Alison Syme - The Culture of Queer Flowers

On January 27, 2014 Alison Syme will speak at our meeting.

For centuries, artists, writers and scientists have been fascinated by the sex life of flowers and the ‘perversions’ to which plants are prone. Alison Syme, Associate Professor of Modern Art, U of T, author of A Touch of Blossom, will show us how the wilder side of natural history has inspired erotica, art and political activism.

It’s no secret that flowers have long been used as a tool of communication. We know that Homo neanderthalensis placed flowers in the graves of their dead, which may be the precursor to today’s funeral wreaths. There’s the ‘first date’ bouquet, sometimes followed by the ‘I’m sorry’ bouquet; there are elaborate hotel lobby arrangements designed by haute florists and simple bunches of garden flowers. And of course, there’s our own annual flower arrangement competition which requires that entrants illustrate a given theme. Natural though flowers are, human ingenuity has imbued them with all sorts of meaning and function to a variety of our own ends.

But perhaps flowers are neither the innocent repository nor the (expensive) messengers that they have come to be known as. Despite, or perhaps because of, their fragile petals and ephemeral existence they are, in fact, “sexed objects” according to Dr. Alison Syme. Think of their thick, sticky pistils and showy stamens with pollen granules just hanging out there, enticing insects with intoxicatingly odoriferous nectar!

This month’s presenter teaches “eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century art history and visual culture, with an emphasis on metaphors of artistic practise and materials” at U of T. It was during her studies at Harvard for her PhD in Art History that she stumbled upon an oddity in the portrayal of flowers in the art of the Victorian era. Over a period of one year, she says, she came to discover “a world of illicit sexuality through hands and flowers” as portrayed in 18th and 19th-century art. It seems the infamously prudish Victorians, outwardly anyway, were quite conscious of and used the subliminal messaging afforded by flowers as a signifier for all things sexual through art. Indeed, Syme says that it was  “reasonably well understood at the time … to refer to all aspects of sexuality in terms of metaphors.” Think of the term deflowering, to refer to the loss of virginity. Apparently language was rife with such metaphors and we can all think of a few that are still understood today.

Syme, a native Torontonian, recently published the fruit of her dissertational labour as the richly illustrated A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art. In it she discusses the use of flowers to communicate sexual themes, acts, and secrets—grounding her analysis in the scientific understandings of plants and insects. Syme’s presentation is sure to leave you unable to look at another painting containing flowers without wondering what the painter was really trying to say!

Maria Nunes

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