1. From Natural Flowers to the Ideal Flower
Starting from the mimetic representation of a particular flower, German artist Thilo Westermann’s field of vision has expanded continuously, from his parents’ garden to Germany, Europe, North America and finally China. His fondness for China was initially sparked by the flower designs he discovered on Chinese porcelains exported to Germany from afar. Given his long-standing interest in drawing flowers since early childhood, Chinese flower designs stimulated a strong, equally natural response in him. They spurred his unrestrainable pursuit of images from the Far East and led him to explore and create extraordinary wonderlands in his artworks by bringing different cultures into dialogue.
Flowers have always played a central role in Westermann’s art. As a student at Nuremberg Academy of Fine Arts, he emulated Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) precise and fine drawing style, rendering flowers in strict accordance with their real-life size (figs. 63, 64). Fascinated by their delicacy and subtlety, he never tires of their flavours: these flourishing and withering microcosms open doors and windows through which to contemplate the world. Thus, experienced up close, the surface of his paintings resembles a vast landscape. Although Westermann may not have read the verses by Chinese poet Du Fu (712–770), “A single petal flies away, di minishing the spring; a wind whirls up ten thousand flakes, sorrowing the men”,1 he is surely familiar with the metaphorical lines of English poet William Blake (1757–1827), “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.2 Westermann’s contemplative approach to flowers involves observing – or indeed reflecting – on the “large in the small”. It thus corresponds closely to Eastern literary and arts traditions and is an indispensable prerequisite for his later communication with Chinese art.
Shortly after entering art school, Westermann was no longer satisfied with depicting flowers on paper with colour pencils and began to seek different forms of expression and media. During explorations that lasted several years, his works underwent a process of renewal and attained a novel look: he began to choose very special flowering plants, most prominently tree peonies (mudan), orchids (lanhua) and herbaceous peonies (shaoyao) from faraway China. He considers these flowers both exotic and precious and is highly aware of the fact that, on entering Western people’s lives in diverse shapes and forms, they bear the signs of intercultural exchange. In his art, Westermann explores the mechanisms through which these flowers are preserved and observed. At some point, he abandoned the techniques of naturalistic representation and began to transform his means of expression as regards medium, space and cultural symbols. He started to work with flowers as prototypes and has since been creating the “ideal flower”. This facet makes his art unique.
2. Handicraft, Mirror Image, Reproduction, Photomontage
Reverse glass paintings are the core of Westermann’s art and serve him as a point of departure for further creations. Together with their respective unique prints and photomontages, they form a composite unity and integrate key techniques and concepts of handicraft, mirror image, reproduction and photomontage.
Let us first consider the aspects of handicraft and mirror image. Westermann, who has abandoned colours, applies only pure black and white as his main means of expression. The singular technique of his reverse glass paintings first involves blackening the reverse side of a glass sheet; once the colour has dried, he uses a steel needle as a “point” to partially remove the black layer dot by dot (fig. 1). The flowers, vases and other subjects emerging from this pointillism are the result of Westermann’s elaborate craftsmanship and artistry. Etching them from the reverse side means that he must create their mirror image: that is, the procedure needs to be accomplished, from start to finish, according to the principles of inversion. Moreover, as this process makes it difficult to undertake corrective modifications, performing it requires great concentration and devotion, as well as a substantial amount of time.
Having completed a reverse glass painting, Westermann has it enlarged sixfold by scanning and printing (fig. 65). Using glass both in the reverse painting and in the unique print results in artworks that can rightly be considered “inspired by a divine brush” (shenlaizhibi): in their transparent yet solid material quality, the highly reflective surface of these works mirrors their viewers and surroundings. His choice of medium articulates Westermann’s disposition as a German artist whose philosophical thinking inclines towards the spotlessly clean and rigorous. By means of technical reproduction (i.e. the unique print), he dissolves the tensions and constraints of the small-format reverse glass painting, thus allowing its message to expand into an even wider realm.
