Brno, Czech Republic

Daniel Balabán, Plants, 1996, watercolor on canvas, 63 x 47 1/4". From “. . . and don’t forget the flowers.”

Daniel Balabán, Plants, 1996, watercolor on canvas, 63 x 47 1/4". From “. . . and don’t forget the flowers.”

“. . . and don’t forget the flowers”

Moravská Galerie v Brně

Daniel Balabán, Plants, 1996, watercolor on canvas, 63 x 47 1/4". From “. . . and don’t forget the flowers.”

Flowers are among the kitschiest subjects—along with kids and pets. It would seem impossible to address them in modern and contemporary art except in a repressed or ironic mode: Think of Mondrian paying the devil for his Neo-Plasticist heaven with secretly executed floral still lifes, or Warhol rolling hibiscus blossoms off his assembly line in 1964 as the provocatively anodyne sequel to car crashes and electric chairs. Yet the roster of contemporary artists who have contemplated flowers is remarkable: Ellsworth Kelly, Charles Ray, Jay DeFeo, Christopher Williams, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Cy Twombly—the list is long, even without obvious polemical entries such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s calla lilies, or the mountain blossom wielded against defenseless car windows in Pipilotti Rist’s video installation Ever Is Over All, 1997. A recent, smartly presented exhibition in Brno attested to the continuing vitality of this subject. Curated by Yvona Ferencová, head of modern and contemporary art at the show’s only venue, the Moravian Gallery (and curator of the Czech pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale), “. . . and don’t forget the flowers” brought together twenty-three Czech and Slovak artists working in all media. Five of the contributing artists were born in the 1950s and the rest ten to twenty-five years later.

Mixing pre–Velvet Revolution artists with a younger generation was critical to the show’s success, for the exhibition’s title reverberated with echoes of the Soviet-dominated past. Bringing flowers when visiting was yet another mundane conformist ritual of that era, like keeping geraniums on the windowsill or handing out red carnations at a public ceremony. The show’s older artists were represented both by recent works—helping establish continuity with contemporary trends—and by earlier pieces that reminded viewers of the frame of reference under Communist “normalization” between 1969 and 1989. In a 1978 piece documented here, for example, installation artist Jiří Kovanda placed a houseplant at the foot of a concrete pillar in an empty attic, an absurdist gesture that contrasted fragile life with the authoritarian immovability of a prison state. Kovanda’s pieces helped anchor an otherwise slight suggestion by thirty-year-old Dominik Lang (Ferencová’s selection for Venice this year) that the museum guards—typically women pensioners—wear florally scented perfumes during the exhibition run (Untitled, 2010).

Artist and curator Václav Magid gave Kovanda’s oppositional scheme a captivating twist by fashioning a giant flower out of cardboard, its petals shaped like the cell blocks of a panoptical detention center but hung with common clothes for leaves—a surveillance architecture festooned with rags (And the Sky Saw This Proud Skeleton Blossom Out as a Flower, 2010). Eighteen photographs by the duo of Martin Polák and Lukáš Jasanský, Nature—God’s Poor Little Things, 1996–97, captured naturally misshapen woodland plants and trees, while Markéta Othová summoned remembrances of childhood through a cluster of portraitlike close-up photographs of ordinary plants. A delicate watercolor on canvas by Daniel Balabán, Plants, 1996, and runic mathematical drawings by Denisa Lehocká made vivid the theme of quickly fading beauty emphasized throughout the show and its catalogue.

One floor above the main exhibition, a parallel display centered on the representation of flowers in premodern times, with excerpts from a Baroque herbarium and samples of tulip and crocus seeds that visitors were asked to plant and then return to visit throughout the show, to help their potted creations grow and flower. Kitschy audience-participation initiative? Certainly—but that goes with the territory.

Matthew S. Witkovsky