All Flesh is Grass

By Arlyne Moi

Norwegian College of Applied Art and Design, Thesis for Master’s Degree, 1998
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1 Background

«Blessed are the men and women who are planted on your earth, in your garden, who grow as your trees and flowers grow, who transform their darkness to light. Their roots plunge into darkness; their faces turn toward the light.» The Odes of Solomon

1 The historical context to the theme.

Plants, especially flowers, speak to our senses. They bear us messages and play a significant role in our ritu-als, from baptism to burial. An unopened flower can signify hope, promise or hidden talent. Brilliantly colored open flowers can indicate the reproductive fecundity that ultimately gives way to wilting and decay. Telling us of the vegetative cycles of nature and the growth and decline of all earthly life, they stand for life’s transitory nature.

Since the time of the renaissance, flowers have been liberated from Christian iconography and stand as a genre in their own right. Yet even during the apex of its popularity, 17th century Dutch still life, where the sale of six tulip bulbs could buy a grand house on a fashionable canal, such art served primarily as salon decor.

Just as students today work with the color wheel, students then painted flowers to learn the rules of color har-mony. At that time, flower painters were still considered second rate because, as Gerard de Laresse states, any artist who paints more than one kind of object - almost any other kind of painter, in short - is more perfect than the artist who specializes in one thing. A history painter can knock off a flower piece, but woe to the flower painter who tries returning the compliment.

By the 19th century, floral pieces became devoid of content through endless reproduction. The traditional manifestation of cut flowers in a vase was never revitalized. This stagnation in floral painting led to its total abandonment by serious artists and after the second world war, when art was dominated almost entirely by ab-straction, there was no room left for it. It descended completely into the depths of department store art and hobby painting. Hans Michael Herzog says, «The uncritical, harmless rendering of a (supposedly) whole and healthy world is a sword of Damocles that hangs menacingly over the head of anyone tempted to approach the subject of flowers in art.» Andy Warhol’s Do it Yourself from 1962 is a fitting illustration of the art worlds disregard for the theme. Knowing this, how dare I venture into such shallow waters?

In representing plants, there are not only shallow waters to watch out for but deep and dangerous currents. One of these is the banality of northern romanticism. John Ruskin called it the «pathetic fallacy» to empathize so strongly with a plant that it takes on a particular human presence such that we are led to feel sorry for it.

For a theme whose history is so frotted with triteness, getting beyond shallowness of thought and facility of expression has come to be a major concern of my artistic practice.

2 Decor and ornament

From the beginning, I was also confronted by the extreme stigmatization of decorative art. I asked myself: What is the connection between flowers and ornamental decor? After looking at the question from a number of angles over these three semesters, I have come to the conclusion that the basic reason is because flowers are reckoned as being beautiful and because decorative ornamentation is tightly knit to the concept of beauty. But before going any further, what do «decor» and «ornament» mean?

The two concepts decor and ornament are frequently used as synonyms but are in fact quite different. Decor is that which is put on something else. It does not describe what is put. Ornament is more involved. In the book The Mediation of Ornament, Oleg Grabar discusses several views. One is that it is motifs which are not es-sential to structure or serviceability but for the sake of embellishment. This view centers on the singular and exclusive attribute of beauty.

The idea that ornament is an indication of completeness is traditional in both eastern and western cultures. The Sanskrit word «bhusati», meaning adorn, implies even the completion of a state of mind or soul. When applied to women, it means the prosperity of the male head of a family and the children as the ornamental completion of a marriage union. My mother had a bracelet of eight medallions, with name, sex, birth date and stone for each child. I was my mothers ornament. Saying this, I am reminded that as a child I was in a club called Kings’ Jewels. We sang:

Little children, little children, who love the redeemer
are the jewels, precious jewels, His loved and His own.
Like the stars of the morning His bright crown adorning,
They shall shine in His beauty, bright gems for His crown.
We are the ornaments of God.

Grabar has a beautiful saying that the moon is the ornament of the night, because, without it, the night is in-complete. Taking it a step further, I am my husbands ornament. And he is mine.

