2018 - 2021
Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands
What makes a genteel woman? And what sorts of subjects would be suitable for her consumption? As the long nineteenth century approached, women in Europe had little in the way of opportunities for education or advancement. There were, of course, acceptably female pastimes such as needlework and music, but careers were unheard of, and entire realms of study, such as the sciences, were wholly male domains. Women, they said, were led by emotion, while men were the more rational of the sexes, biologically determined to take charge of such fields. These binarisms remained the status quo for much of the century, but there were small ways in which women began gaining access to male realms. For the most compelling example of this, we need to look outwards, to the garden.
From ornamental gardens and markets, to floral interiors and fashions, the popularity of flowers bloomed across European social life in the nineteenth century, and all sorts of symbolic meaning was placed upon them. In hospitals and sickrooms they represented healing; in weddings they stood for love; and in churches they were feared for their pagan associations. Inspired by ancient epic and myth, they spread through the period’s art and literature, used to tell fanciful stories in allegorical ways. For the poets they were metaphors of rebirth and death. For the Decadents they represented the entanglement of beauty and decay, especially in regards to women and modern society. Women were often compared to flowers back then, for their smallness and their prettiness – but also for their ability to be ruined too.
A certain object that became particularly popular during this time was the sentimental flower book, of which there were many iterations. A pretty package of botanical illustrations, notes and vocabularies of flowers and their purported emotional and spiritual meanings, these books were, first and foremost, embellishments – something a woman would display on her table to signify her gentility. Elsewhere, they were used as a clandestine language in courtship, to help lovers pass coded messages between themselves. Gradually, however, elements of botany began appearing in these volumes, and women started learning, quietly but with purpose. Like the single beat of a butterfly’s wing, flowers too can effect great change. Tending to flora was deemed a female endeavour, and as such women were allowed to slip, almost imperceptibly, into the folds of natural science. Later, botany became one of the first subjects women were allowed to study in universities. Do you see how one moment in history enacted the sequence?
As the poets and the thinkers shaped social life in the nineteenth century, so too do our cultural producers shape it now; art moulds our opinions, challenges us, changes us and changes with us, and in many ways, the same can be said of language too. As you will find throughout the pages of this book, there is no single, universal language of flowers – like any other, it adapts and changes according to who is using it, for what purposes and when. As such, each of the works gathered here holds a constellation of interpretations within it; and each will say different things to different viewers, in varying contexts across the world.
History teaches us that a language of flowers can communicate endless things about the culture in which it emerged, and herein lies Lilia Luganskaia’s interest. Taking inspiration from the world of 19th Century sentimental flower books, Hortus presents itself as a set of notes towards a modern handbook for contemporary floriography, considering what the discipline might look like today. By collecting common flora across one year in the urban gardens around her home in Amsterdam and cross-referencing their meanings with publications from the past, Luganskaia reflects on their natures, their roles, and the symbolic familiarity they might hold for the communities living with them. A female artist and reader of the twenty-first century, she seeks out the essence of modern life through her lens, and through flowers, just like the women who came before her.