PICK THE rose. It used to symbolise the Virgin Mary and, before her, Venus, the pricking of its barbs being likened to the wounds of love. The association still survives in the common meaning of a bunch of roses ('I love you'). Flowers might be delicate and short-lived but they have acquired a vast range of unpredictably durable meanings, a whole bouquet of significances: affection, virtue, chastity, wantonness, religious steadfastness, transience. The modern multiplication of floral emblems and trademarks has, however, taken its toll. When the red rose can stand for the Labour Party, a box of chocolates and Blackburn Rovers FC, it seems fair to say that its symbolic potency has been somewhat diluted by over-use.
'Flora Photographica: Masterpieces of Flower Photography', at the Serpentine Gallery, may be intended as a demonstration of the continuing fertility of the floral image, its development and cultivation within the modern medium of photography. But the exhibition seems to look, not forwards, but back: it is full of pictures that have the quality of echoes, Chinese whispers, belatedly recollecting much older ways of seeing flowers and finding meaning in them.
When Bert Stern photographs Marilyn Monroe holding a pair of overblown rose blossoms to her breasts like a floral bikini, he is self-consciously remaking her as Venus, as a modern goddess of love. When Cecil Beaton frames Marlene Dietrich beside a large orchid, he is distantly evoking the association between orchids and exoticism suggested by Manet in his Olympia. The exhibition constantly redirects attention away from the images which it contains and back to their origins in art.
The painting of flowers used to be regarded as the lowest of the genres and it is, still, the least theorised. So while the history of flowers in art contains all kinds of other histories - of faith and of attitudes to sexuality, of power and knowledge - it has remained, substantially, unwritten.
Dutch flower paintings, the earliest pure examples of the genre, are more complicated than their reputation as vanitas pictures - reminders of the transience of all worldly things - might suggest. In 17th-century Holland, the flower was also an emblem of political influence, and of man's mastery of his physical environment. Flower power, you could say, was a Dutch invention.
The bouquets of Dutch still life are fundamentally anti-natural, or at least anti-pastoral, in that they almost invariably exclude wild flowers, preferring those that have been imported, cultivated and crossbred by man. The vases of Ambrosius Boschaert are typically filled with the new exotics: tulips from Turkey, dahlias from Mexico, fritillaries from Persia. The vase becomes a microcosm of the spread of the Dutch colonial network, a floral map, so to speak, of a nation's sphere of influence.
Dutch flower paintings usually include many different flowers that could not possibly be in bloom at the same time: a defiance of seasonal time that combines with a defiance of the limits of habitat to make such paintings images of man's power (through trade, botany, and the act of painting) to alter the facts of nature. The Dutch still life artists also tend to avoid repeating the same flower in a single picture, a fact which reflects that here it is the sheer multiplicity of specimens rather than simply their beauty that counts: the expansion of botanical knowledge is cast as a version of political conquest.
Flower painting's subjects might often be hidden but they are usually hot: power, in Dutch still life, but more commonly sex. Flowers in art have an odd, contradictory history, since their most traditional connotations - the flower as emblem of unrestrained sexual impulse, and of chastity - run precisely counter to one another. 'Flora Photographica' demonstrates, among other things, the persistence of this symbolic divide: early modernist photographers find in the flower an image of virginal purity of form, while Robert Mapplethorpe pictures calla lilies as fleshly and creatural, as flowers with tongues and penises.
The Manichean dualism of flower symbolism in Western art goes back to deeper divisions within Western culture as a whole - the uneasy confluence, within it, of Christian attitudes and much older pagan beliefs. In religious art, the appearance of flowers is rigidly governed by an allegorical attitude which is profoundly suspicious of sex. Flowers are marginal presences in Byzantine and much Renaissance art, their varieties mostly limited to those species established as the attributes of the saints and the Virgin: so while the three roses in a glass of water that sit next to the enthroned Madonna in the National Gallery's The Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli might have been painted naturalistically, their function is, still, medieval. They are ideograms.
