Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Living Language of Flowers: Sunflowers

International painter and sculptor Ana Tzarev presents a collection of posts delving into the cultural, social, and historical weight of flowers, the signature subject of her body of work.
Detail from Ana Tzarev's Vincent's Smiling Sunflowers.
Among the world's countless varieties of blooms, it is difficult to find a plant so radiant as the sunflower. From firm, tall stems, they raise their faces to the light and reflect warmth in their golden petals. So devoted is the sunflower to its source of life and energy that developing buds will even follow its movement across the sky, an adaptation known as heliotropism. This remarkable phenomenon led the French to name the flower tournesol - "turn with the sun."
The special connection between the sun and this flower has granted the plant a special place in the histories of several cultures. The Aztec, Inca, and Otomi people revered sunflowers: viewing them as earthly symbols of the sun god, it was a common practice to decorate temples with their likeness in gold. Sunflowers were significant in a wide array of traditions among indigenous peoples of the Americas, from using their vivid petals for dye and decoration in religious ceremonies to observing bloom cycles for the creation of hunting calendars.
A field of sunflowers grows beside a nuclear power plant.
The practical uses of the flower may even outshine their magnificent appearance! The strength of sunflower stems provided the native people of North, Meso-, and South America with ample material for the production of durable fibers. Their edible seeds and oil are consumed worldwide. Fascinatingly, they also are renowned for their purifying powers in the harshest conditions: the flowers were planted in the aftermath of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters to help contain nuclear contamination.
The diverse uses of the sunflower throughout history can be felt in its symbolic meaning. Floriography, the practice of sending secret messages through floral arrangement most popular in the Victorian era, ascribes a number of meanings to this flower; its robust stature represents admiration and haughtiness, deserved pride and false riches. But their steadfast blooms, universal in appeal, have come to represent loyalty, adoration, and cheer.
Detail from one of Van Gogh's numerous sunflower studies.
The eye cannot resist the celebratory blooms of the sunflower - as such, the art world has paid tribute to their beauty time and time again. In his most famous self-portrait, Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck depicted himself standing beside a regal sunflower in bloom. Van Gogh's numerous depictions of the expressive and arresting flowers are among his most beloved works. And when shade fills my days, I turn my face to the brightness of the sunflower, letting their unparalleled exuberance spill across my own canvases.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Flowers as Art History's Messengers of Meaning

I express my emotions in flowers - roses for love, gardenias for fragility, snowdrops for courage, and cherry blossoms for the transience of life.
Among nature's countless gifts are flowers: in the simple grace of their petals, countless souls have been moved to create. But flowers speak of far more than mere beauty. As the art of ages keenly illustrates, the universal language of flowers has long been used to communicate deeper messages, instantly and wordlessly.
Detail from Ana Tzarev's Saffron Pickers.
Van Gogh, Monet, and O'Keeffe placed flowers at the forefront, exploring their curves and hues through their own unique styles. The Dutch masters crafted incredible still-life scenes, with blossoms so stark and expressive that they seem to reach beyond the canvas. However, many of art history's finest works show flowers playing a smaller role, hinting at a scene's meaning in subtle yet significant ways.
Take, for instance, Sir John Everett Millais' portrait of Ophelia from one of the Hamlet's most tragic moments. The young woman is seen floating in a river, moments away from sinking into darkness and death. As described in the scene, a spray of flowers surrounds Ophelia; shortly before her demise, she hands blossoms out to other characters and describes their symbolic weight.
Detail from Millais' Ophelia.
This use of symbolism is mirrored in Millais' representation of the scene. In addition to the flowers mentioned as part of her garland in the play, she clutches a poppy - commonly used to represent sleep and death. The dim and drab of her clothing speaks of the cessation of life while the petals and greenery surrounding her repose remind viewers of its continuation.
The inclusion of flowers as messengers of meaning adds such dimensionality to a masterwork! Gustav Klimt's The Kiss depicts two lovers, a man and woman - the former cloaked in sharp, heavy boxes, the latter draped in a cascade of petals. With one small detail, the artist accentuates the character of the sexes.
The contrast of harsh and soft patterning in the figures suggests the interplay of the sexes in Gustav Klimt's The Kiss.
In The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch parallels the innocence and freedom of Paradise against Hell's dismal suffering through the vibrant lushness of vegetation. The stark eroticism of Titian's Venus of Urbino is balanced by the figure's handful of roses, a soft suggestion of traditional romance.
In possessing an awareness of the deeper meaning flowers grant to art, the observer's experience with a piece is greatly enriched. Beyond the technical prowess and aesthetic glory at play on canvas, a story is being told.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Rebuilding the World on Foundations of Love and Peace

This is the second installment in a 2-part post written in celebration of Remembrance Day. To view the first installment, click here.
For those of us who have known the heavy weight of war - whether we have witnessed its toll on a beloved veteran, lost a soul held dear, or outlived the fight ourselves - the message of the poppy is not felt only on Remembrance Day. It is a striking symbol of the struggle we will carry for the rest our lives, the burden of memory. The effects of battle have shaken the world time and time again, but when we rise before its shadows, we are never alone. As survivors, we stand together to prove no sacrifice was made in vain.

