Cultivated anatomy: Fiona Hall's Garden of Earthly Delights

To title an exhibition Garden of Earthly Delights is to invite comparison with Medieval Dutch painter Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken— better known as Hieronymus Bosch. Fiona Hall’s exhibition of this name was toured in 1994 by the National Gallery of Australia. Both Bosch’s triptych and Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris (1989–90)[1] attract instant attention and fascinate in detail but Bosch’s Garden of Eden is a fantastic wilderness while Hall’s is a botanical garden where nature is classified, arranged and labelled.

Bosch enjoyed the drolleries of the 14th-century manuscripts. As one of the first well-read artists able to benefit from a literate and well-read audience he could experiment with the translation of verbal imagery, secure in the knowledge that his audience could understand the coded references. Fiona Hall is also well-read, so to fully appreciate the Paradisus Terrrestris you require more than a passing acquaintance with Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: a Selection, John Parkinson’s Paradisus in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris and some postmodern literary theory. Without these only the punning verbal imagery is accessible.

Bosch lived in a time of violent, passionate fantasies as indeed do we. His haunted human beings are transformed by their hungers, while his over-zealous lovers commence turning into the fruits of their desires.[2] Hall symbolises these hungers in a different fashion. She lines them up like trophies on a wall, each erotic desire presented as an heraldic device: the plant form which inspired the work surmounting a sardine-tin-shield on which it is emblazoned, more accurately repousséd, the coupling, titillation or organ suggested by the name of the plant, its properties or uses.

Bosch knew and used the coded languages of his time to convey his messages. Hall in our less chivalric age is more “full-frontal.” The allusions are generally less subtle, intended as they are for an audience less accustomed to reading symbolic codes. For instance, in Bosch’s central panel, a man’s hands reach for a luscious berry balanced between his legs. The berry is a common metaphor for sensual indulgence. From it a nightingale and a bird with a curving beak – symbolic of the devil – raise their heads. The cameo alludes to the temptations of the flesh, encouraged by the devil. The hands reach out to “pluck fruit” or “make the nightingale sing” as Bocaccio’s storyteller so delicately put it in the fourteenth-century Decameron.[3] 

Hall’s work is more explicit and, by being more specific, is actually less erotic. For instance, the blackboy: (Xanthorrhoea thorntonii) is translated as a large and erect member – presumably of a black male. Old man banksia (Banksia serrata) is covered with the large nuts of the species. The sardine can also contains large “nuts” hanging beside a “trunk”. Nonetheless, Hall does use allusion. We are expected to be cognisant with the aphrodisiac qualities of celery or the liberating effects of cannabis – “The sensuous attributes of the plants above.”[4] Hall has an excellent grasp of anatomy and is skilled in manipulating aluminium cans into delicate bas-relief.[5]

For her earthly paradise, Hall has formed the metal into lush miniatures of the original plants. She has ordered them, labelled them and displays them in a neat row – some twenty-three species chosen for their erotic connotations or the play upon words available to complement the imagery. A laden grapefruit: (citrus paradisus) is paired with swelling breasts cupped in hands. The succulent century plant: (Agave Americana) is paired with a penis being tempted by succulence. Quite a garden to cultivate! Ripe fruits stand for sex and reproduction. Bosch’s central panel is ripe with fecundity – moist, rotten-ripe. Echoes of this also appear in Hall’s garden. She gives us the passionfruit, the banana, the grapefruit, the banksia. The banana is definitely past its prime!

His plants are hybrids, hers are not. Even so, some plants have similar forms. Bosch’s Dragon Tree in the Garden of Eden panel is a cross between a pandanus palm and baobab tree – both of which feature in Hall’s work. In the centre of Bosch’s garden is The Fountain of Youth defining lust as the passion which lies at the heart of all evils. Lust features heavily in Hall’s garden too. The central panel is the passionfruit: (Passiflora edulis) in which a hand caresses a vulva. On one side the screwpine: (Pandanus kirkii) is cameoed as a pair of hands searching like the mangrove’s roots for moisture and on the other is pear (espaliered): (Pyrus) – a female trunk and torso impaled on a penis. Bosch has a mollusc shell shutting on a pair of lovers[6] forever trapping them in their pleasure. Hall, too, has her botanic version of this – the venus fly trap: (Dionaea muscipula) with its clammy leaves waiting to snap shut on unwitting prey.

Bosch’s inference of sensuality trapping souls is translated into more direct physical entrapment of a man – the female muscles snapping shut on the penis – the laviscious lips of a woman’s vulva are ready and waiting to close tightly on and consume that which enters. In Bosch, the Fountain of Worldly Allure in the middle of the Pond of Lust contains an underworld of adulterers. In a peephole a man’s naked bottom and a hand reaching for a woman’s genitals are revealed Peering at the sardine tins where similar glimpses are exposed the teasing questions crowd in. Are the spikes on the Monkey Puzzle alluding to the horns of cuckoldry? Is it the prickle of conscience or does the sap have some secret property as the (Araucaria Araucana) tree is paired somewhat provocatively with a hand stroking a crumpled penis?

The works are arranged in alphabetical order commencing with the baobab tree (Adamsonia digitate) crumpled, aged and bulbous with its cameo of buttocks and arching penis. Next to it is the century plant: (Agave americana) – exquisitely formed. In the sardine-can-cameo Hall plays with the connotation of succulence. The Narcissus is not difficult to read as a masturbating male in love with himself. bird of paradise: (Strelitzia reginae) has a hand cradling a fine penis. marijuana:(Cannabis sativa) has the delicately formed fingers of the leaves of the plant reflected in a pair of outspread hands exploring willing breasts. saguaro the giant cactus (Carnegia gigantea) – a delicately crafted erection – rises proudly within its cameo silhouetted like a giantic monolith against a desert sky. Other images are less erotic – the cabbage: (Brassica oleracea) surmounts a rear view of buttocks bending forward and probably breaking the wind the cabbage is reputed to cause. The pawpaw: (Carica papaya), tree fern: (Cyanthera cooperi). Traveller’s Tree, Globe Artichoke, Prickly Pear and the Weeping Willow also feature. The more obtuse references are distinctly frustrating.

Bosch and Hall are for those who have cultivated their literary garden. First find your Paradisys in Sole! for, as the exhibition literature says, “we must look beyond superficial appearances and sensuous surfaces to discover meaning.” On the other hand we can, as Barthes said, separate pleasure from the sign and “de-semanticize the object (which does not mean de-symbolize it), give the sign a shock: let the sign fall like a shed skin. This shock is the very fruit of dialectical freedom.”[7]

Footnotes

  1. ^ Hall’s title is taken from Parkinson’s 1629 florilegium. Regarded as the first comprehensive British gardening book it orders and describes plants, giving their uses and virtues. 
  2. ^ It is said Bosch belonged to the Adamite sect – known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit who celebrated “the delights of Paradise” worshipping naked together. Wilhelm Fraenger, author of The Millenium of Hieronymus Bosch, in 1952 claimed the painting illustrated the sect’s “chain of rituals.” 
  3. ^ “To make the nightingale sing” was a common slang for copulation and “to pluck fruit” meant the same thing. 
  4. ^ Kate Davidson, