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Romantic gift or potent symbol? The flower has exerted a fascination for artists. Miranda France plucks a few blooms from a new exhibition at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

ay it with flowers and everyone knows what you mean. Like

greetings cards, there’s one for every occasion roses for love ,

and rebirth. It is a paradox of our soc1ety that, however estranged we are from things pastoral, we continue to attribute powerful associations to flowers. Even if these are largely tacky, they are nonetheless persuasive. Take the single rose, an emblem with the potential to be endlesly marketed: the Labour Party could confidently adopt it

8 The List 9 22 October 1992

lilies for death, daffodils for Spring 9

j as a symbol for their policies and know that people would associate them with decency, caring, a certain well-meaning, if nostalgic, patriotism, and more than a smidgin of red-blooded passion. And a Scottish thistle, needless to say, stands for much more than romantic images of misty mountains and ’lochs.

The South Bank Centre’s new touring I exhibition, making its second stop at l

Edinburgh’s botanic garden, garnered an impressive response when it opened in London. The title Flora Photographica

Masterpieces of Flower Photography has an off-putting but quaint, Victorian ring about it actually appropriate considering that photography was born at a time in the 19th century when there was a great deal of interest in botanical depiction, and flowers were obvious, early subjects. But this is more than a survey show of photographed flora and fauna across the ages. Although photographers turn their hand to still life less than painters, for them too it is a forum for experimentation. Only some of the photographs here are straightforward floral representations. Others self-consciously use flowers as symbols or exploit nature’s science fiction bent; in the ‘Mutations’

: section weird triffid-like plants call to mind -, those wholly unconvincing sticky growths 3 that used to chase Doctor Who around

twenty years ago.

This is an all-star show, not just because many of history’s most famous photographers are represented there are priceless works by Man Ray from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as

images by Robert Mapplethorpe, Julia

Margaret Cameron, Anna Atkins, the first female photographer, and William Fox Talbot who invented photography. More immediately appealing are the famous faces wrapped around the flower subjects. Marilyn Monroe clasps outsize roses to her breasts, Marlene Dietrich pouts behind an orchid, Andy Warhol is momentarily obscured behind the obligatory flower that half-heartedly adorns any restaurant table. One critic complained that all those flowers get in the way of our appreciation of otherwise magnificent portraits— it’s difficult to concentrate on Otto Dix when your eye is continually drawn to the carnation on the left—hand side ofthe photograph. In a way she has a point, but the best thing about these large, themed exhibitions is that they need not be taken so seriously. There is obviously something to be learned here from photography’s pioneers and from its recent practitioners— the newest piece in the show was made by Helen Chadwick just this year but the real strength of Flora Photographica is that it presents diverse, unusual and humorous images by some of the world’s most influential artists. In an exhibition where innovation and style are constantly upending the laws of composition, the flowers themselves are almost a sideshow.

Flora Photographica can be seen at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh until 22 Nov, 10am—4pm, £2 (£1). Thames and Hudson have published a book of the same title, edited by William A. Ewing who selected the

photographs in this sho w.