Book Review

Ann Elias: Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015

In his short story ‘Useless Beauty’, Guy de Maupassant tells of a Countess who confronts her husband whom she believes wants her only as a breeding machine. But, despite having borne seven children in eleven years, she points out to him that she has lost nothing of her beauty. The eponymous phrase is never used in the story, but the author’s audience would have known that it was commonly applied to flowers, whose domesticated function are for decoration, yet never last long. But unlike a flower, the countess sees more than a domestic use for herself and her beauty which has not wilted. Ann Elias’s book, Useless Beauty is a fascinating examination of the many tensions, transactions and revelations in Australian art, involving art, gender, nature, and memory. Anyone believing that this is a study ‘just’ about floral fripperies will be pleasantly mistaken, for Elias shows the extent to which flowers can be used as an effective means of exposing issues which were central to Australian art until at least after the Second World War. 

Australian art history is hampered by the fact that its audience is relatively small and that it is therefore difficult for historians to find interest from international publishers. This sounds like overly dry reasoning, but in the ‘publish-or-perish’ climate of academe, large and ambitious studies in Australian art history have languished because of it, which makes Elias’s study particularly welcome. While the flower is a metaphor for womanhood, Elias does not let herself be tied to a one-dimensional feminist analysis, or to jargon about reclaiming or re-addressing. She shows that flowers are complex symbols that implicate men as much as women. The flower is also an important avatar for allegiances to Europe: Hans Heyson, for instance, never painted indigenous flowers, while Margaret Preston revealed her own form of patriotism by purposely making the opposite choice. Such differences were not unnoticed by the art establishment in Australia, narrow as it was. But it was the very ‘uselessness’ of flowers that made them such effective tools for pushing contentious issues to do with femininity, and also with artistic style itself, and to show one’s position with regard to tradition or to the future and modernity.

Bernard Smith opens Place, Taste and Tradition, the first book on Australian art, with the observation that unlike the art of older cultures, Australian art was not founded in religion, but in science. It effectively begins with the scientific illustrations of Joseph Banks and continues with the topographically-related drawings and engravings of convict artists such as Joseph Lycett and Thomas Watling. Flora was always an important feature in these works, which were used as a way of mapping and making sense of a new environment, while also feeding a healthy European appetite for the exotic. As Elias notes, in the wake of the early colonial era, flowers feature predominately as still-lifes, in the effort to convey a cultured attitude that valued taste over taxonomy. Whereas the first examples of art were driven by utilitarian concerns, it was precisely the need of later generations to flee the workaday, that flowers in all their fragility and aesthetic autonomy were used as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

With the exception of the largely suppressed and ongoing devastation of the Indigenous population through conflict and disease, the First World War was Australia’s first major cataclysm, and one where flowers played a central and complex role. Australia’s official war artist, George Lambert, would study flowers whenever confined to his tent during times of rain. At this point flowers were a potent symbol of restitution, the vestigial sign of beauty amidst the ugliness of war, as well as the melancholy reminders of life’s quick passing. Lambert’s Gallipoli Wild Flowers (1919) was, as Elias observes, very much more than just a floral still life, but rather is a haunting image that, when looked at closely, is curiously anthropomorphic, as the flowers assume an almost human face. A few years later Lambert depicted himself together with a bunch of gladioli, which is deliberately included to express his own mental fragility and his feeling of alienation in Australian society. The dandified and effeminate image of the artist was meant to provoke the public. 

If Lambert, in both style and temperament, remained in the nineteenth century, Preston was very much inclined to embrace the twentieth, which she did with a dedicated and celebrated suite of paintings and woodcuts of Australian wildflowers. A lesser known female artist of flowers before her was Ellis Rowan, whom Elias exhumes from obscurity in an early chapter. But it was Preston who gave flowers a new force, a visual muscularity, unmatched by her male counterparts. In Elias’s words, ‘Preston’s flowers have strong, bold, simple configurations’ (p.101). Her forays into using generic Aboriginal styles of painting, while questionable today for their cultural insensitivity, were nonetheless original in their day, and have to be given their due as attempts to find styles outside the inheritance of a European past. Preston was also the first artist of note to bring Aboriginal art to notice and to lift it from its then position as mere anthropological artifact. 

Inspired by Surrealism, the abstractions in flowers by photographers such as Olive Cotton and Max Dupain were exploited to the full. Dupain used them as a resource for exploring new configurations and forms. Elias points out that literature on Dupain, and the great Edward Steichen for that matter, when it comes to flowers, is scarce. She accounts for this as the prejudice in art criticism against images with a scientific bent, and also because of the predisposition of relating flowers to the feminine. Dupain’s flower photographs are either just strikingly beautiful or also highly sexual, for instance in his photographic homage to the Surrealist painter titled Salvadorus Dalii (1983), as if the name gave birth to a new Linnaean classification only found in the dematerialisation of his own elegantly distorted image.

Useless Beauty is a patiently researched, lucidly written work of art historical scholarship that deserves a place in every serious library and on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in flower iconography. But it is also a refreshing work of Australian art history. To navigate this history afresh, refracted through flowers, is an enriching pleasure. 

Ann Elias, Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art. Book cover. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.