by Dr Charlotte de Mille, The Courtauld Institute of Art

It may surprise those who know Henri Fantin-Latour’s paintings of roses that his passion was the music and operas of Richard Wagner, so much so that he delayed his wedding to attend the 1876 performances of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. A passion for an art form that aspired to the monumental and permanent through liberal use of mythic, nationalistic narratives does not sit easily with the delicate, and above all transient subjects which know no national boundaries, for which he is famous. Fantin-Latour however appropriated Wagner’s ideals and music into his own art, transforming them in the process. Particularly at home in the vaporous suggestive imagery of Impressionism, Fantin-Latour depicted water nymphs and figures emerging from an undefined misty background, other-worldly maybe, but rendered through careful attention to light.

This attention to light is also apparent in his images of roses: subtly graded in the manner of Impressionism, these works have a softness that is separate to much of the flower-art of the Seventeenth century Dutch masters, and perhaps has more in keeping with the quiet domestic interiors of artists such as Vermeer. Fantin-Latour pays great attention to the delicacy of individual petals, unlike the manner of his Impressionist colleagues. However, the very production of a series of paintings of roses, albeit in different vases and with new flowers, has much in common with them. Just as Monet in particular was captivated by the temporal possibilities of painting series of places (e.g. Haystacks 1880-91, or Rouen Cathedral 1892-94), so too does Fantin-Latour appear to have a near compulsive interest in returning to a subject that is especially prone to change, even in the process of painting.

Stella Baraklianou’s responses to Fantin-Latour’s series tease out the paradox of ephemerality in art: whereas Fantin-Latour’s roses are long wilted, his paintings are permanent records of their existence, and his (temporal) attention to them. Baraklianou draws our attention to these qualities by substituting Fantin-Latour’s natural roses for silk ones, that she can use and re-use in a number of compositions – something Fantin-Latour could not. As she said:

‘In my own re-creations, whilst trying to faithfully “copy” the paintings, I added an element of the imitation (plastic) flowers.
As I work with photography, it is an aspect where the viewer can be tricked into thinking, at first glance, that they are real. On closer inspection, perhaps, one can pick out they are fake.’

Interestingly, Baraklianou continued:

‘The more I tried to re-create the paintings faithfully, the more I discovered that perhaps even Fantin-Latour did not work with real flowers - the arrangements at times appear un-realistic, when you try to recreate them faithfully they don’t look right. The angles, the light must have been also based on his impressions.’

This would certainly be in keeping with Fantin-Latour’s impressions of Wagner’s music, for which he started to create visual counterparts before he had heard any work played in it’s entirety by a live orchestra, or seen any work on stage. In the absence of these experiences, Fantin-Latour created his own suggestions, alternative possibilities based on partial knowledge. This is another aspect that Barkalianou has mimicked in her own visual responses. The series began for her initially

‘with a piece I did in 2014, it was inspired by his "Basket of Roses” (1890) which was also a cover to the New Order album and vinyl sleeve cover in 1983, “Power, corruption, lies”. At the time, I was working on appropriating the imagery, and investigating what is private/public within the discourse of images and their ability to remain visible in the public sphere. With this particular image, the initial Fantin-Latour image became an album cover, a recognisable symbol within music culture.’

Just as Fantin-Latour appropriated Wagner’s music and ideologies, so too has Baraklianou appropriated Fantin-Latour. But she does so with a canny understanding of consumerism and the circulation of images in today’s image-saturated world. Interestingly Fantin-Latour became one of the most adept lithographers of his age – a printing technique that enabled mass reproduction with relative speed and ease, serving a new consumer of art who could afford these cheaper prints. Baraklianou has set out to highlight just what Fantin-Latour, at the start of modernist technicalised society discovered in his own biographical success: he may have set out to become a painter of epic Wagnerian landscape, but the world chose the ephemerality of flowers.

Dr Charlotte De Mille curates the music programme for The Courtauld Gallery, where she works for the education department. With them she co-authored ‘Animating Art History’, a joint initiative with Central St Martin’s and the University of the Creative Arts, which was long-listed for a Clore Award in Museum Learning. Receiving her doctorate from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2009, she has taught at The Courtauld Institute of Art, and the Universities of Sussex, Bristol, and St Andrews. As an author and editor she has written on music, art and philosophy, including 'Music and Modernism c. 1849-1950' (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) & 'Bergson and the Art of Immanence' (Edinburgh University Press, 2013) &