Ludwig Seyfarth

A World Society of Flowers*

At first, what we see depicted in Karin Pliem’s paintings are forms of vegetation ― primarily floral ones. Without botanical knowledge, however, we can only guess that we are looking at plants from various, very diverse regions and ecosystems around the globe that have been brought together in one image.

We are familiar with art-historical compositions and arrangements of flowers in the still-life tradition. In this context, the flower still life gained great popularity, spreading from the Netherlands around 1600. Initially, well-ordered arrangements of flowers in a vase were set against a dark background as, for instance, in paintings by Jan Bruegel the Younger, who was in charge of flowers at Peter Paul Rubens’ workshop; later, in the first half of the 18th century, the paintings of Jan van Huysum depicted exuberant, richly decorated rococo-style bouquets. It is thanks to to Édouard Manet, Odilon Redon, Lovis Corinth, and Max Beckmann that the painted flower still life remained a living pictorial genre in the modernist era, as well. Sometimes the flowers more or less fill the picture, but they are never as numerous and concentrated as in Karin Pliem’s paintings, which the artist does not conceive of as still lifes.

The artist’s almost scholarly interest in various species of flowers bears comparison with still lifes by painter and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, whose renderings of plants and insects are accurate to the point where the line between artistic still life and science illustration is blurred. But it would be hard to imagine anything more different from Karin Pliem’s form of representation. Apparently, it is so accurate that experts can unequivocally identify individual plant species — or, could, because many of her plants take on shapes that have, ultimately, sprung from the artist’s imagination. Despite the meticulous rendering of details, figures drawn with a brush as well as colors coordinated to enhance the overall effect in the picture are rendered more in the style of a painting than that of a drawing. Along with freely applied hatchings, these elements are rooted in the tradition of modernism. Such compositions are less reminiscent of modernist flower still lifes than they are of pictures showing flowers in their natural environment. Claude Monet and Emil Nolde, for instance, painted plants in their own gardens, focusing particularly on their intense and nuanced colors.

What also appears “modernist” about Karin Pliem’s paintings is that they are oriented towards pictorial flatness. We cannot see the space her plants occupy, because their dense arrangement allows us to see its depths only in selected areas, rendering clear spatial localization impossible. Similar imagery is, of course, traditionally found in ornamental interior decoration, above all in the “grotesques,” which were inspired by the classical murals excavated from 1480. They adorned the interiors of caves (Grottoes) in the ruins of the Baths of Titus in Rome. The “grotto-esque” ornamentation brings together stereometrically abstract and architectural formal elements as well as animal and plant subjects in ever-new playful concatenations. Nothing is unambiguous, one transforms into the other. Many of Karin Pliem’s works also leave us with the impression that we only see a captured moment in an ever-changing process.

Even after marveling at their immensely rich details over and over, there will always be elements one has overlooked previously. This is also true of the pictorial genre of the “world landscape” that emerged around 1500. Here, the depicted towns, mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes represent the world as a whole, which has contracted and condensed to form a single picture. Can Karin Pliem’s “wimmelpictures,” which bring together on a canvas various plants from around the world, be interpreted as latter-day botanical world landscapes? I will return to this issue at a later point.

For now, let us take a step back from the details of subjects and look at the overall composition, which appears as an almost regular abstract structure. Nevertheless, there always are emphasized areas in the composition, which first attract the viewer’s gaze. Yet this does not imply a hierarchical order, because all pictorial elements are also treated equal insofar as everything seems connected to everything else. Small or minute elements are systematically arranged in rows, cross-linked, concatenated or concentrated, and this can result in altogether different compositional states of tension.

In more recent paintings such as Ceres or Cigno con animo riposando, a vertically anchored or circularly arranged calm, overall order prevails, while in the middle of Incontro con architettura II a space opens up, as if framed by trees or architectural elements, letting us see into a landscape garden. Unisono or Inbridazione spaziosa, both dating from 2013, are marked by dynamics that take hold of the entire picture and its individual plant forms, almost pitting them against each other — a setting reminiscent of Kandinsky’s early abstract paintings or Fighting Forms by Franz Marc. This also creates the impression of something like a cosmic event.

We never see people in Karin Pliem’s paintings, as flowers are the “actors.” This is presumably due to a worldview that currently seems to be gaining ground and seeks to understand animals, plants, and nature as a whole from an autonomous perspective, not from our human standpoint and attendant emotional worlds. Similar fundamental ideas were already put forth in the mid-19th century. British art and cultural critic John Ruskin criticized the tendency of his contemporaries to attribute their emotions to nature, for which he coined the term “pathetic fallacy”1 (anthropomorphization of nature). As a contrary example he cited the art of representation developed by J. M. W. Turner, his favorite painter. He deeply admired his style, which he saw as objectively doing justice to nature.

Today, we no longer believe in a single objective view of nature. Some argue that human reign over and perspective on the whole of organic life must be put into relative terms, a position championed, among others, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13). She expressed her post-humanist worldview, which sees all living beings as equal, in statements that caused quite a stir: “It is my opinion that in a true democracy everyone is allowed express their views. The question is not if we should let dogs or strawberries vote, but how strawberries can express their political intentions.”2 Christov-Bakargiev also rejects other distinctions commonly made between the products created by humans and animals, for example between a work of art and a beehive: “I don’t think the works of humans are better than other works. Their bodies are also full of bacteria, populated by other living beings, permeated by other realities.”3

In the reality of plants, as presented to us by Karin Pliem, they appear to grow rank into each other, just as in the open countryside that is not domesticated by a gardener’s hand. Yet, what may appear at first sight as spontaneous proliferation reveals itself as an order thoroughly choreographed down to the smallest detail. It is an order not found in nature in this form, the juxtaposition of plants from biotopes located worlds apart is a fiction similar to the “world landscape.” Of course, this is a fabrication that could also be interpreted as a metaphor of the felicitous coexistence of people from vastly different cultures. But wouldn’t that, in the words of John Ruskin, be a “pathetic fallacy,” a projection of human emotions and behavior onto nature? One could also look at it the other way around: Perhaps we should learn from the plants that resolve their conflicts peacefully in Karin Pliem’s paintings, as a kind of botanical world society, whose citizens could be safely granted suffrage.

1 For the central passage in which Ruskin sets forth his critique of the “pathetic fallacy,” see The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, London 1900 ff., Vol. V, Modern Painters III, p. 205.
2 Interview with Kia Vahland, Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 8, 2012 (www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/documenta-leiterin-carolyn-christov-bakargiev-ueber-die-politische-intention-der-erdbeere-1.1370514, as of July 5, 2016), p. 1.
3 ebd., S. 2.

* Translated from German by Matthias Goldmann.
First published in: Karin Pliem: Symbiotic Unions, Hohenems–Wien–Vaduz: Bucher Verlag 2016, pp. 23-25.
ISBN 978-3-99018-387-8

© 2016 Ludwig Seyfarth; Bucher Verlag