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Say it with flowers

Politics, death and wonder. And you thought they were just Dutch flower paintings. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
It is difficult to know just what was on Ambrosius Bosschaert's mind when he painted Flowers in a Rummer, circa 1614. Perhaps he resented the sheer sweat of pictorial fidelity to the striped tulip, with its irregular sawtooth edge; to the crumpled old rose; to the drooping fritillary; to the ragged scarlet-and-white carnation; to the butterfly with spotted, fine-veined wings. Perhaps he felt the joys of spring. Then again, he could have been thinking of the Book of Isaiah: "All flesh is grass, and the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field; the grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it." Bosschaert's painting is a mixed bouquet in which observation and moralisation, pleasure and morbidity are uncertainly intertwined.

Flowers in a Rummer is one of the earliest pictures in "Dutch Flower Painting 1600-1750", at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is, therefore, one of the earliest paintings of flowers and nothing but in Western art. Before the start of the 17th century, flowers in European painting were almost always confined to supporting roles. They were saint's attributes. They were colourful (and usually symbolic) embellishments of landscapes in which momentous events unfolded.

Then, in early 17th-century Holland, a small revolution took place. Artists began to paint flowers and only flowers. Bosschaert painted them crammed, superabundantly, into gleaming pewter vases. Balthasar van der Ast painted them writhing in splendour. Anthony Claesz painted them wilted, in melancholy shade, on mahogany tabletop or chipped marble slab. Dutch flower painting is portentous and mysterious at the same time. In the dark grey galleries of Dulwich the silence deafens as secret histories bloom and fade.

The earliest practitioners of what would fast develop into one of the most triumphantly secular and bourgeois of genres seem characterised by a touching uncertainty. It is as if they were slightly unsure that flowers, observed and depicted, could truly stand alone as fit subjects for art. In the paintings of Bosschaert, Jan Bruegel and Roelandt de Savery, the bouquet is almost always placed at the centre of the canvas. Every flower is in perfect condition and the blossoms are arranged in such a way that each shows its full face to the viewer. The painting of floral detail is myopically achieved. But the fact that each flower is a perfect type of its species, exhibited with a heraldic clarity, indicates that the habit of seeing and painting nature as a lexicon of signs or emblems died hard. Albeit enlarged and isolated, these flowers still have the feel of stage props in sacred mises-en-scenes.

The effect of such works is one of subtle otherworldiness - of an art caught between a new intensity of empirical observation and old idealities of symbolic thought. Bosschaert is now the most highly-regarded of all Dutch still-life painters, although he is not the greatest virtuoso. Could this be part of the reason why? A trembling residue of sanctity seems to hover, like an invisible penumbra, somewhere in the darkness around his flowers.

There is always a tension in the Dutch flower piece between humility and hubris. Every flower painting is potentially a vanitas, a fact that some painters are keener than others to reinforce. Christoffel van den Berghe's furled pink roses, which are the colour of blushing or tumescent flesh, share a table with those grim mementoes of the Dutch emblem book, the skull (Death) and the pipe (Transience). Painting nature with the utmost care and attention may well be the expression of a humble, Calvinistic devotion to the splendour of God's creation, each work a bright epiphany declaring His immanence in the world He made. But to paint the flower is also, Prometheus-like, to steal the flame of its beauty - and to keep it alight, in defiance of nature, forever.

Willem van Aelst, a painter working in the 1660s and 1670s, did away with the humble Calvinist interior implied by the first flower painters, with their plain tables and plain glass vases. Instead, his flowers are displayed in a finely wrought silver vase poised on a slice of bevelled marble. The flowers themselves are clearly pretexts for the artist's own compositional flourish, falling down the face of the painting in a sprawling, irregular, diagonal sweep, like Rubens' rebel angels tumbling into hell. Van Aelst was a very considerable as well as a very confident painter. Yet a much smaller work, in which three sad, fat roses and a pair of carnations are dying on a slab, shows that he was also capable of an intense, self- effacing morbidity. Deathliness, albeit only the deathliness of flowers, has been given its own profundity here. A Spray of Floers on a Marble Table is a crucifixion painted by other means.

Painting flowers was among other things a way of symbolising Dutch power and Dutch prosperity. The bouquet containing dahlias from Mexico and fritillaries from Persia, impossibly blooming at the same time, was a colourfully proud boast: a floral mapping of Dutch overseas influence. The national obsession with rare and exotic blooms was taken to extreme lengths. At the height of the tulipomania that famously seized Holland in the 1630s, it is said that a single bulb of the most prized of all tulips, the red-and-white striped "Semper Augustus," changed hands for 260,000 stuivers. For the same price, it would have been possible to purchase approximately 14 Ambrosius Bosschaerts.

Artists knew that the flowers that they were painting were far more valuable than their own depictions. This may explain the intense, marvelling quality of the depiction in so much 17th-century Dutch flower painting. Balthasar van der Ast's art is characterised by a realism so charged with awe that it has become a kind of hyperrealism or surrealism. This was not only because the flowers were valuable; it was because they were wonderful - were, indeed, wonders.

The gaping tulips that Van der Ast saw were not flowers at all, as we know them. They were messages from another world, unimaginably unfamiliar, full of mystery and exoticism. On the tabletops beside the flowers in one of his finest works, Van der Ast placed a clutter of seashells. The spiked conch, the furled razor-shell, the unicorn horn were (like the heavy tulip and the extravagant iris with its blue jaws) trophies of the strangeness that lurked in the unfamiliar places of the world. To look at Vase of Flowers with Shells is to see man poised, in fascination, before a nature yet untaxonomised. The artist is profoundly observant but unscientifically enchanted by the weirdness and splendour of it all.

Van der Ast's pictures are a reminder of how much of the human capacity for wonder has been lost in the acquisition of knowledge. The emotions that produced this species of fidelity no longer exist (which is, of course, the truest of all reasons to value the art of the early Dutch flower painters - not as botanical record, but as the record of a rare phase in human sensibility when empiricism and enchantment coexisted). Paul Taylor, who has written a highly erudite short catalogue to accompany this exhibition, makes the interesting and original suggestion that Vermeer studied under Van der Ast. Whether it is to be accounted for by influence or affinity, there is certainly a strand linking the two painters: an ability to invest perceived reality with a sense of solemn magic.

The art of Jan van Huysum brings this exhibition to a close and brings Dutch flower painting into the 18th century. His pictures are masterpieces of swaggering decoration. The awe-struck illusionism of his predecessors has become a thing of the past. Van Huysum's flowers coil impossibly high, unsupported, from the vases that contain them. Their profusion is almost indecent. Their colours riot and clash, each picture an orgy of shape and hue.

Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, loaned by the National Gallery, is one of his most intoxicating works. The grapes richly clustered at the base of the terracotta urn, each one a perfect green marble of juicy light, are emblems of the drunken, Bacchanalian flourish of Van Huysum's art. The spirit of a new age is upon us. These blooms are to flower painting what Boucher's airborne nymphs, suspended in clouds of cotton wool, would be to painting of the nude: decorative, unashamed, ruddy, wanton.

Those of a Calvinistic disposition will disapprove of what Van Huysum did to the stilled world of 17th-century Dutch flower painting. His work does, perhaps, mark a fall of a kind. Implicit in Van Huysum's work is a certain loss of wonder in the face of nature - which the painter treats, not as a source of marvels, but as a sourcebook of flamboyant decorative effect. But his art has its own beauty. How splendid, exhilarating and sexy the arrogance of a painter can be.

n To 29 Sept at Dulwich Picture Gallery