Moreover, in his “photomontages” – a term that refers to both the shape and the form of the relevant works – Westermann constructs “situational images” or “scenic settings” for his flowers and thereby extends the syntax and semantics of the reverse glass paintings and unique prints. Various techniques such as joining and combining, cutting and editing, assembling and superimposing allow him to reconfigure time and space. Every object and the entire spatial surroundings presented in Westermann’s “sceneries” are built from innumerable close-ups taken previously and processed digitally on the computer. In this sense, his photomontages constitute fabricated spatio-temporal sites: through their digitally collaged figures and codes, the situational conditions of these sites, in terms of place and date, become traces of or “footnotes” to Westermann’s works. The ways in which, and the principles according to which, he selects and processes the pictorial building blocks are determined by his artistic rationale and concepts.
Reverse glass paintings, unique prints and photomontages are different modes of Westermann’s art. Common to all is a series of contrasts: handmade vs. conceptualized, original vs. reproduced, physical object vs. digital (i.e. virtual) image. And yet, each mode brings into play different spatio-temporal dimensions. Accordingly, the artist names his reverse glass paintings and their unique prints after the represented flower, while the titles of the photomontages contain the title of the artwork presented and the place where and time when the close-up shots were taken as primary material.
3. Vases and Flowers: Pictorial Borrowings and Cross-Cultural Hybrids
Any serious discussion of Westermann’s work must tackle the topic of images (tuxiang, literally “picture-images”). Holding degrees in art history and philosophy, he is profoundly aware of the significance of pictures and images. His works reveal the co-active relationship between images and things (wu): while images originate in things, things take on the implications and significance of the underlying images. Thus, Westermann carefully selects images and things to express the artistic concept of “cross-cultural hybrids”.
In constructing the “ideal flower”, Westermann uses two key elements: vases and flowers. He appropriates their specific visual techniques and adapts them to create overlapping images of flower vases, flowers on vases and flowers in vases. This can be seen, for example, in the reverse glass painting Paeonia lactiflora, Vanda coerulea, and Vanda Miss Joaquim in a Sino-French Vessel (fig. 2). Westermann copied a particular flower vase, a Kangxi era (1661–1722) export porcelain now housed at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich. According to Chinese porcelain categorization, this is a “blue-ground, reserved-panel, polychrome flower mallet vase” (Lan di kaiguang wucai huahuiwen bangchuiping). In the eighteenth century, however, a French silversmith added dolphin-shaped feet and silver mountings to the vase and drilled a hole in its lower section. The original vase was thus transformed into a Chinese-Western water dispenser.
After this transformation, the piece is no longer purely Chinese but a cross-cultural hybrid, as highlighted by Westermann’s work: still shaped like a “mallet vase” (bangchuiping),3 it is decorated with panels reserved in white (kaiguang, literally, “open light”) containing polychrome (wucai, literally, “five-colour”)4 depictions of garden flowers, whose rich Chinese charm remains preserved amid the painting’s pitch-black background and the fully blooming flowers presented in the vase. Yet, the protruding silver beast-shaped feet appear to jump out of the darkness, thus flaunting the Western artisan’s complacency in remaking the ancient Chinese porcelain.
In Westermann’s art, three flower species are particularly important: tree peonies (lat. Paeonia suffruticosa), Chinese herbaceous peonies (lat. Paeonia lactiflora) and Vanda orchids. Although these flowers have their roots in the East, the artist claims that it is not entirely accurate to simply call them Eastern “products”. Peonies, for example, do originate in Asian countries (mainly China) but were brought to the West a very long time ago. Later, Westerners began breeding new varieties of these Oriental peonies, thus imprinting their own understanding of flowers and beauty. For his works Paeonia lactiflora (figs. 66, 67, 87), Westermann chose a cultivar that was created by the famous French flower breeder Victor Lemoine (1823–1911) in 1906 and named Paeonia lactiflora Sarah Bernhardt in honour of the greatly admired French actress (1844–1923). Rendered in Westermann’s technique of etching dots, the large flowers no longer appear as in nature but blend designs found on Chinese porcelain or in Western still-life painting. Such adaptations recall the stylized, iconographic “Baoxiang flowers” (baoxianghua, literally, “treasure flowers” or “flowers appearing like treasures”) (fig. 70) created by ancient Chinese peoples5 and transcend the rise and decline of nature’s flourishing and withering. The flowers have thus attained perpetual existence as cultural images.
