Ariane Vielmetter: Blue Violets
The German expression for coded, indirect communication is to speak durch die blume, or “through the flower.” Conversely, to state something bluntly is to say it unverblümt, or to “de-flower” one’s speech. The term most likely originated from the Victorian practice of floriography, which assigned symbolic meanings to hundreds of flower species. Bouquets and floral arrangements became a way to articulate complex sentiments, and to communicate implicit or even socially unacceptable messages. “Nosegays” and “tussy-mussies” were exchanged between lovers and friends, and the small bouquets were worn as fashionable accessories close to the body.
Mrs. Mary Delany was an 18th century English woman of minor noble rank who was married when she was still a teenager to a member of parliament more than four decades her senior, a contract that was supposed to elevate her family’s slipping socioeconomic standing. In her unhappy marriage, she devoted herself to her journal, her letters of correspondence with friends, and to the crafts that were considered appropriate for a woman in her position. She was a keen observer of details and a skillful practitioner of many art forms including shell work, embroidery, needlework, silhouettes, gardening, drawing, and writing. Her talents compelled her to make acquaintances with the musicians, poets, and botanists supported by the court. When her first husband finally passed away, she was able to use her deft social skills and her expertise in the domestic arts to engage with the literary and scientific community, all without actually breaching any social boundaries. In her late life, she pioneered the art of the “paper mosaic,” a technique that combined elaborate painting, cutting, and tissue paper collage. She used this methodology to painstakingly render foreign and domestic flowers from observation, creating an encyclopedic compendium of nearly 1000 collages that she called the Flora Delanica.
Violets often symbolize humility, modesty, purity, remembrance, and faithfulness. They grow best in shade and remain low to ground, and for this reason often go unseen. They are probably more frequently stepped on than picked. They are known for their weed-like resilience, their perennial ubiquity, and their ability to thrive and spread rhizomatically, even when faced with a gardener’s utter neglect. The viola odorata that I bought at the nursery seemed to wither and wilt the more I doted on it. When I finally took it out of its heavy pot and planted it in the inhospitable patch of earth next to my front door, it began to grow bright green leaves and spread its little stalks outward.
A shrinking violet is an introvert, a wallflower, usually but not always a female character. A pansy is a wimp, a fairy, or one that is generally unmanly.
After reading Charlotte Brontë’s novel I had assumed that the word Villette means violet in another language, but it was actually invented by the author to give the fictional town in her narrative a plausible name. The dog-eared copy of Villette that I borrowed from the Altadena library had a John Everett Millais painting called The Violet’s Message on its cover. The woman in the painting bears a resemblance to Effie Gray, one of Millais’ Pre-Raphealite muses and wife of the critic John Ruskin. Millais, Gray, and Ruskin became entangled in a love triangle that ended in the annulment of her marriage to Ruskin, and her eventual marriage to Millais. Millais later grew disconcertingly close with Effie’s younger sister Sophie, who posed for one of his most haunting portraits when she was just a teenager. Sophie died from health complications resulting from what is believed to have been anorexia nervosa. The Los Angeles Public library has no information on Sophie Gray. It carries five books relating to Effie Gray, 21 books on the work of John Everett Millais, and 259 books on John Ruskin.
In 2011, I went to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and saw an exhibition of Modernist works made in Germany between 1900 and 1945. Although there was a profusion of avant-garde activity in the years leading up to the war, there were only a handful of paintings that survived the Nazi campaign against “degenerate art”. Among these devastating black, gray, and earth-toned depictions of war, a small portrait of a sour-looking woman with a crown of bright spring flowers around her head seemed out of place, as if someone had hung a medieval painting in the wrong room. In Wilhelm Lachnit’s Der Traurige Frühling (The Melancholy Spring), the woman embodying spring radiates against a dull violet background, wearing lilacs, roses, an enormous scarlet pansy, a delicate dandelion gone to seed, and the saddest look I’ve ever seen. There was something deeply transgressive about this painting, despite its seemingly innocuous subject matter and its unimposing scale.
I have been poring over a recently published catalog of Albrecht Dürer’s master prints, drawings, and watercolors that my mother gave me for my birthday last year. One of his most famous copperplate engravings, Melencolia I, is reproduced with a remarkable level of detail in the book. Looking closely at the shadowy face of the large, winged woman brooding among the richly allegorical objects around her, it’s hard to tell whether she is struck with sadness or deep in thought. Many art historians claim that the engraving is an “inner self-portrait” of a grieving Dürer, who completed the print shortly after the death of his mother. I want to believe that this print is a rare representation of a woman thinking, but her angel wings get in the way of her subjectivity. Other historians have identified the image as a visualization of the Melancholic Temperament described by the ancient Greeks, arguing that it is the first image to establish a link between Melancholia and a propensity for imagination and artistic genius. I am irritated by this cliché of the tortured artist, because I know from the fate of most of my role models that it is a trope that does not serve women. Where male artists can claim drug addiction, psychosis, grief, and abusive or misanthropic behavior as necessary and legitimate parts of their creative process, women are often punished for exhibiting even the most minor eccentricities. So many creative, incisive female minds have fallen prey to suicide, self-inflicted harm, and socially sanctioned forms of violence. There is a powerful romanticism ascribed to the melancholy man that is not made available to women, whose misery is dismissed as hysteria, bitterness, unwarranted sensitivity, or delusion.
