It is spring in California, and we had plenty of rain through the winter. Everything is in bloom, and the De Young Museum uses this abundance to organize its annual “Bouquets to Art” exhibition. The idea is simple, and it draws huge crowds of spectators. The museum invites floral designers and artists to let themselves be inspired by the paintings and sculptures. They choose a piece of artwork and create a corresponding flower arrangement. This year, more than 125 designers participated in this lively conversation between nature and art. The result is spectacular: galleries awash with colorful flowers, art as inspiration for more art, resulting in a jubilant resonance between nature and art. The floral designs range from the strikingly simple to the elaborately intricate. Some of them are literal translations of the corresponding painting, some of them are abstract ideas in response to the piece of art, and some just use the colors and become independent creations. For example, a Japanese painting gets magnified by an arrangement that represents the winter in Japan: bare branches, snow falling, and cranes flying. The floral designer who created this piece folded 1,000 origami cranes for it. At the entrance of the exhibit, there is a huge tree, cut into pieces and then reassembled to its original form, now floating in the air – nature suspended.
In addition to its sheer beauty, the exhibition also advances a deeper question: What is the relation between nature and art? From the inception of Western painting, artists have depicted plants, flowers, and trees in images ranging widely in subject and purpose. Nature appears in devotional images of saints and scenes from the Scriptures, in portraits, and in still lifes. From the fifteenth century onward, artists became increasingly interested in the realistic depiction of objects from the natural world. Beyond their decorative properties, plants and flowers usually had a symbolic meaning or association that related to the subject of the painting. But given the looming environmental disasters, can we still accept this domestication of nature, its instrumental appropriation into the human domain as something beautiful? Is the aesthetic transformation of nature enough, or don’t we need a confrontation between the reality of nature, especially in its beauty, and our symbolic treatment of it?