a small table with a little vase on it, containing one lonely flower. Precisely 10 years later Edward Steichen, American pioneer of modern photography and a person fascinated by the cultivation of flowers, shows his most successful flower creations at the MOMA in New York. Other American photographers like Weston and Cummingham also recognize the sensual and intangible qualities of the flower. From the work of these modernists there runs a straight line to the postmodern still lives of Robert Mapplethorpe, who links the modernist approach to the late-romantic symbolism of eroticism and purity, and thus closes the circle.

They are very sexual and fertile….

The flower children of the 60’s introduced the image of the flower as a peaceful weapon in the battle against bourgeois-ness, consumerism and nationalism. The enormous success of the Flower Power movement is responsible for the omnipresence of flowers in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Fashionable textiles, psychedelic record sleeves and crafty advertising recycle the image of flowers ad nauseum. Even the by then forgotten love of flowers of the Art Nouveau period witnesses a brief revival. As was the case in the late 19th century, the image of the flower risks losing its original force as an artistic metaphor, through overexposure. Andy Warhol’s Flowerpaintings, that ooze banality, parody that sappy “floraphilia” and Lou Reed sings the contradictory “Vicious! You hit me with a flower…”
The postmodern breaking of taboos like aesthetics and symbolism, the growing interest in ecology and related themes, however, guarantee the further existence of flowers in present-day expressive arts. Since the late 70’s painters, photographers, video and installation artists seem to recognize the importance of flowers as subject matter, theme and metaphor. But the cheerful innocence of the Golden Sixties has been lost forever. This deflowering fittingly makes its point in the well-known video by Pipiloti Rist, dating from the 90’s, in which the artist merrily skips through the streets carrying a giant flower and suddenly, with a huge crash, shatters the window of a parked car. Previously, in the 80’s, Jeff Koons undermined a few tough flower clichés. His inflatable Flowers in colorful plastic and Vases of Flowers in brightly colored porcelain make for merry caricatures of nature. It is not the natural quality, but the artificiality and consumerist value of the flower that are the focal point. At the same time Koons effectively strips the flower of its romantic innocence by handling it as an explicit sexual metaphor. In the Large Vase of Flowers there are 140 flowers. They are very sexual and fertile, and at the same time they are 140 assholes.

Even in the colorful ads in art magazines, leading up to his project Made in Heaven (1991), Koons uses seemingly cliché-drenched, but what are in reality contradictory uses of flower compositions. A somewhat comparable form of image manipulation can be found in the work of other artists who use the photographic medium, like Thomas Struth and the duo Fischli and Weiss. From representation to presentation is at times a small step. At the beginning of the 90’s, Koons created Puppy, a gigantic puppy in wood and earth completely covered in real flowers. On closer inspection, quite a few installation artists have used flowers as raw material. Contrary to portrayed flowers, real ones are subject to the ravages of time.
In most cases artists actually choose to make phases such as discoloration, drying out, withering and decomposition, part of their work.
Leo Copers’ roses in preserving jars, the faded flower carpets by Berlinde De Bruycker, the geometric flower compositions by Matt Muilcan, Tobias Rehberger’s colorful public gardens and Lois Weinberger’s imported foreign plants all convey the concepts of decay and loss. Quite a few contemporary installations exhibit interesting parallels with the vanitas theme of their painted predecessors from the 17th century. The existential mourning for a lost paradise and frustrating succinctness of the sensory delights are still part of the human condition. Nowadays they seem in many cases to be supplemented by environmental critique and therefore, a fundamental doubt in progress.

O Rose, thou art sick…

Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s oeuvre, which takes shape at the end of the 70‘s, develops as a result of this postmodern sense of perspective with regard to progress. The evolution of her work runs roughly parallel with the fragmentation of the modernist ideology during the last decade of the 20th century. The crumbling of the great 20th century ideologies is coupled with the fading of the attached utopias. Lost paradise is not only that of our origins (The Garden of Eden) but even more so, that of our future (a world made heavenly by science and technology). This demise of a consistent and promising vision of the future causes many to suffer emptiness and uncertainty. Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s installations, videos and photographic works can be read as the materialized mistrust in the fundamental frame of mind of the past century, but also as a form of comfort for this tragic loss. As in the early 19th century Romantic Movement and late 19th century Symbolism, two cultural eras during which artists depicted their doubts towards reason and progress through deterioration and refinement, Marie-Jo Lafontaine manages aesthetics and production as artistic strategies. Tragedy and terror, seduction and longing, melancholy and mystery are but a few of the areas of tension she manages to invoke through her multi-disciplinary work. The ambivalent beauty of the human body, the delicate appearance of a child, the ruthless elusiveness of youth, the irrational terror of passion, the threatening uniformity of a metropolis and the terrifying seduction of violence are all thematic perspectives for the interpretation of her work. References to the past appear as visual and textual quotations. Classically inspired nudes, monumental head-on portraits, sublime images of seas of fire suck her creations into the historical sphere of influence. The purified and unambiguous presentation of these images produces a very seductive structure for a melancholic vacuum.

Floral imagery plays a significant role in Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s work, as it did during the Romantic Movement and in Symbolism. In 1990 she presented a series of photographs called “Les Fleurs du Mal”, followed five years later, by an exhibition named “Les Roses”.
In both series concepts like seduction and mortality are fundamental. The Baudelere-esque beauty of evil and the tension that links vice to virtue are expressed in the captivating beauty of a single flower. The languishing beauty of the rose becomes a somber metaphor for the ephemeral eroticism of the human being.
In her latest endeavor, Lost Paradise, the artist stages complex compositions of assorted flowers and sets them opposite monochrome panels and elements of text. The tripterous construction and the square shape of the photos conjure up imagery of traditional painting.

The text and the monochromes transcend the realistic interpretation of the work. The use of monochromes is an important recurring theme in Lafontaine’s oeuvre. Monochrome composition could well be the icon of the historical avant-garde. Monochromes by Malevitch and Rodchenko, Reinhardt and Klein articulate a kind of zero point for painting. Therefore the monochrome is not only the height of modernism, it is probably also the end of it. Lafontaine’s arrangement of monochrome panels and photographic representations with fragments of text causes a semantic short-circuit.
Literary, abstract and figurative traditions are drawn together and the result is a postmodern synthesis that counteracts any unyielding claims to conceptualism, abstraction or realism. On the other hand, the use of the monochrome also has an emotional effect. The intensity of a black or deep red surface can stir up emotions ranging from bereavement to passion.

In contrast to the even surfaces, the fiercely colored, square cibachromes of Lost Paradise show a pandemonium of leaves, flowers and stalks. These are not nice, orderly bouquets but rather, chunks of jungle. By exaggerating scale and by manipulating the image, the sharpness of the photographs is distorted, giving the spectator the impression of being part of the composition. The aura of horror that the composition evokes and the harsh, artificial coloration suggest a more oppressive rather than harmonious atmosphere. The use of this manipulation transforms the pleasant, soothing effect of nature into its antithesis (the manipulation of image, in this context, can be seen as the artistic counterpart of genetic manipulation).

The flowers in these compositions are just a little too colorful and too seductive to be wholesome. Their aesthetic and artificial character is more likely to evoke associations with death than with life. Beneath the baroque exquisiteness of the flowers hide symptoms of disease and decay.

The melancholic ambiguity of Lost Paradise reveals a poetic similarity with a remarkable poem by the English poet/artist William Blake from his collection Songs of Experience (1789-1794):
“O Rose, thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy ”

Johan Pas. San Francisco