In Westermann’s works Paeonia lactiflora (2) (fig. 66) and Paeonia lactiflora (3) (fig. 67), the designs on the bodies of the vases are adapted from two Qing dynasty export porcelain plates (figs. 68, 69): one from the Yongzheng period (1722–1735), the other from the Qianlong period (1736–1795). They are decorated with “Grasses and Insects” (caochong tu) and “Lake Stones and Flowering Plants” (hushi huahui tu), respectively, designs common for Ming and Qing polychrome porcelain. By transforming the almost flat designs of these plates into the concave shape of his vases, Westermann transposes the cosmological concerns that Chinese people associated with the microcosms of flowers, grasses and insects to his own paintings, thereby creating interesting, mutually illuminating reflections between classical works and new creations.
4. Renarrating Symbols and Migrations across Space and Time
In recent years, Westermann’s interests, and hence his motifs, have expanded from particular flower species to other “cross-cultural hybrids”. Among these, in particular bamboos, orchids and lake stones (fig. 71) have stirred the curiosity of Chinese viewers, including myself. These motifs all represent ideal entities, as expressed in traditional Chinese literati culture by notions such as “bamboo is cold yet beautiful, stones are ugly yet refined” (zhu han er xiu, shi chou er wen), while orchids spread their pleasant fragrance even if they blossom in secluded valleys. In Chinese thinking, these natural objects all epitomize moral virtues. Over the centuries and millennia, they have become codified signs and, in the context of cross-cultural exchange, they represent China.
Westermann’s approach to such images is more immediate: when he recreates an original image, his “renarration” preserves and evokes the memory of the original yet through his own artistic language and formal logic. Then, through photomontage, he fabricates scenic settings by merging relevant spaces and times. The artist calls this process “migrations”. His Chinese Orchid (Homage to Ma Lin) helps better understand the notions of “renarration” and “migration”, which point in two different directions.
After admiring the ink on silk painting Orchids (Lanhua tu) (fig. 72) by Southern Song dynasty painter Ma Lin 马麟 (c. 1180 – after 1256) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the first time in 2008, Westermann would return every year to study this ancient Chinese painting, which, housed in a Western museum, has become a cross-cultural, hybrid object. Six years later, he decided to reproduce its beautiful flowers in his reverse glass painting Chinese Orchid (Homage to Ma Lin) (fig. 73), which preserves the light and graceful spirit of the original. The exquisite, elegant lightness of Westermann’s version can definitely compare with its Song predecessor. By means of “renarration”, the alluring plant has become sealed like a fossil for eternal safekeeping in reverse glass.
Based on the implicit cross-cultural hybridity of Ma Lin’s flower painting in the Western museum – as well as of his renarration of the Chinese original – Westermann has constructed a special “dialogue” for the work: in his photomontage “Chinese Orchid (Homage to Ma Lin)” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2014 (fig. 74), he restores the atmosphere of discovering Ma Lin’s work at the Metropolitan Museum. He has, however, replaced Ma Lin’s original with his renarration and has rewritten the original museum information using details about his own work. In this way, Westermann has set in relation old and new, East and West, whose convergence and communication become traceable amid a fictitious constellation of time and space.
The adaptability of photomontage enables “placing” the same flower painting in different scenic (i.e. spatio-temporal) settings, thus creating new scenarios. Westermann used digital technology to return the orchid motif to its place of origin. He set his Chinese Orchid in a “doorway garden” located in China’s Jiangnan region (fig. 75), where Ma Lin lived as a court painter roughly 750 years ago. Westermann has created his photomontage from numerous close-ups that he collected at the Himalayas Art Museum in Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town near Shanghai, to feature the scenery of the latticed wooden doors common in that region. The juxtaposition of this scenery with the setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York created a dialogue. Moreover, the black and white artwork has been digitally retouched so that, in the second photomontage, it reflects the exterior like a mirror and evokes the dazzling thought of emptiness.