The pansy is a larger, more flamboyant annual hybrid originating from the wild tricolor violet. It gets its name from the French term pensee, or “thought,” and is used frequently as an emblem for Free Thought and Humanism. The Freedom from Religion Foundation sells small, pansy-shaped lapel pins emblazoned with the word “freethinker.” Pansies are often bred to have a distinct “face,” characterized by dark or contrasting colors in the center of the flower. The pansy’s face has been described as having a pensive expression. The head of the flower bows and rises with the sun.
My grandmother’s library is tucked next to her sewing room, dwarfed by surrounding shelves stacked high with wool, silk, cotton, and notions. The room has a scent of wild roses and calendula. Her bookshelf is laden with richly illustrated hardcover anthologies depicting tourmaline crystals, botanical studies, and natural phenomena. Interspersed between these are hundreds of slim volumes by Goethe, Steiner, and Schiller. I remember her showing me her collection of books on color theory. Goethe and Schiller composed a Temperamentenrose (a rose of temperaments) that paired colors with corresponding temperaments, as well as a predilection for certain human occupations. In Goethe’s color wheel, violet corresponds primarily with the Melancholic temperament, characterized by an excess of black bile and an inclination toward both the unnecessary and the beautiful (i.e. fantasy and imagination).
John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia features the drowned woman wearing around her neck a ring of violets, thought to be a symbol of her chastity. His muse for the painting was the poet and amateur artist Elizabeth Siddal, who became critically ill after posing for him in a bathtub filled with cold water. The pneumonia she contracted added to a list of ailments that plagued her, including severe depression, addiction to laudanum, and signs of anorexia. She was the wife and muse of the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her anxiety and addiction to painkillers worsened after her marriage, and were exacerbated by her fear of being replaced by a younger and more beautiful muse. She overdosed on laudanum in an apparent suicide at age thirty-three. There are over 100 books available in the local library on the work of Dante Rossetti, and 8 books that acknowledge the existence of Elizabeth Siddal.
Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia features a scene in which Kirsten Dunst’s character deals with the disastrous end of her marriage and impending end of the world by wading into a garden pond, still dressed in her full wedding regalia. She clutches her bridal bouquet and floats with her eyes wide open, despite the weight of her ruined dress and the gravity of her situation. Her character was constructed based on Von Trier’s own experiences with depression, as well as a number of cinematic and visual references, including John Everett Millais’ painting, Ophelia. It is unsettling to me that so many male artists still default to using women as a symbol rather than a subject in their work.
The German term for pansy is Stiefmütterchen, which means “little stepmother.” The flower’s anatomy is described in terms of the relation of its largest petal, called the “stepmother,” to the two side petals, or “daughters,” and the top petals, or “stepdaughters.” The “stepmother” sits widest, and most comfortably at the center of the flower, her daughters occupy the second-best seats alongside her, while her stepdaughters must sit behind them. The “father,” or pistil, is invisible, pushed out of sight by the women in his family until the blossom wilts, revealing its fertilized innards. Similar to a daisy, storytellers pluck the petals off of the flower to pace themselves while recounting a fairytale.
During graduate school, I was investigating the series of “bee poems” written by Sylvia Plath shortly before she took her own life in 1963. They had an incredible lucidity to them — it seemed to me that she had a deep understanding of both the material and the intangible obstacles that stood in the way of her writing, and that she was able to skillfully navigate around them until the last days of her life. I was taken aback when some of my professors brought up the notion that she had “lost her mind,” and that the reason for her suicide stemmed from her inability to distinguish between reality and her own distorted assessment of the world. They argued that her anguish was rooted in paranoia and misunderstanding. What I had perceived as clear-eyed refusal in her work, they viewed as nothing more than a delusion.
I am conflicted about the violet and what it stands for. Throughout my time in school, it was always the quietest students whom I felt had the most interesting things to say. Sometimes silence seems to me like a daring form of resistance, a refusal to participate, or a way to sneak in a transgressive act where it is least expected. At other times I feel it isn’t a tactic at all, but a masochistic kind of self-censorship, an inability to keep the phantoms of propriety and passivity at bay. I wrestle with the impulse to keep quiet all the time – often it doesn’t even seem like a choice. Anonymity can provide a safe space, a sanctuary in which to ruminate and to question without consequence. But it also muffles what needs to be heard, forgets what should be remembered, and overlooks what must be seen.
The full printed publication is available for purchase online at Otherwild. (click link below)
Blue Violets will also be available at Ariane Vielmetter’s exhibition Blue Violets at Commonwealth and Council opening April 25th 7-11 pm