From expressions of love to admissions of guilt, a bunch of flowers can convey a bunch of different meanings. The versatility of the world’s oldest gift is exactly what Aiala Hernando hopes to harness in her Emotional State series. The still-life photographs of floral arrangements were created exclusively for Public House of Art’s The Rijks exhibition and are contemporary interpretations of the classical Rijksmuseum floral paintings of the 18th and 19th century.
At first glance they do not appear contemporary; you would be forgiven for thinking they are oil paintings due to their muted colours and soft lighting. But when one looks closer the medium and the additional objects in the composition reveal the modernity. Each piece is named after the card that accompanies the flowers: So Sorry, Good Luck and Thanks. Hernando states that her main inspiration was paintings by Georgius Jacobus Johannes van Os (1782-1861) and Jacob Campo Weyerman (1677-1747). Indeed, they follow the same visual style, yet the inclusion of objects to portray the sentiment of each photograph also draws parallels with the vanitas paintings of 17th century Dutch artists.
Georgius Jacobus Johannes van Os. Still Life with Flowers in a Greek Vase: Allegory of Spring. 1817. Oil on Canvas. (Left)
Jacob Campo Weyerman. Still Life with Flowers. 1700 - 1720. Oil on Panel. (Right)
The term ‘vanitas’ originally comes from the opening lines of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ These paintings depicted objects that were symbolic of worldly pleasures, including musical instruments and wine, in an attempt to highlight the vanity of such pursuits. Items such as skulls and distinguished candles were also portrayed to convey the fragility of life and mortality. Although less subtle in their symbolism, Hernando’s photographs employ modernised versions of these items. For example worldly pleasures and ‘vain pursuits’ take the form of the spilt wine and recreational drugs in So Sorry, and lingerie and Bite Me earrings in Thanks. Whereas the fragility of life and mortality are represented by the settled dust and decomposing pear in Good Luck and the half smoked cigarette in Thanks. Hernando has combined the two different genres of floral painting and vanitas still life to create a wholly contemporary hybrid that is her own.
Pieter Claesz. Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario. 1628. Oil on Panel. (Left)
Tracey Emin. My Bed. 1998. Installation. (Right)
Hernando’s work could also have taken influence from Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize installation, My Bed (1998). The piece consists of the artist’s unmade bed surrounded by objects accumulated during a bout of deep depression, brought on by a failed romantic relationship. The objects include condoms, blood-stained underwear, empty alcohol bottles and other detritus; a portrait of Emin’s mental state at that time. Hernando’s photographs, with their inclusion of lingerie, drugs, cigarettes and rotten fruit are also portraits of relationships at pinnacle moments. So Sorry is a portrait of regret, with the bouquet accompanied by spilt wine, broken cups and scattered drugs. Good Luck is a portrait of sorrow as the gifted flowers, surrounded by mounting dust and rotten fruit, appear to be left behind. And Thanks is a portrait of rampant desire with the succulent peach, lingerie and earrings.
Furthermore, Hernando’s photography takes on another dimension when one considers her use of social media. She has showcased the Emotional State series on Instagram to 168k followers. Because of the dominance of the floral bouquets in relation to the foreground objects, they appear initially as just beautiful images of flowers. This holds a thematic similarity to the apps main output: filtered scenes and edited selfies. It is the fake veneer of beauty masking real emotion and so Hernando’s work could be seen as a commentary on the detrimental way Instagram is used by millions.
In conclusion, Aiala Hernardo has borrowed from the format of the classical Rijksmuseum floral paintings but loaded them with meaning. They are transformed from paintings of flowers to photographs of much, much more. They are portraits of life, of emotion and of interpersonal relations. Whilst the lurid objects are direct, they are not obvious in situ. We may (or may not) have had a night of passion high on cocaine, wearing ‘bite me’ earrings. But we have all experienced impulsivity and lust. She has created a new symbolist language, understandable without a Masters degree in Art History. It is the perfect collaboration for Public House Of Art, where we aim to market art devoid of elitist hyperbole. I will finish on this note: flowers fade, die, and rot away in landfill. A So Sorry from Aiala Hernando, will last a lifetime. I find myself hoping somebody does me wrong soon, as my bedroom wall could do with some flowers. In fact, Ex-boyfriend, if you’re reading this…
Written by London-based Freelance Writer Lydia Veljanovska for Public House of Art