I wonder if we think in cartoons.
Roy Lichtenstein summed up our present day succinctly. For four decades he lived his life in relative obscurity, his paintings groping in artistic gloom for the light switch. And then – kapow. His son asked him to paint a really good cartoon; and his cartoon-strip style was born. Bold, bare, ironic, stimulating; he took the world by storm.
We loved watching his rise, and his exhibition at The Tate; crowds flocked to see the stark black lines, the dots. The yellow, the red, the blue.
Or perhaps we are just drawn to the simplicity of something polarised. It was Sir Edmund Spencer who first wrote down an old piece of folklore: the juxtaposition of roses and violets, red and blue. In his ‘Faerie Queene’ he has a character take a bath in which float the scarlet and deep purple of flower petals: “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew.”
Primary colours: simple, direct, forward, sensual. Passionate, indeed.
Let us look at the rose and the violet, members of the sisterhood of ancient flowers.
The rose: a blatant symbol of love and beauty, it was used by the Romans as a sign to ensure secrecy when confidential matters were being discussed. The matters were not ‘secret’ but ‘sub rosa’. Its intense beauty inspired the nightingale to sing in 14th century Iranian poet Hafez’s work. It became a symbol of man’s passionate devotion for the Virgin Mary. “There is no rose of such vertu,” run the lyrics to Benjamin Britten’s third movement from A Ceremony of Carols, written in middle English by Gerald Bullett, “as is the rose that bore Jesu.”
There is nothing shy and retiring about the rose.
But the violet: it bats its lashes behind an intoxicating perfume, a miniature creature which hides in the shade of the grass, a diminutive delicacy. Nero’s tomb was scattered with violets by people who despite his cruel lunacy admired him; Ophelia deemed it the flower of constancy. And there is nothing which says ‘bereft’ so eloquently as the withering of the little flower, and the stealing away of that perfume. “The odour from the flower is gone,” writes Shelley in “A Faded Violet” “which like thy kisses breathed on me.”
Retiring it may be, but its smell is a siren and its absence mourned. It is a flower which speaks to the passions through one of our most basic senses.
One is quite in danger of losing ones head in the presence of the rose and the violet.
“Passionate beliefs”, wrote Bertrand Russell in Education and The Good Life,” produce either progress or disaster, not stability.”
It could be an essay title. Discuss, why don’t you. Yet it rings true, for whilst passion has its place in driving mankind forward, there is a place for that which maintains the status quo. Something green, perhaps; those glorious Euphorbias which were adored by Vita Sackville West and which pepper her fairytale castle grounds at Sissinghurst in Kent.
Euphorbia has no pungent, dizzying perfume. Nor does it turn the head with scarlet petals. It’s just a jolly good form. A piece of structure for the perennial flower beds. Eye catching, but with a subtle, unassuming stance. What it does, it does beautifully and it is beloved by true gardeners everywhere.
But it does not stir the passions so much. Rather, it engages the intellect.
Roses are red, violets are blue.
But Euphorbia are a cool, stable green.
And some prefer that. Do you?
Written for Side View’s Weekend Theme this week: Roses are red, violets are blue. You can find details of her theme here.