17.09.2019 – 24.11.2019
Flowers have long taken a prominent place in visual arts. With links to love symbols, religious cults, and worship of the grandeur of nature, flowers are important part of ritualistic religious offerings and decorations at festivities in all ancient cultures, as early as Assyria and Egypt. In Ancient Greece and Rome, flowers were established symbols and artifacts of cults around gods and heroes. In the Middle Ages, the blossoming gardens came to mean heaven on earth, where the flowers, being the most beautiful of godly creations, took on a multitude of symbolic meanings as Christian theology developed further. For example, the white madonna lily, a symbol of purity and chastity, is tightly linked to the image of Mary and is invariably featured in all depictions of Annunciation. Red roses as well as carnations and poppies were used as symbols for the Passion of Christ and the blood spilled by first martyrs. The dove-shaped aquilegia became a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The particular medieval image of a “fenced garden” is a reference to the heavenly garden — Eden, Paradise — that does not change seasons under an eternal summer and blossoming. This type of garden serves as a backdrop for the famous late-15th century tapestries depicting the Vestal Virgin with a unicorn. Depictions of heaven in Dutch and Italian canvases also feature lavish greenery with flowers. Then there is, of course, the renowned triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1500–1510, The Prado Museum, Madrid). The central and left panels present a view of paradise with lavish greens, crystal-clear water and a diverse fauna, both real and imaginary.
Rapid development of gardening coincided with emergence of a stand-alone genre of flower still life. One of the first fully-fledged flower still life was painted by Hans Memling circa 1485 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid) — it had religious subtexts, too. Painted on the reverse side of a commissioned portrait, the still life depicted a bunch of lilies, irises and aquilegias — under the shared rubric of symbolizing Mary — in a Maiolica vase with a Christogram. Flower imagery was also taking root in the culture of courtly love. The symbolism of flowers was completely different in secular contexts and had to do with expression of feelings and character. As flower still life prospered in the 17th-century Netherlands, artists were commissioned to paint individual flowers — in a way, portraits of rare and especially beautiful flower specimens—sometimes assembled in significant collections. Curiously, such flower bouquets could comprise flowers that blossom in different seasons and in different regions, coming together solely through the artist’s conception.
The art of Alexandra Vertinskaya breathes a new life into the classical theme. Like the old masters, the artist paints flowers from life and tries to capture their fleeting beauty and commit to memory their pure beauty. Her flowers embody both the beauty and fragility of life. Paintings by Vertinskaya are not mere photorealistic “renderings” but rather inspired poetization. Under her brush, flowers come to life on paper as nature’s creations, rippling with the wind, exuding a fine, alluring sweet scent. Surprisingly conservative imagery is reactualized in her art. Vertinskaya’s practices employ modern techniques and media, which results in multilayered auteur pieces combining “preparatory” images on canvases — photos, collages, screen prints — and painting that complements and in that fully transforms the canvas. Painting as a foundational layer is very important for the artist since it serves as the linkage between the real and imaginary worlds. Artistic forms that are layered on top of prints are like phantasies that has come to life and they infuse the static materiality with throbbing living beauty.
The flower series by Vertinskaya translated into the installation Study Room, where beautiful specimens coexist with old botanical engravings and visual learning aids. This room reveals the other side of the awe which goes beyond aesthetic contemplation and gives deeper insight into nature and the creation itself. The dry world of catalogues, filing cards and archives is filled with living energy and is deliberately atemporalized.
Alongside older paintings, the Paradise exhibition features a new series of works where Alexandra Vertinskaya explores the subject of a botanical garden as a projection of the heavenly on earth. Botanical gardens in Europe were preceded by smaller physic gardens in the 5th century. These gardens emerged near medieval monasteries to cultivate medical herbs. Later, during the Enlightenment era, the function of physic gardens was expanded to include scientific research. First gardens of this type were arranged in the 14th century in Italy as humanism scientific knowledge flourished. The idea of a heavenly garden, a paradise, lived on as a fenced-off space for flowers and trees separated from our fleeting and sinful existence. Starting in the 16th century, as universities were emerging, more and more botanical gardens were built, not just in Italy but in other European countries too. The European colonial expansion contributed to the image and design of botanical gardens as well. The focus shifted to replication of exotic geographical conditions and exotic species. The evolution of botanical gardens transformed the medieval physic gardens into large and complex institutions that we are familiar with today — with unique landscapes, rich collections and unparalleled botanical history expositions. The gardens were also divorced from the original association with the paradise. Vertinskaya traveled to the oldest of botanical gardens in Italy to aggregate impressions and images that were later compounded by painting. Employing black-and-white photography, the artist makes a record of different nooks in the gardens, often dilapidated and decaying like a thing of the past. Some garden photos taken by the artist become sully sufficient worlds on her canvases, brought to life by painterly illumination, touches of color, images of the living and beautiful — i.e. flowers and plants. Revisiting the floral genre, Alexandra Vertinskaya invites us to a beautiful garden that can become a shelter from the daily humdrum and a space for privacy, meditation, reflection of your good and bad fortunes — surrounded by life itself, ever blooming, ever green and delightfully beautiful.