Blooms and Brushstrokes
In their floral history of Australian art, mother and daughter team Penelope and Tansy Curtin uncover the stories behind some of our favourite floral artworks.
Nora Heysen, 1911–2003, A bunch of flowers, 1930
Which to choose as the feature flower for this lively work by Nora Heysen? The bunch contains old-fashioned lachanalia – soldier boys – white anemones, the pheasant’s eye daffodil (Narcissus poeticus), grape hyacinths, bluebells, a single cyclamen and forget-me-nots. An embarrassment of riches indeed. Because of the romance implicit in its name, we decided upon the forget-me-not.
Apparently sometimes called ‘mouse ear’ from the genus name of Myosotis, a Greek word combining mus (mouse) and otos (ear), although I’ve never heard it called that, the tiny five-petalled forget-me-not has attracted a multiplicity of legends to explain the origin of its pet name. The one that I encountered most frequently in my research concerns the Creation story: in the Garden of Eden God created all plants, reminding each to remember their names. At the completion of the naming session, God turned to leave, but was waylaid by a small flower who asked for its name. God replied that, because he’d forgotten the flower previously, and to ensure it wouldn’t happen again, the flower would be called ‘forget-me-not’.
Margery Fish says that forget-me-nots cannot be excluded from gardens – and nor would we want to – but they are overgenerous with their offspring. Perhaps this is why we forget them not!
Although an acknowledged landscape and still life painter, it is with her portraits that Heysen’s talents came to the fore. In 1938 Nora Heysen became the first female artist to win the prestigious Archibald Prize for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the wife of a Dutch diplomat. Just a few years later she achieved another milestone, with her appointment as the first female official war artist, serving in New Guinea. In addition to these grand achievements, Heysen’s more humble floral still lifes were very popular with the gallery-going public and her exhibitions often sold very well; the sales from her 1933 exhibition of still life paintings enabled her to travel to London to continue her artistic studies.When her funds eventually ran out, Heysen returned to Australia and settled in Sydney.
In her floral still lifes, Heysen often included exotic elements to add depth and complexity. A bunch of flowers includes a dramatic gold-striped backdrop and Persian-inspired vase. In this work, Heysen has formally arranged these common cottage garden flowers such that they take on a sculptural form, which, alongside the use of the exotic textile, transforms these ordinary flowers into an extraordinary composition.
Penelope Curtin is a freelance editor and passionate gardener. Her daughter Tansy Curtin is Curatorial Manager at Bendigo Art Gallery and a keen grower of heirloom edibles. They both live in Bendigo. Blooms and Brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian art is published by Wakefield press, $65.