The Daily Telegraph recently ran an article about The Poppy Girls, a group of five young women selected by the Royal British Legion to record a song in honour of Remembrance Day. These girls sing from the heart, knowing first-hand what a life touched by war brings: each is the daughter of a father in the armed forces. Their cover of Regina Spektor's "The Call (No Need to Say Goodbye)" will be made available as a single on 10 November, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Royal British Legion's efforts to support those who have dedicated their lives to serving and protecting others. To see such a beautiful offering made from such young spirits is profoundly touching, a treasure beyond words.
Each Remembrance Day offers opportunities to both reflect on the past and seek out ways to make our future as bright as can be. The greatest tribute we could offer to our veterans is to stop their numbers from growing, to forge a lasting path to peace no storm can wash away. We must strive to reach an end to such incredible suffering.

This goal can only be achieved through uniting our unique talents and energy. As an artist, my life and work are devoted to the pursuit of bringing beautiful dreams to life. Chief among these dreams is a vision of true peace, existing outside of ideals and alive within our daily actions. I made each of my Love flower sculptures, which have been sown across the globe, with the intention of creating safe spaces for dialogue beneath their enormous petals. Progress begins with conversation, and once such exchanges start, the differences that divide us pale against the feelings that bind us.
I offer our world's veterans and their families my poppy flowers as a tribute, made to show that they will never be forgotten - a global bouquet to laud those who stood, brave and humble, for their countrymen. This Remembrance Day, give thanks and show respect by using your unique gift for the greater good. With hard work and hope, may we rebuild our world upon the most stable foundations: love and peace.
In honour of Remembrance Day, Ana Tzarev's Love poppy is now on view at Canary Wharf. For more information, please visit

Friday, 1 November 2013

For Every Poppy's Petal, A Story of Remembrance

As October draws to a close and the air becomes crisp with the fullness of autumn, my memories draw me back to a familiar place. For thousands of men and women worldwide, November brings with it a day of great honour - one that has touched the hearts of so many for nearly a century. On Remembrance Day, we call to mind the tragedies of war, the sacrifices of the brave, and the ways we can bring about a more peaceful planet.
Since 1919, the Commonwealth of Nations, France, Belgium, the United States, and other countries have observed Remembrance Day on 11 November. It is a time to reflect, to show appreciation to those who have served and pay tribute to all souls lost in conflict. In 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae penned his famous ode "In Flanders Fields" after witnessing the way red poppy blossoms spread through the trampled chaos of the battlefield during the Great War. Within years, this poem became the most famous of its day, and from country to country the poppy was recognized as a symbol of remembrance.
The poppy's roots wound themselves into the lives of many families, including my own. When the Second World War tore through my country, I watched as relatives, friends, and neighbors were swept off in its destruction. The flowers left in graveyards were among the few bright things left in its wake, and as a child, I looked after the delicate blooms I found there. I wished to preserve some beauty in a time of tragedy.
By 1956, the war's shockwaves still shook much of the earth. I had left Croatia and moved to New Zealand in order to start a new life and a family with my husband. The meaning of the poppy had only grown stronger with the passing of years, and before long, I joined the wives and mothers who crafted commemorative flowers for the benefit of The Royal British Legion.
When we first began to make these simple tokens of remembrance, they were constructed from red and green crepe paper. The poppies were beautiful but fragile, and patrons would need to purchase a new flower each year. As our efforts gained support, we were able to craft the poppies from a more durable cloth, and our little blooms could be displayed proudly year after year. I remember seeing men pin our cloth poppies to their lapels and felt my heart swell - with them, they carried both their memories of those lost and mine.
Ana Tzarev's Love poppy, installed in October at Canary Wharf.
For years, I made poppies to benefit servicemen, selling them to our church's congregation and at parent-teacher galas at our children's school. As our town filled with more and more of the bright remembrance blooms, it was clear how far their message reached and how many lives they touched. Our community, like so many others, united to support those who survived the war and the families of those who never made it home.
To this day, I believe the Royal British Legion's legacy of providing necessary care to veterans and their families makes them one of the finest and most worthwhile charities. On Remembrance Day and always, I feel blessed that the first poppies I created - long before my life as an artist - were made in their good name.