Westermann has also applied the same technique in works featuring lake stones, bamboo and other distinctly Chinese subjects, where cross-cultural hybridity and displacement across spaces and times play a central role (fig. 91). By juxtaposing different cultures within the same space, he reveals their mutual reverence and concerns, as well as collision and divergences, and extends the range of cultural symbols, codes and images, which thus take on a new meaning.
In the photomontage “Amherstia nobilis (Homage to Vishnu Persaud)” in Mayme’s Salon, Düsseldorf 2015–19 (fig. 76), Westermann again places a reverse glass painting of flowers within a space consisting of numerous cross-cultural hybrids. His painting is based on a botanical depiction by the Indian illustrator Vishnu Persaud, who was commissioned by the Danish botanist and inspector for the East India Company Nathaniel Wallich (1786–1854) to produce illustrations for his horticultural work Plantae Asiaticae Rariores (1830–32). Wallich called the portrayed flower Amherstia nobilis to honour Sarah Amherst, the wife of William Amherst who, as Governor-General of India, ordered the annexation of Assam, which led to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. Next to the illustration in the book, Wallich points out that the blossoms of the Amherstia nobilis were used as decorations in front of Buddha statues in India. He also recounts the expedition undertaken by Sarah Amherst and her daughter: “I have very great satisfaction in naming it [the plant] after the Right Honourable Countess [Sarah] Amherst and her daughter Lady Sarah Amherst, the zealous friends and constant promoters of all the branches of Natural History, especially Botany, who, after a residence of nearly five years in India, during which they performed an arduous and extensive journey to the lofty regions of western and norther Hindustan, spending many weeks among the mountains near the Himalaya, at an elevation of 10,000 to 12,000 feet, have returned to England with a large and very interesting collection of preserved specimens of plants, gathered and excellently preserved by their own skill and industry”.6 These words testify to the fact that the two ladies collected flowers and plants from the very region in which Shakyamuni (i.e. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism) attained enlightenment in 500 BC. Westermann’s photomontage presents his renarration of the Amherstia nobilis illustration next to a table lamp (its shade presenting reproductions of stereotypical images of the Indian people as seen by Western artists), a neoclassicist candlestick popular in nineteenth-century Europe, and a gilded, turquoise-inlaid Buddha figure originating in eighteenth-century Burma that shows the instant of the Bodhisattva’s enlightenment. Presumably, Sarah Amherst and her family collected not only flowers and plants but also artworks like this Buddha statue, and brought them to the West. The numerous complex connections between biographies, objects and images attest to Westermann’s highly refined and profound research into the different cultures.
Visiting the storage of Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Westermann discovered a pair of Yongzheng-period imperial porcelain plates bearing depictions of eighteenth-century Europeans in a Chinese surrounding (fig. 77). These two plates testify to Chinese viewers’ strong interest in the distant West. Taking the peony arrangement depicted on one of the plates as his starting point, Westermann created the reverse glass paintings Chinese Masquerade (fig. 78) and Chinese Masquerade (2) (fig. 79). Their title indicates that these works “disguise” the history and figures seen on the porcelain plates as Western-style still-life paintings. In the photomontage “Chinese Masquerade” at the Amanfayun, Hangzhou 2019–20 (fig. 80), the reverse glass painting Chinese Masquerade is lying on a table next to the Hamburg collection catalogue, which includes images of the Chinese porcelain plates. The Chinese-style wooden chair with carvings seen in the background appears to be engaged in dialogue with the book and the painting. The table and chair are furnishings of the Amanfayun hotel but, originally, were not located in the same place. They have been digitally assembled, interrelated and condensed into one space by the artist to create a photomontage.
Westermann has also used digital technology to partially open up the wooden screen (which, in real life, is opaque) to reveal a landscape in the background. The setting in this photomontage resembles that of a scholar’s study: inside, images migrate as they are thought about and discussed; outside the window lies a magnificent courtyard in which peonies and similar flowers bloom just as they do in Westermann’s works.
