When one thinks of literary Modernism, one does not think of gardens. But look a little closer and one finds flora creeping imperceptibly but unstoppably into the modernist landscape, growing among the crannies of desolate urban wastelands. Think of The Wasteland’s April, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land” (1922). Life forces its way up out of the earth as “lilacs”, cruel in the exuberance of their growth, clashingly at odds with the state of the world. “April” seems insensitive, like a funeral guest, misjudging the mood totally, and arriving in a gaudy, lilac-bedecked hat.

But in fact, they are not at odds with their world. Images of flowers growing “out of the dead land” were painfully familiar because of those that bloomed profusely on the Western Front. There is perhaps no better manifestation of the surprising, and to T. S. Eliot cruel, fertilising capacities of disruption and death.

 This image came to glorious, unsettling fruition in the work of the Surrealists in the 1930s – heads are cracked open to reveal roses. Flora exploding from the brain becomes a direct manifestation of the unconscious, and represents the energy generated by disturbance. The notion of a productive disturbance is crucial to Surrealism: break things open and something unprecedented and wonderful might emerge. The Surrealist’s most important subject was the mind itself, which they tried to make visible in their art – and as the unconscious exploded, again and again, it threw up flowers. 

Salvador Dali repeatedly painted people with heads a-bloom. In ‘Woman with a Head of Roses’, ‘Female Figure with a Head of Flowers’, ‘Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra’, and his cover for a 1938 issue of Vogue, women are shown faceless, their long necks becoming vases for formal bouquets, or for wilder blooms resembling seed heads. Dali’s vision became physically manifest in England in 1936 at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London. English poet, David Gascoyne, made his acquaintance, Sheila Legge, into a living exhibit, a walking ‘Surrealist Phantom’. Inspired by Dali’s images of rose-headed women, he got a Mayfair florist to make a mask of roses for Legge, whose photograph then decorated the cover of the next issue of the International Surrealist Bulletin.

These images don’t reflect Eliot’s discomfort at the rampant growth of flowers. Nor do they echo Eliot’s anxiety about the burgeoning of emotions, of “memory and desire”; instead they announce and celebrate the freeing of previously repressed memories and desires, and ideas. Surrealists hoped to unshackle the mind from repression and control, and let its flowers grow using methods learnt from psychoanalytic interpretation. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) suggested that repressed desires must make themselves known indirectly, through displacement, transference, or substitution – in short, through symbolism. And the symbolic nature of thought is, for Freud as for the surrealists, particularly associated with flowers. The Interpretation of Dreams yields many flowers. One dream “might be entitled ‘The Language of Flowers’”. Freud decodes its flowers, as though translating a Victorian flower language. In another, the dreamer states: “I arrange the centre of a table with flowers for a birthday”, and again, Freud identifies the flowers and ascribes particular symbolic significance to each one: an association with the word “violate” to violets, and “carnal symbolism” to carnation, and so on. “There was nothing superfluous in it, every word was a symbol”, writes Freud – to be exact, every word was a floriographic symbol.

This floral profusion can be partly explained by the way Thanatos and Eros, the instincts of destruction and death, and of life and love, are so perfectly embodied and intertwined within the petals of a flower. Very few people in this period seemed able to look at a flower without seeing something quite different; “Sexual flower symbolism”, writes Freud, “symbolises the human organs of sex”. The dreamer’s “centre-piece of flowers” are her sexual organs blooming obscenely from the table. Similarly, for Georges Bataille, flowers “are spoiled in their centres by hairy sexual organs”. Bataille links these grossly erotic beings to Thanatos, vividly detailing the ugliness of a dying flower: the “marvellous corolla rots indecently in the sun […] flowers wither like old and overly made-up dowager’s”, so confirming “this nauseating banality: love smells like death” (‘The Language of Flowers’, first published in surrealist magazine Document, 1929).

Blow a flower apart and you get the stench of death. But this equation works the other way: blow a world apart or blow a brain apart and out will spring flowers. Blooming brains have, for many years, through many cultural forms, shown humans attempting to come to terms with the thin lines they tread – between Eros and Thanatos, life and death, lunacy and lyricism, desolation and imagination – and to imagine the very workings of their own brain. 

Words by Lettice Franklin and illustration by Elena Boils

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