It is in the secular paintings of the Renaissance that the most interesting collisions between Christian and older forms of pagan flower symbolism occur. The Christian notion of the flower as a symbol of chastity is challenged by the Greco-Roman (and doubtless older) conception of flowers as emblems of spring, new life, regeneration and the impulse to procreation - the idea of flowers as fertility symbols, embodied in classical mythology by the close association of the goddesses of flowers and love, Flora and Venus.
The most famous Renaissance painting of Venus and Flora, Botticelli's Primavera, nervously acknowledges the potency of this old, pagan floral symbolism while also attempting to tame it. Botticelli's mythological figures stand on a carpet of flowers: coltsfoot, forget-me-nots, grape hyacinths, cornflowers, periwinkles, borage, pinks, anemones, daisies. This expansion of the normal repertoire of Renaissance flower painting makes the Primavera almost (but only almost) a hymn to fertility - an image of floral abundance, peopled by alluring images of female sexuality, thinly draped goddesses in diaphanous veils.
But the eroticism of Botticelli's painting, and the sexual charge of its floral symbolism, is held in check by a peculiar strategy of pictorial conflation - the subtle elision of one symbolic code with another. Botticelli's Venus, much more decorously dressed than the other figures in the painting, has been made to resemble a Madonna. And this, in turn, gives Botticelli's garden chaste associations: it becomes the hortus conclusus of conventional religious art, the walled garden that symbolised Mary's perpetual virginity. The Primavera is a strange, tense painting, poised between two versions of flower symbolism: a garden of love that is, also, an image of inviolable chastity; a place presided over by a goddess of love who is also, paradoxically, the Virgin.
In modern times, curious things happen to flowers and their meanings. Images of flowers become so widespread that their older meanings begin to be obscured (the Cadbury's Roses phenomenon). And new printing technologies mean that flowers begin to appear, in the home, as a ubiquitous decorative device. Victorian painting copes insecurely with this new superabundance of flowers. Pre-Raphaelite art, which is full of virginal maidens wandering through fields of flowers, attempts to rediscover the older forms of Christian signifiance given to flowers. But the results are usually compromised by their own aestheticised decorativeness. It is as if these artists have seretly conceded that flowers have become terminally and merely decorative in their time, a form of mass-produced ornamentation run wild in the new Victorian world of luxury and over-production - and painting itself risks turning into a form of vaguely moralised wallpaper, its ambitions for high ethical seriousness impeached by its resemblance to a Liberty print.
Another thing that happens to flowers in modern times is that as artists begin to conceive their job not as the continuance of tradition but its rupture, they reinvent the meanings of flowers within the terms of their personal mythologies. Van Gogh turns the sunflower into an emblem of his own destiny, painting its sudden, fantastic radiance and equally sudden decline with the pathos of one who senses in it the extremes of his own temperament; Georgia O'Keeffe finds, in close-up views of lilies or irises that resemble both female genitalia and vast, abstracted landscapes, emblems of her quasi-mystical faith in the connectedness of all things.
Early modernism unpredictably transforms flower paint from the lowest of the genres into one of the grandest. The flower painting, a form of art which entirely eschewed event in favour of more abstract harmonies of form and colour, was perfectly suited to the concerns of an artist such as Monet. The older Monet became increasingly uninterested in human action or anecdote and came to a vaguely pantheistic view of the world as a fundamentally eventless place: a field of indeterminate natural energies, a play of light and colour and weather, whose image he found in his waterlily pond at Giverny.
Monet's late paintings of waterlilies offer no more than the most delicate correspondences to what they purport to represent: the flowers become floating, shifting, abstracted patches of colour, rendered in thin, etherised layers of paint. Flowers, in art, are usually less innocent and more complicated than might be imagined: Monet used them, in effect, to reinvent painting, and to reinvent pictorial space, which in his waterlily paintings becomes radically flattened and abstracted. But maybe the flower painting has always been like a gangster's bouquet - inside, there's a machine gun.
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