5. Vanitas: The Void of Flowers
In Western art history, “vanitas” is associated with death, illusion and nothingness. As frequently seen in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Dutch still-life paintings, the concept of vanitas is often conveyed by iconic pictorial symbols such as human skulls, clocks, air bubbles, extinguished candles and rotting fruits. Butterflies and flowers also have similar meanings. In Westermann’s art, vanitas is expressed in both language and form: on the one hand, in the fictitious images of his photomontages, which reveal the original motivations for painting a particular flower as well as the final position of that image; and on the other, the fragility of the flowers themselves.
When I first saw Westermann’s works, one association that occurred quite naturally was with a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898):
… I wish to leave behind the voracious Art of a cruel country,
And, smiling at the time-worn reproaches
Leveled at me by my friends, the past, genius,
And my lamp, although it knows my agony,
And imitate the Chinese with his limpid, delicate heart
Whose pure ecstasy lies in painting the end
On plates of snow stolen from the moon
Of a bizarre flower which perfumes his transparent life,
The flower that he felt as a child
Grafting itself to the blue filigree of his soul.
And, like death with only the sage’s dream,
Serene, I will choose a youthful landscape
Which I would paint again on the plates, withdrawn.
A thin azure line, pale, would be
A lake, amidst the sky of naked porcelain,
A clear crescent lost behind a white cloud
Dips its calm tip in the ice of waters,
Not far from three emerald eye-lashes, reeds…7
From the fourteenth through the nineteenth century, from the prosperity of the Age of Discovery to the spread of colonialism in the East, representations of China, ranging from artefacts and textiles to religion and art, fuelled ideas of a mystic and distant “East” in Western people’s mind. Besides profoundly impacting Westerners’ lives, this Far Eastern trend also brought forth generations of artists and poets who hankered after cultural symbols of the East, or an “Eastern spirit”. Like many other fellow poet-scholars, Mallarmé never visited China. His poem, however, constructs a dense imagery by means of allusive terminology such as moonlight and lake water, flowering plants and reeds, porcelain cups and floral designs. For readers adept at deciphering Chinese cultural “codes”, Mallarmé’s poems can provide an exquisite and inspiring, albeit illusive image of the East; the large majority of Western readers, however, must take care not to lose themselves in Mallarmé’s forest of words.
Prior to cultural exchange between East and West, both sides saw each other as remote and mysterious, and as glorious and scintillating. In his poem, Mallarmé declares his wish to “imitate the Chinese with his limpid, delicate heart”, which many critics consider an illusory glorification of the “Other”. The poem conveys a dissatisfaction with reality – a tendency often encountered in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and artistic creation: for instance, in Mallarmé’s poems, Whistler’s paintings8 (fig. 81) or Chambers’s gardens.8 However, in the methodical contexts of twentieth- century postcolonial social thought, interactions and exchanges between Eastern and Western cultures have become particularly complicated and difficult to navigate. In this perspective, Westermann’s art might be considered paradigmatic of the present time. In contrast to Mallarmé’s poetic rebellion, his artworks reveal a scholarly standpoint that highlights the coexistence and reciprocal illumination of cultural positions through hybrid images from different times and spaces. Westermann’s works embody a pertinent blend of “contemporary sense” and “classical nature”: on the one hand, his unique expressive and formal logic allows him to renarrate, or “transfer and preserve”, the lives and things of the world, including past cultures; on the other, all his creations originate in observing and understanding universal life, as well as in his concern for the histories and cultures of East and West and for “expressing one’s yearning for the past, and musing over things of old”.10 In this sense, the inner, spiritual core of his works echoes and resonates with the “classical” East. And yet, beneath the “fictitious construction” (literally, “voided construction”) of photomontage, his work seems to be embedded within the stretched-out time-space continuum of the “void”.
As a master of words, Mallarmé once advanced the interesting proposition of “absence”: “I say: a flower! and [outside the oblivion to which my voice relegates any shape, insofar as it is something other than the calyx], there arises musically, as the very idea and delicate, the one absent from every bouquet”.11
Even though his verses convey a Zen- or Chan-Buddhist “emptiness and quietude”, Mallarmé is still a Western poet. What he calls “absent from every bouquet” intimates a shift of the “flower” as signified and signifier, thus generating an intriguing subtext and providing food for thought. Although Westermann’s works contain Chinese images and symbols and reveal a Chinese rhythm and philosophy of time and space, his complex structures – such as the combination of the handmade and the conceptualized, or the interplay of digital technology and cultural connotations – remain rooted in the logic and discourse of Western art history. While the flower vases, lake stones, orchids and bamboo still belong to the “Other Nature”, Westermann’s works present, and hence capture, the complicated and ambivalent, blurry and elusive “flower in the mirror”.
