In her own words...

"Another Language of Flowers"


A new hybrid of flower has always occasioned celebration by gardeners and amateur botanists everywhere. It is hard to think of anything more innocently irresistible than a flower, new or familiar, while an imagined one must surely bring a special frisson of excitement. Or so I thought, on the day in June when such a flower grew in my mind's eye and demanded to be painted. Once begun, the experiment widened into an entire garden. They bloomed all at once, as if to race with a short summer, and soon there were twelve canvases of twelve flowers waiting to be named. I had been thinking about the old custom of the language of flowers, so dear to poets—deprived as they were of telephones and faxes and e-mail—Keats and Wordsworth and Shelley and all the others, friends and lovers of their time and before. That each flower, sent or carried to its destination, had its own, and known, meaning was a source of pleasurable communication for them, needed and heeded. What better way to say "Beware!" or "Someone loves you," than with a poem hidden in the heart of a flower? Perhaps we need it now, another language of flowers, one for us, for now, an urgent pause, however brief. 

So when these twelve painted blossoms revealed themselves on canvas it was immediately clear to me that each one needed a name and a meaning that only a poet could give; because this was to be that new, other language of flowers with all the import that the term implies. And so it happens that they have had the good fortune to be identified and blessed with the words of twelve poets, friends of the artist, who have given them their voices: Another Language of Flowers, for another garden. 

As for the paintings, they were done between June 1997 and April 1998. They are naked, precise depictions of visions as real to me as botanical specimens are to the scientist. Prepared for with preliminary sketches—a number of which are reproduced in this book—as touchstones on the way to the flowers' inceptions, the sketches are this artist's way of coaxing image from idea. For some flowers one sketch was enough, and then, for others, there were four or five before the flower emerged. Thus, each painting begins with its sketch and the date on which it was begun, as one notes the day a bulb was planted. 

Maps of a possible geography, a lexicon with just twelve entries, these flowers are scrupulously delineated by a happy lexicographer, sensing them like a wafture, an interruption, a bit of chamber music offered in a spirit of highhearted fidelity to conjuration. Their ambition, if ambition can apply, is not to rival nature's marvels—an unthinkable thought—but to pay them homage, the imagination itself being, after all, one of those marvels. In painting these flowers my reward, then, was the simple delight that came with making them happen. 

Among the flowers' poems are some lines by James Merrill. Even though he is gone, I couldn't imagine doing anything like this without him.


About this work

“Another Language of Flowers” is an introduction to  Another Language of Flowers: Paintings: Dorothea Tanning; Poems: James Merrill, Harry Mathews, Rosanna Warren, Debora Greger, Adrienne Rich, Anthony Hecht, Richard Howard, J. D. McClatchy, W.S. Merwin, John Ashberry, Steven Yenser, Brenda Shaughnessy. New York: George Braziller Publisher, 1998, pp. 9-11.