As well as the idea of completion, ornament is seen by some as a synthesis of nature, an abstraction of physi-cal reality. This view was expressed clearly by both Picasso and Le Corbusier, who relates that one of his teachers used to preach that «only Nature is inspiring and true,» and that one must «penetrate» it, «make a synthesis of it by creating ornamentation.»

Finally, one of the main views of Oleg Grabbar, and the most meaningful for me in this project, is that it is possible for an ornament to be the subject of a design. Even though it may loose one meaning when endlessly repeated in wallpaper, it takes on other meanings all the same. Ornament itself can be the message that is communicated when it functions as a mediator between the work of art and the viewer.

3 What is the basis for my ornamental decorative approach?

Where as defining the terms ornament and decor may be easily achieved through reading books, finding a basis for such art is more elusive. E. H. Gombrich writes that in the course of polemics against the Rococo period, decoration lost its innocence and has since require justification before the Courts of Reason and Good Taste. It has been passionately rejected in our century by many influential people, despite the influence of William Mor-ris and the Arts and Crafts movement. In his article Ornament und Verbrechen, written in 1908, Adolph Loos claimed that the evolution of a culture is measured according to the degree it removes ornaments from its ap-pliances. Reasoning that with the invention of the category of fine art, there is no longer any reason for artists to occupy themselves with it, but he understands that it is still the joy of lowly craftsman. Such are deemed as slaves of ornament and it is a sign of their retardation and degeneration. Curiously enough, non ornamented appliances sold for higher prices than ornamented ones at that time. Why would an artisan work longer than necessary in order to receive less pay? Finally, he prophesies that the removal of ornamentation from art and craft will raise its status and quality to unforeseen hights and that ornamentlessness is a sign of spiritual power.

I give Loose some credit, although he lapses into the ridiculous when he says that a person who has a tattoo but has never committed a crime, is still a latent criminal.

As I stand before the courts of reason and good taste, is there a valid reason for me to use an ornamental and decorative approach? My work being decorative and ornamental is a reflection that I am decorative and orna-mental. Furthermore, referring back to the discussion of what ornament is, the idea of completeness can be used to both ironic and contemplative effect. There is the wise medieval Jewish saying from the Book of Ben Sirach: «A mind settled on an intelligent thought is like the stucco decoration on the wall of a colonnade.»

As to decor, it may be a cop-out to find a famous artist and quote him, saying, if he did it, then I can too. But Matisse was a very reflected person and his words ring true for me. He was interviewed by Leon Degand in 1945:

Degand: «People have still not given up reproaching your art for being highly decorative, meaning that in the pejorative sense of superficial.»
Matisse: «The decorative for a work of art is an extremely precious thing. It is an essential quality. It does not detract to say that the paintings of an artist are decorative. All the French primitives are decorative.
The characteristic of modern art is to participate in our life. A painting in an interior spreads joy around it by the colors, which calm us. The colors obviously are not assembled haphazardly, but in an expressive way. A painting on a wall should be like a bouquet of flowers in an interior.»

This is not an exhaustive reason for me to treat my work decoratively, but it is sufficient.

On this note, Gro Jessen gave me some excellent advice. I asked her how could I make my work meaningful and decorative. «Simplify and then simplify some more. Cook your ideas down to the bare essential.» Later I read from Matisse: «There are two sorts of artists, some who on each occasion paint the portrait of a hand, a new hand each time. Corot for instance, and the others who paint the sign for a hand, like Delacrois. With sighs you can compose freely and ornamentally…»

4 My work related to both a private and a public room

In a workshop with the German paper-artist Ulrich Wagner, it was impressed upon me that when planning a work, one of the first considerations is to reflect on the nature of the room where the art is intended to be ex-hibited. By private room, I mean a home or a place that not every one has access to. I want the nature of such an object to express that something or someone can be hidden from view and that the object itself be viewed from close range.

Likewise, what unique quality does a public room have? Is it not that in such a room every one is open to view and that there is a greater degree of anonymity? I have tried to take these factors into account when planning my work.

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