1 “Yi pian hua fei jian que chun, feng piao wan dian zheng chou ren”. These verses by Du Fu (712–770) come from his “Two Poems by the Winding River” (Qu jiang er shou), written in 758.
2 From William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”; in Tian Han’s (1898–1968) Chinese translation, this reads: “Yi sha yi shijie, yi hua yi tianguo”. See Tian Han, Complete Works of Tian Han (Tian Han quanji) (20 vols.), vol. 14: Neo-Romanticism and Others (Xin luoman zhuyi ji qita) (Shijiazhuang: Huashan Wenyi Chubanshe, 2000), p.190.
3 The mallet vase denotes a porcelain shape popular in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and resembles the mallets used by ancient Chinese people to beat their laundry.
4 The term “five-colour” refers to a decorative technique and type of ancient Chinese porcelain, whereby colours like red, yellow, blue, green, purple and black are applied to the ceramic glaze to generate magnificent polychrome effects. Five-colour porcelain flourished in the Ming dynasty and became popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
5 “Baoxiang flowers” denote an ancient Chinese pattern that has remained popular ever since the Sui (589–618) and Tang dynasties. The pattern is used as a decorative element in architecture, sculpting, object manufacture and textile production. Its designs commonly take certain flowers (e.g. peony and lotus) as their main theme and are combined with models of other flowers and leaves. Because the cores and petals of these flowers are embellished with a bead-like décor and rendered in gradually fading colours, they resemble scintillating treasure pearls and appear sumptuous and precious. This explains their name: “Baoxiang flowers”, that is, “treasure flowers”.
6 Nathaniel Wallich, Plantae Asiaticae Rariores, vol. 1 (London, 1830), p. 3.
7 From Mallarmé’s Las de l’amer repos (“Weary of the Bitter Rest”), translated by Rosemary Lloyd in Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 57–59, 58f. For the Chinese translation of this poem by Tu Weiqun, see Chen Jing, “Malamei de Zhongguo xiangxiang: Ping shizuo ‘Kuse de xiuqi ling wo pijuan’” [Mallarmé’s China Imaginations: Reviewing the Poetic Work “Weary of the Bitter Rest”], in Mingzuo xinshang: Wenxue yanjiu [Appreciation of Masterpieces: Literature Studies Research], no. 11 (2015), pp. 121–22.
8 The American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose main artistic activities took place in France and England.
9 The Swedish-born William Chambers (1723–1796), who became one of the greatest architects during the reign of King George III (1738–1820, r. 1760–1820).
10 “Shu huaijiu zhi xunian, fa sigu zhi youqin”, a phrase originating in the “Prose-Poem on the Western Capital” (Xidu fu) by Ban Guo of the Eastern-Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), compiled in Xiao Tong, Wenxuan [Selected Literature] (Shanghai: Shanghai Shuju, 1988), vol. 1, p. 1.
11 Translated by Mary Ann Caws, Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions, 1982), p. 76. For Mallarmé’s original wording, see Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p. 368. For a Chinese translation of Mallarmé’s critique, see Zhang Gen, “‘Huashu de kongwu’: Dongfang shijiao xia de Malamei shixue” [The Absence of Flower Bouquets: Considering Mallarmé’s Poetics from an Eastern Angle], in Waiguo wenxue pinglun [Foreign-Language Literary Review], 4 (2009). The Chinese translation does not contain Caw’s passage, “outside the oblivion to which my voice relegates any shape, insofar as it is something other than the calyx”, which is therefore given here in square brackets.
Translation: Shao-Lan Hertel
Published in Thilo Westermann Migrations, Milan (Skira editore) 2022, pp. 206-25.