Friday, June 4, 2010

Listening to a greenfinch

Hilding Linnqvist: Song of the heart, 1920. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
As I was younger, I loved studying the sumptuous flower still-lives painted by the Dutch artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Their lavish and colorful bouquets, containing flowers from all four seasons in one single picture and complemented by carefully selected memento mori, could hold my attention for a long time. I loved to trace the delicate, skillful brushstrokes that formed the silky petals and see-through drops of water that still, after centuries, carried a message of our earthly mortality and a promise of an eternal life in paradise.
Gradually, my fascination with those magnificent paintings cooled down, and even if I continue to love gardens and flowers, only a few artists who depict them seem to be able to capture my interest. One of them is Hilding Linnqvist, whose naivist painting 'Song of the heart' has been one of my favorites for years. It is tiny, only 37x24 cm (or 16x9 inches), and in it, a little green bird seems to be singing its heart out on the top of a bunch of French marigolds. A dove sits besides the glossy iron urn, gazing aimlessly at something outside the frame.
The whole painting is a lyrical poem of symbolic meanings. The dove represents love and peace (or the holy spirit), and lemons stand for fidelity in love. Peaches are the fruit of salvation and cherries the fruit of paradise. The blue color of the background can depict sadness, or remind of Virgin Mary, whose mantel is most often painted in rich, deep blue tones. The forget-me-not stands for remembrance and the tiny white aster is sometimes told to stand for after-thought.
What has always intrigued me though is the French marigold, Tagetes patula, that shares the main stage with the little greenfinch. I've often wondered why Linnqvist put such an ordinary kitchen garden plant in the center of his painting; Tagetes might be great for fighting nematodes in the soil, but with its plain little flowers and unpleasant smell, poetic it is not (even if here it visually forms a great contrast to the blue background of the painting - this is probably the most beautiful portrait of a Tagetes ever...).
Tagetes as a symbol leaves many openings for an interpretation. In English speaking countries, it has been said to symbolize Virgin Mary, coming from the common name marigold - Mary's gold. Sometimes I've read that marigolds symbolize grief, but it is difficult to know if Tagetes or Calendula is meant in the texts, as both have been called marigolds in the English language. Marigolds were a sacred flower for the Aztecs in Mexico, and they've been held as a symbol for the Spanish conquest, with the red and and yellow colors standing for the Aztec blood spilled by the Spanish conquistadors over the gold of the Aztecs. Marigolds have also been called flor del muerto, and they are often used when celebrating the Day of the death in beginning of November in Mexico and other countries. Linnqvist was well-traveled and -educated, so he most probably knew a lot about the symbolism of flowers. But did he refer to Virgin Mary, to grief or the flower of the death?
And the little greenfich then? Or is it even a greenfich, with its little head touched with red and black feathered wings with their distinct white spots? What does it want to say? I don't know. The painting leaves so many open questions. But after so many years of looking, the dainty little bird still touches my heart, and I keep listening to its passionate song.


Sophia Callmer said...

Vilken vacker och lite mystisk tavla, förstår din fascination! Grönfinken verkligen sjunger! Är det hundkex och förgätmigej förutom tagetes?
Hoppas jag kan se den "live" på Modern någon gång./sophia

Alice Joyce said...

When time gets away from me and I do not make time to read your blog, I have so much catching up to do. Each of your posts is special, and I do love your writing: Most every topic you choose resonates with me. Perhaps I should send this privately in an email, but, again, time seems to demand a quicker reply.

My husband was just talking about his search for the Financial Times in local shops. Frustrated that he couldn't find it. Whenever he brings one home, I feel quite the same way about the weekend edition.
Just one thought among many after perusing your recent postings.