Why have flowers gained such prominence as a subject for still life in the history of art? For artists such as Georgia O’Keefe their symbolism as metaphors for female sexuality make them worthy subjects. Others are interested purely in their natural beauty. Van Gogh once said “if you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere,” hence his depictions of sunflowers. In the floral still life of Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama another factor is brought into the mix. Both recognise natural beauty, but understand that it is, inherently, fleeting. A flower’s beauty after all will always wane. However through an understanding of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi a flower’s waning beauty does not render it a subject unfit for still-life. Instead it makes it a stronger one.
Wabi-sabi emphasises transience and imperfection. Wabi translates loosely as ‘simplicity’. Sabi equates to the beauty of age and wear, an object’s patina. Wabi-sabi is formed from the underlying belief that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. An appreciation of its key tenets can transform the way in which we look at the world. A chip in a vase, or a knot in a wooden bowl, makes both more interesting, and thus more beautiful. Wabi-sabi is key to the ancient Chinese beliefs of Taoism and Zen Buddhism but only began to shape Japanese culture when the Zen priest Murata Shuko of Nara (1423-1502) changed the concept of the tea ceremony, discarding the gold, jade and porcelain and replacing it will simple, rough, wooden and clay items. It still features in contemporary Japanese life, not only in tea ceremonies, but also for example in garden design and flower arrangement.
Of Daido Moriyama’s Rose, ARTUNER’s guest curator Filippo Maggia, comments, “The exaggerated close-up of this rose does not appear intended to emphasise its beauty, but instead to showcase its imperfections. Daido Moriyama’s photograph is heavily grainy in texture, with blurring towards the edges of the rose, as well as a strong dark to light contrast that appears almost abrasive rather than conventionally beautiful.” This is wabi-sabi in action. Moving away from the traditional depiction of a beautiful, colourful rose, to a more intense, monochromatic study. In Flower Rondeau Nobuyoshi Araki has returned the flower’s colour, but has concentrated on the flower’s fragility. Contrasting the vitality of the flower’s stem with the withering petals shows that this is a fleeting moment. We know that flowers will, over time, lose what makes them beautiful and eventually die. But, this knowledge does not stop us from enjoying the beauty of a flower, indeed perhaps it is precisely this knowledge that enjoins us to appreciate a flower’s beauty whilst it lasts?
Another Japanese exponent of wabi-sabi is Hiroshi Sugimoto, most strikingly in his series Colors of Shadows. Much like flowers shadows are equally fleeting. Movement will alter the shadow: movement of the light source and/or movement of the object. There are also other environmental factors that will change the shadow, as Sugimoto has commented, “in the morning light, the shadows play freely over the surfaces, now appearing, now vanishing. While on rainy days, they take on a deeper, more evocative cast.” Because of this constant state of flux the moments Sugimoto captures will never be exactly the same, but, to a wabi-sabi disciple this is something to be celebrated not mourned.
An attempt to try and wrest the fleeting nature of a flower’s beauty into permanency for Araki and Moriyama is to capture the image through the lens of a camera. It is fitting that photography is the medium to eternalise this transience. For photography traffics in the transient. By photographing floral still lifes Araki and Moriyama are preserving a moment of beauty that would have otherwise been lost. But equally the camera captures a moment of death. As Roland Barthes said a photograph is that “that has been.” The moments captured in Araki and Moriyama’s floral still lifes can never be in the same way, thus simultaneously marking the continuation and cessation of a particular moment. Therefore what they depict are in fact transient contradictions. They are fleeting moments frozen in time. But however brief the fleeting may have been it can never happen again, thus the photograph is not perfect. However through an understanding of wabi-sabi we can see that even though Moriyama and Araki’s floral still lifes are an imperfect preservation of their subjects’ fading beauty they can, and should, be regarded as a beautiful attempt.