This face of flowers has haunted me for years, I am fascinated by the loveliness which is coupled with the unease I feel every time I see it – delighting in the delicious idea of a face made of flowers but this looks more like a tattoo, it’s scary. Arcimboldo, court painter in 16th century Vienna, is widely acknowledged to be the father of surrealism; he made ‘likenesses’ of people from all manner of objects, a librarian’s face made of his books, a cook’s portrait in a dish of food, today modern advertising still use the same clever devices to spectacular visual effects.
So I decided to make a face of embroidered flowers picked from my own garden ( as you do). I started with a collage to see what I would need to find to make it convincing, the man’s face in the bottom left corner is also by Arcimboldo, a portrait of his patron Rudolph ll as Vertumnus,the god of the harvest 1590.(You can also see my version of a Vegetable Man). I had to resort to all sorts of flowers to make the face – but the expression of vague alarm on this first face of flowers should have warned me what was coming……….I started to draw the flowers from my garden, searching out roses for cheeks, pansy eyes, rosebud mouth…how innocent it all was; by the end of this embroidery I had more many ideas due to my research both visiting flower shows and studying the history of Florists – the growers, showers and developers of our modern day flowers. Slowly the work became a whole series of embroideries about man’s manipulation of nature with beautiful and terrible results……….however to start at the very beginning.
This is the vase of flowers that I used for the drawing above, the pansy eyes, the foxglove nose and eyebrow, the carnation mouth are faithfully recorded, not exactly in the same spaces – but if you squint the face can just be seen in the bunch below left. But I had a problem – I didn’t have the right flowers to use in my garden to develop this further so some more would have to be bought.
I had put them in a lovely old (and mended) hand blown glass decanter and this made me think of the beautiful Dutch paintings of vases of flowers – it was studying these closely that made me realise that none of these actual painted bouquets ever existed, they were portraits of individual flowers painted when they were in season and assembled by the artists – how else do you get tulips with fully blown roses with ears of corn with anemones all in one vase – in the 17th century.
Now I knew how to get what I needed, I designed the face and searched for flowers to fill in the features. I drew each flower as I found it, embroidered it on dark silk organza ready to be cut out and assembled when I had enough – this took several months. I started with a drawing of Iris from my garden – I knew she (by now she had become Flora, the Roman goddess of spring) had to have my colour hair, this iris was perfect a sort of reddish blonde. In the drawing I have recorded the striations of colour so that I can develop my stitches in the same directions.
I picked, drew and sampled all the flowers I could find, it was a lovely summer of work. Friends and neighbours started to bring me flowers they thought I would like to include, the search was on for all sorts of auburn and orange flowers for the hair,
flesh coloured roses and poppies for the skin, rosebuds for the mouth.
Slowly, by travelling around to see specialist flower shows and drawing from all kinds of resources I pieced together the face; the pastel drawing I worked from and the ongoing recorded collage can also be seen below.
So now this face had to have a body, the old glass decanter was perfect, with a swelling rounded shape and elegant proportions, easy enough to draw, but how do I embroider it?
Placing tracing paper over the drawing to get a pattern for the vase I suddenly realised this was how to achieve the effect of seeing stalks though water and glass, I painted the stalks on silk with dye then bonded embroidered silk organza onto the surface –
I lost most of the painting in the process but the effect is both subtle and sinks into the black ground and so does not distract from Flora’s stupendous poppy breasts.
So here she is in all her splendour. But she is short lived; surrounded by things that will harm and ultimately destroy her, the rose-cutter bee will eat her cheeks, the butterfly will lay eggs and the larvae will feed from her, the beautiful beetle feeds off rose leaves and the snail will first slime then devour her. Only her beauty spot, the lady bird, will protect her – from greenfly.