Blooming highlights the flower, a ubiquitous subject in art, through works in the Carleton Art Collection. A universal image of beauty, blooms express many meanings in art across time, cultures, and media.

The flower has been used in religious art for thousands of years. The lotus flower, symbolizing immortality and resurrection in ancient Egypt, represents purity in Hindu and Buddhist imagery. A carved wooden Buddhist reliquary from Japan takes on a lotus form, symbolic of the purity of Enlightenment, floating above the tainted waters of desire, the swirling arabesques carved into the base. Ray Morimura, a Japanese printmaker, fills his composition with repeated, schematized hydrangeas in a contemporary take on Buddhist floral symbols. The repetitive flower motif amplifies the meditative aura of this wooden pagoda. 

Floral motifs in ancient Middle Eastern artifacts synthesize influences from ancient Egypt to China, and with the advent of Islam, embody Islamic religious doctrine. This Persian earthenware vessel displays a version of the ancient Assyrian palmette that shows Chinese influence from trans-Asian trading routes. The Chinese peony motif, as seen both of these carved wooden plaques, exemplifies the East Asian style popularized by goods traded on the Silk Road. The Persian vessel’s cobalt blue pattern also presents arabesque designs prevalent in Islamic art since the 7th century. Since Islam prohibits the direct representation of people, instead abstracted, geometric plant motifs decorate Muslim spaces and artifacts, symbolizing the lushness and fertility of Paradise.

Flowers are a cross-cultural symbol of fertility and springtime. The bright, striking colors in Franco Fontana’s photograph, Emilia, expresses the joy of new growth in spring and the freedom of a wide, open field. Kobayashi Kyochika’s print series, Flower Patterns, uses floral imagery to suggest the beauty and sexuality of Japanese women throughout the Edo period (1603-1868). In Bijin from the Enpo Period, flower patterns decorating the woman’s kimono, futon, and folding screen allude to springtime, and to this beautiful courtesan’s erotic profession.

While flowers may symbolize life and fertility, they also allude to death and the passage of time. In the vanitas symbolism perfected by 17th century Dutch painters, floral still-lives are reminders that life passes quickly and inevitably fades into death. Jean de Botton’s early 20th century painting, Paris depuis ma fenêtre: Place de la Concorde, depicts flowers and fruit juxtaposed with a Parisian cityscape. Though not an obvious mediation on the inevitability of death, the artist may be invoking the vanitas theme by situating a floral still-life in a site where thousands of executions took place during the French Revolution. Jill Mathis photographs a bouquet of tulips in high-contrast black and white. Instead of a cheerful vision of spring, the blooms resemble a ghostly x-ray. Mathis de-familiarizes the tulips to convey the fleeting nature of earthly beauty.

Just as flowers symbolize both life and death, they play an important role in times of celebration and mourning. At Carleton, students put flowers in friends’ mailboxes to congratulate them on a test well done, celebrate the end of a tough week, or console them in rough times. When the Carleton community lost James Adams ’15, Paxton Harvieux ’15, and Michael Goodgame ’15 in a car wreck on February 28, 2014, an alumnus filled every student’s mailbox with a flower, a grand version of the Friday Flowers tradition. Photographer Wing Young Huie’s, Friday Flower, from a 2007 project documenting student life, spotlights this unique tradition binding together the Carleton community.

Description and image selection by Sophie Kissin ’14.