All notes written by Ariane Vielmetter | Notes on Looking

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...

On realism as a fiction and as a useful tool

A mirror lets me become an anthropologist of my own body. It is an almost transparent barrier between my faculties of perception and the thing I’m looking at. It is also a lie, a flattened out and distorted image of a live, fleshy, thinking and perceiving body. But it is a useful lie in that it allows me to look from a distance at something intimately familiar. I think that realism, both in art and in literature, works in a similar way. It pictures an alternate reality so life-like that we can’t help but see in it a reflection of our own condition. In this way, realism has something of a shelf life – it is very much a product of its time, and it is at its most potent when it is most relatable. An 18 th century trompe l’oeil still life becomes a less comprehensible testament to reality as time passes, not because its flowers and fruits begin to rot, but because the cultural context in which it was painted shifts, ages, and permutates. The still life’s relationship to reality is like Dorian Gray’s relationship to his portrait. It is a reflection of a single moment, frozen in time and spared from decay, but loaded with history underneath the thin veneer of its surface. The subject of still life is the mundane object. Objects that make possible the daily routines of people in their homes, and that retain their familiarity despite centuries of permutation. Cups, plates, vessels, vases, food, flora, fabrics, various kinds of instruments, these are at the core of still life painting. Norman Bryson describes...