Blooms and Brushstrokes does not do justice to the rich history of flowers in Australian art

Detail from the cover image of Blooms and Brushstrokes. Picture: Supplied

Detail from the cover image of Blooms and Brushstrokes. Picture: Supplied

When Mirella Levi d'Ancona's The garden of the Renaissance: botanical symbolism in Italian painting was published over 40 years ago, it was an important revelation in that it gave new and frequently symbolic meaning to the little tucked away flowers in paintings by artists such as Botticelli and Piero della Francesca.

There is also the great classic, The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, that became such an important source for artists in the Victorian era, including those working here in Australia.

One can keep in mind, too, the modern classic by two internationally renowned flower enthusiasts, Ernst and Johanna Lehner's Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees, published in 2003.

Books on art and flowers are fairly common but, until now, no one has attempted a general account of flowers in Australian art.

Books on art and flowers are fairly common but, until now, no one has attempted a general account of flowers in Australian art.

The mother and daughter team, Penelope and Tansy Curtin, have produced a somewhat curious book, which commences with a very brief, general and somewhat problematic account of the history of Australian art and then alphabetically lists the names of flowers from Anemone through to Zinnia.

For each flower there is a brief and often chatty account of the flower, plus one or more generally good quality reproductions of mainly paintings and photographs in which these flowers can be detected.

The reproductions are almost always full-page and do justice to the selected works.

The choice of images appears to be somewhat arbitrary, where sometimes the flowers in question are centre stage; on other occasions, they are tucked away in a complex bouquet.

With the carnation, for example, the flower appears tucked away on the lapel of a William Dobell portrait - there is of course the wonderful Carnations painting by John Brack that could have been used or, for that matter, dozens of other examples.

Why the specific artists and examples have been selected is never clearly spelt out, we are told by the authors, "we had to limit the number of works by these very prolific flower painters (Nora Heysen, Vida Lahey, Adrian Feint and Margaret Preston), since we wanted our coverage to be truly representative of the Australian canon.

This means some much-loved old favourites weren't accorded feature-flower status; the aim appears to have been to represent the Australian canon, whatever that may mean.

The choice of medium is also somewhat puzzling. When you think of the enormously rich collection of floral imagery in Australian printmaking, this book virtually ignores this art form with only a single print by Dorrit Black and a Lionel Lindsay woodblock print used for end matter at the back of the book.

It is a pity that the authors have imposed a hierarchy of mediums as floral decorations have a rich history in Australian printmaking, textiles, stained-glass art, relief sculpture and so on.

Indigenous art is also severely short-changed and the opportunity is missed to explore the richness and diversity of the unique Australian flora.

If one glances at the Banksia, the quintessential Australian flower known in Australia through about 173 different species in the plant family Proteaceae, the choice of illustrations - two still life paintings of a vase of flowers containing some Banksia flower spikes by Trevor Nickolls and Justin O'Brien - is somewhat disappointing.

I could not quite understand the reason for the omission of the wattle - the Floral Emblem of Australia - so steeped in symbolism in Australia life, art and folklore.

The Acacia or mimosa (belonging to the subfamily Mimosoideae of the family Fabaceae) has a very rich tradition in Australian art, from S.T. Gill to Mary Tonkin with the first day of Spring in Australia frequently called Wattle Day and the national celebration of the green and gold as the colours of this country.

The Eucalypt is represented by a single example from about 800 species, most of which are endemic to Australia. In contrast, roses and daisies receive four feature illustrations each. This book highlights the fact that the material is very rich and a study such as this is unlikely to do more than scratch the surface.

The book is beautifully presented - large and lavish - with the feel of a publication destined to enhance the coffee table. The writing is very accessible and entertaining, where a narrative is presented that spans the personal and anecdotal to the scholarly.

Both authors convey a sense of enthusiasm and excitement for their subject as they consult with botanists and art historians in their quest for further flowers painted by Australian artists.

The wonderful Russian artist, Marc Chagall, once famously said, "Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers - and never succeeding". This book represents the beautiful efforts of scores of Australian painters and photographers who took up this challenge and succeeded in varying degrees.

  • Blooms and Brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin. Wakefield Press. $65.
  • Sasha Grishin is a Canberra art critic.
This story New book shows the history of flowers in Australian art is rich and complex first appeared on The Canberra Times.