The story of Australian art does not begin and end with landscape. Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art puts flowers front and centre, because they have often been ignored in preference for more masculine themes.
Departing from where studies of single flower artists leave off, Useless Beauty embraces the general topic of flowers in Australian art and shines new light on a slice of Australian art history that extends from 1880 to 1950. It is the first book of broad chronology to discuss Australian art through blossoms, which it does by addressing stories of major figures including Hans Heysen, Margaret Preston and Sidney Nolan, as well as specific objects such as surreal flowers, Aboriginal flowers and war flowers. Whether modern or conservative, the artists in this study shared an intellectual and emotional passion for flora. This was true for men as well as women, despite blossoms being a more traditionally feminine subject.
Through spectacular reproductions of historical and contemporary artworks drawn from collections in Australia, the United States, Britain and New Zealand, Useless Beauty explores how flowers influenced the psyche, governed rituals, defined identity and brought a psychological dimension to the everyday. The peak years for flower-centricity in Australian art were between 1920 and 1940 when flowers were known as the apotheosis of useless beauty.
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Ann Elias is Associate Professor at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. Her publications include Camouflage Australia: Art, Nature, Science and War (2011) and journal articles in Papers of Surrealism, Leonardo, and Antennae. Her current work focuses on the Great Barrier Reef and the lure of underwater space.