The Divine Flower

Ewa Klekot By Ewa Klekot

Tulip used to be a flower triggering big passions, and it was most willingly portrayed in visual art. Tulip as the subject of painting was born almost simultaneously with a delight for the plant itself. Wild tulips – the ancestors of those innumerable garden varieties of today – appear on the vast areas of the Orient: from Turkey, through Armenia, Turkmenia, up to Pamir and Tien Shan mountains. Domesticated in their homeland, tulips emerged as a decorative motif in Persian, and subsequently, Turkish art, so that they could then reach Europe, via the Turks. Not only have the Turks used the motif of tulip in decorative arts, but also exposed, with considerable deference, the flowers themselves, as single specimens, almost as a rule. Turkish tulip-pitchers differ therefore from Dutch ones, designed for arranging flowers into bouquets: these are long-necked slender jars with, called laledan, after the Turkish name of the flower. The Turkish word lale, standing for tulip, is of Persian origin and is written with the same Arabic letters as the word Allah; and therefore, in the non-iconic Islamic art, tulip could gain a symbolic meaning. Apart from the decorative sense, tulip was not infrequently gaining a symbolic one indeed. Together with Barbour's army, tulip reached Afghanistan, and in the sixteenth century, when that Oriental flower was just on the verge of its European adventure, then in botanical collections of German and Swiss scholars, the roofs of mosques built by the Moguls in Kashmir were covered by dense carpets of colourful tulips.

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It may be stated with quite a plausibility that the divine flower was not known in the Netherlands of Hugo van der Hoes and the van Eyck brothers: there is no point in looking for it in the Portinari triptych, or the Mystical Lamb altar. Two-hundred years later, the Dutchmen of the Golden Age, embarrassed with their own wealth, got crazy about tulip, and spent fortunes on bulbs of flowers of rare colours and exceptionally shaped petals. Interestingly enough, the petal form was (of which the growers of the time were not aware) a result of the plant's infection with a virus. That 'tulip-o-mania' was obviously reflected also in painting: if a lover of Oriental flowers could not afford buying a plant, he could order for a painting, or some tiles, representing tulip images. However, neither plants nor their portraits ranked amount cheap things. Jan van Huysum, the famous Dutch flower painter, charged some 5,000 guilders per a piece of painting, whereas the most expensive tulip bulbs sold sometimes above that price: in the peak period of the 'tulip fever', a bulb of the 'Admiral van Enkhuijsen' variety was sold at 5400 guilders, which equalled an equivalent of an Amsterdam's bricklayer's fifteen-years' earnings. The court of French monarch Louis XVI could not, of course, remain neutral to the charms of that most fashionable flower of the Europe of the seventeenth century. The King's brother, the Duke or Orleans, hired the painter Nicolas Robert for the purpose of documenting his splendid collection of tulips at Saint-Cloud. When in Europe, the tulip frenzy was coming to an end, giving up the room for new trends, the adoration for those long-admired and valued flowers reached its apogee in the Ottoman Empire. There, the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730) was termed by chroniclers 'Lale Devri', that is, the Age of Tulip. The criteria of tulip beauty were different in the East, though: the Turkish experts appreciated, in the first place, flowers of a very slim mould and with narrow lanceolate petals. It is precisely the sort of tulips that has been immortalised in the Turkish Book of Tulips, written and illustrated ca. 1725.

Although Modernity, in its democratic rush for producing everything at larger and larger a scale, has also industrialised the growing of tulips, it has not managed to render the flower any banal. A fate that mercilessly affected roses, and in Poland, also pinks or carnations, condemned to celebrating 'socialist (as to the form) and people's (as to the content)' patriotic affections of the former First, Second, or Third Secretaries of the ruling communist party. But the 'smelling object' in a vase, early in the springtime, still continues to be an exotic and 'strange guest amongst us, humans'.

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