The Soul of the Begonia

There's an exhibition currently at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan called Fragrance fills the Courtyard, a celebration of Chinese Flower paintings through the ages. I drooled over the preview images on the site, not just in regard to the artistry but the mediums. I'm fascinated with the variables of color, material and time, the prospect of seeing a how ink, paper, silk and water based color were utilized, how they have aged over a few centuries and focussed on the subject of floral portraiture - heaven.

The colors of Yun Shouping's paintings stood out, they seemed different, more vibrant in their choice and more unusual in their combination. His Bio reveals a reputation for using 'gaudy and offensive' colors, a rebel attitude that probably set him apart and established his status as one of the major artists of the Qing Dynasty. I looked for more of his work online and found the one pictured left, mistakenly, I'm sure titled Crab Apple from his Album of Flowers and Landscapes. Yun Shouping was from the Jiangsu province but he travelled all over China so it's not unlikely that he came across this muse further south. It's a Begonia, for sure, which may be why I was particularly drawn to it.

This last week of Chinese new year festivities has been a visual assault of lurid red and gold. Every  botanic motif used has been a sledgehammer reference to 'wealth', 'prosperity' 'gold' or in plain speak - 'money'. This Begonia painting, a delicate, complex colored, soulful contemplation of nature devoid of heavy handed metaphor is the perfect antidote.

Begonias have pleasant and familiar childhood associations for me. There was always a Begonia pot or two gracing our front porch or the porches of friends and family, just as there is now at my father's house. They are blooming furiously which was noted by my visiting brother in law, who I am thrilled to discover is a plant geek with a large collection of wild and native orchids which I look forward to seeing.

I was quizzing him about his passion, Orchids, asking him about what their preferred habitat might look like and he espoused on the their epiphytic nature and how they are usually in trees etc but then added - and they share the same habitat preferences as Begonias, look up to see orchids and look down to find Begonias, often near a stream. In that moment the porch living Begonia leapt out of it's pot in my mind's eye and into a more illumined view of it's true nature. I always feel I 'know' a plant a little more when I have a better idea or have seen where they naturally thrive.

The other associated revelation is that they are native or that there are native varieties here which I must of course now investigate further . The other thing I must do is to learn a little Mandarin. Chinese paintings are full of text and colophons. Capturing the soul of a flower it seems is better achieved  by adding a textual narrative to the image. It's frustrating not knowing what the painting fully 'says' or understanding the artists full intent, especially when this marriage of text and image,  like an ancient albeit more artful precursor to blogging, seems hugely relevant in an era where this combination is an important component of modern culture. 

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