Flowers in Australian art documented by mother-daughter duo

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When you think of flowers in art, you probably think of Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers or Claude Monet’s impressionistic water lilies. 

But unless you’re an art gallery regular, you may find it hard to name any famous Australian artwork featuring flowers. 

A mother-daughter duo based in Central Victoria is seeking to change that with their new book, Blooms and brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian art, which documents the wide variety of flowers featured in Australian artwork.

Bendigo Art Gallery curatorial manager Tansy Curtin and her mother Penelope Curtin have drawn together their shared passion for flowers and art.

The book features a number of famous artists including Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, and John Brack.

Tansy said they wanted the book to be as much about flowers as it was about art.

“We’re not saying the art is more significant than the flowers, we are talking about both to give you that joint history,” she said

Mother-daughter power duo

A painting of a glass vase full of colourful flowers.

Tansy said the two women were uniquely suited to writing Blooms and brushstrokes. 

Tansy has years of experience as an art curator and Penelope works as a freelance editor.

While both women were keen gardeners the idea for the book was Penelope’s.

“She’s a very passionate gardener and has a very strong history on the botanical side, and obviously I work on the art side,” Tansy said. 

“It seemed like a natural marriage.”

Penelope first picked out a large selection of art works with flowers, and then she sat down with Tansy to sift through them.

She said the hardest part was figuring out what not to include.

“We even thought for a second about including ceramic works, and then decided against it because we just had to stop,” Penelope said.

While some mothers and daughters might find a creative collaboration challenging, Penelope said the two had worked together in the past.

“I had a bookshop in Adelaide, and Tansy worked a lot there when she was doing post-graduate work,” Penelope said.

“We’re still friends, so it worked well,” Tansy added.

A still life painting depicting fruit and flowers on a table

Flowers through the centuries

The book is organised from A to Z according to flower types, which Tansy said was designed to showcase the different ways artists used flowers in their work.

“With something like the daisy, which is quite a humble flower really, we wanted to be able to show it in a variety of iterations,” Tansy said.

“You’ve got that beautiful photograph there by Olive Cotton of the daisies, but then also the kind of incidental daisy in other works.

A photo of a women blindfolded in a floral dress and headband.

“I think it really makes you question the reasons why artists chose particular flowers, whether it’s the symbolism, whether it’s the form.”

Also featured was a painting of a golden chalice vine, called Solandra, by John Brack, who was not a painter traditionally associated with flowers.

“It’s really nice to actually see the way that these grand narrative painters have painted the humble still life as well,” Tansy said.

One of Tansy’s favourite works in the book is an image by the late Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou, called Blinded, which features on the cover.

It’s a portrait of the artist’s daughter Olympia that was done while Papapetrou was unwell last year.

“At the time she was really contemplating her mortality, but also the beauty and joy of youthfulness,” Tansy said.

“It really celebrates the beauty of flowers.”

Making the real unreal

For Australian artist Michael Zavros, whose work is featured in the book, the transient nature of flowers has long been an inspiration.

“To try and capture the youth and beauty, and to freeze and sort of halt time,” he said.

“I think that’s what interests me most.”

Zavros paints photorealist images from still life photos taken in his studio.

A crystal glass with hydrangea flowers in it arranged to look like an ice cream sundae.

“A lot of the flowers that I paint are really just full of information,” he said.

“Think about a hydrangea; it’s really this ball of information petals, like a Baroque blob.”

One of his works in the book is a painting of flowers in a jar arranged to look like an ice cream, called New York sundae.

“For me it’s not just a bunch of flowers, it transcends that, it becomes something else.”

Transcendental is a word Tansy and Penelope may also appreciate as a description of floral art.

Talking about the Papapetrou image, Tansy said, “it does all those things that we love so much about flowers”.

“They entice us, we want to smell them, we want to touch them — it’s very immersive.”

And that’s exactly the feeling many will have looking through the book the pair have created.