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Dr Paul Taylor on the Flowers series
Author of ‘Dutch Flower Painting, 1600-1720’

Three hundred years ago, people liked to toughen their souls with thoughts of death. Paying attention to the ever-approaching grave was a useful exercise no matter what your outlook on life. If you were very Christian, then it would remind you to examine your soul before you arrived at the throne of the Divine Judge, who would weigh your sins and virtues, and save you or damn you. If you had a more worldly approach to existence, thoughts of death might remind you to achieve whatever it was you wanted to achieve before your chance slipped away for ever.

One way of meditating on death was to buy a flower painting. Flowers have been metaphors for the brevity of life since ancient times, and the same idea can be found all over the world. Every gardener knows that a flower’s life is a short one, and that each year we have just a few days in which to enjoy the bloom of a peony or a rose. For people in the West, the idea was pushed home by passages from the Bible:

As for man, his days are as grass:
as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;
and the place thereof shall know it no more.

Psalm 103

Some flower paintings contained skulls, or hourglasses, or mottoes calling on the viewer to count out the days until death: but even without these appendages, most people knew the transient connotations of flowers. Which doesn’t mean that they couldn’t enjoy the beauty of flowers too: in fact the beauty made the transience more poignant.

Rikard Österlund knows all about these old flower paintings, and his photographs are homages, parodies, and meditations on the art of his forebears. He reconstructs, with amazing accuracy, the lighting of the originals, and he arranges his bouquets to emulate the colours of the Old Masters. At a first glance, they look like paintings, they have been composed with so much knowledge and artistry. The gloomy, brooding tones of the originals are perfectly matched. But something has gone wrong; the flowers are fakes, made of silk and plastic, and the smooth detailed finish has been made not through patient months of skilful painting, but in a millisecond, by pressing the button on a camera.

This inspired fakery captures more of the original spirit of those flower pieces than one could achieve by redoing the old style and skulls in paint. We are being asked to think and meditate, not only on death, but also on cultural change, on the way the stern morality of our ancestors has been replaced by consumerism, and on the shallow roots of our virtual culture, presented on a computer screen. And – as with those old flower paintings – the images are so beautiful, they make this message even more poignant.

Dr Paul Taylor, June 2011