Useless Beauty: Re-Politicising Australian Wildflowers

Art historian and SEI researcher Ann Elias heralds the start of spring with a history of flowers in Australian art and Indigenous philosophies, highlighting the need to see flowers as far more than just “useless beauty”.

Image via Shutterstock, ID: 262916990

It is hard to imagine a time when Australian wildflowers were despised as flowers. Early in the 20th century, Australian artist Ellis Rowan noted that Australian flowers had suffered “years of neglect and ostracism, after being steadily uprooted and cut down to make room for alien blooms”.Rowan vehemently disagreed with the prevailing view that Australia’s flowers were part of a “sad and savage” landscape compared with European varieties. She wrote that “the flowers of the Australian bush are beautiful, [with] delicacy of form and richness of colour”.2

Today, we still live with the consequences of land clearing – the extinctions of native wildflowers and plants. But by the late 1920’s, the work of artist Margaret Preston, the most reproduced artist in Art in Australia, was seen to have “rescued the much-despised Australian flora from its early oblivion”.Preston tried to make Australians see beauty in native flowers, and gradually they came to dominate her still lifes, sometimes mixed with non-natives, combining English and Australian identities, two hemispheres, and two social eras — one the colonial era of Australia’s history, the other the modern era of sovereign nationhood.

International viewers who had an impression of Australia as a wild, isolated, ancient country, expected to see these qualities reflected in Preston’s work and they weren’t disappointed. When she exhibited Australian Wildflowers, a six panel work hung in the Australian pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, one critic was pleased to see that “the colours have an almost savage intensity, which accords with the primeval quality of the Australian bush”.4

In the now iconic work by contemporary Indigenous artist, Christian Thompson, Black gum 2native flora define a post-colonial politics.Thompson’s is a complex work, anchoring identity to place, whilst simultaneously evoking alienation, uncertainty, fragmentation and erasure of self. Where Preston’s work often points to Australian national identity, Black gum 2 evokes the European categorisation of Aboriginal people as flora and fauna, and the memory of the early nineteenth century when European settlers viewed the landscape and inhabitants of Australia as “wild and uncivilised”.5

But at the same time, Thompson comes across refusing to be looked at or to communicate with the viewer- disobedient to an imagined colonising gaze turning him into an exotic Indigenous commodity.

In her late paintings, where the surface of the work seems to literally burst into flower, Emily Kngwarreye’s flowers have been interpreted by Jennifer Isaacs as “retracing through her mind’s eye the country of her Dreaming”, a place abundant with plants, including flowers, seeds and fruit, and pathways of underground growth.6

Two thirds of Kngwarreye’s thousands of paintings produced between 1990 and 1994 were wildflowers. With effects as dazzling as the desert in bloom, but without realistic shapes of flowers, and with emphasis on the land not the detached flower, Kngwarreye brought a different tradition to representations of flowers compared to European artists.

Margaret Preston, in 1949, said Aboriginal artists focus “not only the flower but the whole plant; the roots are of equal importance as the blossoms”.As Marcia Langton said in 2011 ‘it is not simply material beauty that imbues objects with importance’.In Indigenous art, flowers are about much more than beauty. They engage Country, cosmology, environments, ecologies, totalities of being.

In some ways, times have changed markedly in a hundred years. The number of books and articles and discussions are increasing daily on the political philosophy of flowers and plants.

Where flowers were seen in settler culture as decorative subjectsdue to their femininity, and as luxuries and useless adornment, they are now recognised as the protectors of the wellbeing of the earth’s ecological self. Here in the 21st century, when honeybees are dying from colony collapse disorder, and climate change threatens the survival of countless species, our response to flowers as symbols of nature is not to just treat them as ornaments. They are no longer objects of “useless beauty” – aesthetic objects without purpose or function, for abstract contemplation.

Sydney Eddison, for example, writes in an essay titled “A Bee’s eye view”, that “flowering plants are the dominant plants of the earth. They are the reason the surface of the planet is not lifeless. They are neither trivial entertainment nor outdoor decoration”.Michael Pollan, again, writes that he is in awe of “flowers whose form and colour and scent, whose very genes carry reflections of people’s ideas and desires through time like great books”.

With the planet changing so quickly from human impact it is important to politicise flowers in ways that they were not in the past, and in particular, the link between Indigenous knowledges of flowers and contemporary environmental thinking is vital – in matters planetary, beauty is not the primary object of interest in flowers.

Early encounters in the 19th century between European colonisers and Indigenous land owners were mediated through wildflowers. Julia Horne wrote about European wildflower tourists who travelled to Western Australia to experience the explosion of plant colour that transforms the landscape between July and September, and “local Aborigines often offered those who disembarked bunches of wildflowers, or negotiated to act as guides”.10

Those flowers were not given away as objects of useless beauty. The gift of flowers in the 19th century from Aboriginal people was not disinterested, it involved a debt. And that debt is now becoming even more critical to repay. It is the debt to respect Indigenous ownership, respect the land that the flowers belong to, and care for the land, of which we are all a part.

1. A. E. M, “An Australian Invasion,”The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 27 August 1910, cited in Ellis Rowan, “Newspaper Cuttings,” MS 2203, p. 8, National Library of Australia.
2. Ellis Rowan, The Flower Hunter, first published 1898 (North Ryde, NSW: Collins, Angus & Robertson, 1991), 113.
3. Sydney Ure Smith, “Editorial,” Art in Australia, 3rdser., no. 22 (December 1927): unpaginated.
4. TheSydney Morning Herald, “Australian Flowers: Six Splendid Panes. Margaret Preston’s work,” 11 November 1938.
5. Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin, and Kylie Mirmohamadi, Reading the Garden: The settlement of Australia, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2008, p. 11.
6. Jennifer Isaacs, ‘Anmatyerre Woman’, in Jennifer Isaacs et. al, Emily Kngwarreye: paintings, North Ryde, NSW, Craftsman House, 1998, p. 14
7. Margaret Preston, “My Monotypes,” reprinted in Elizabeth Butel, ed., Art and Australia by Margaret Preston, 95.
8. Marcia Langton, ‘The long view,’ Artlink (1999) cited in Ian McLean (ed) How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art, Brisbane, IMA Institute of Modern Art and Power Publications, 2011, p. 307
9. Sydney Eddison, ‘A Bee’s eye view’ in Harold Feinstein, One Hundred Flowers, New York & Boston, Bulfinch Press, 2004, p. 13
10. Julia Horne, The pursuit of wonder: How Australian landscape was explored, nature discovered and tourism unleashed, Melbourne, Miegunyah Press, 2005, 19.

This work was originally presented as part of a keynote presentation at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, during the annual Wildflower festival. More of Ann’s work on the history of Australian flowers in art can be found in her 2015 book, Useless Beauty.

Ann Elias is Associate Professor and Chair of Department in Art History at the University of Sydney. Research interests include: camouflage in art, war and nature; whiteness and race studies; the cultural history of flowers; modernism and coral reef imagery; representations of the underwater realm; Sydney Harbour from the underwater. Books include Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (2011), Useless Beauty: flowers and Australian art (2015), and Coral Empire: Underwater oceans, colonial tropics, visual modernity (2019). She is a Key Researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute, a serving member of the International Committee of the College Art Association of America, and International Liaison for the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand.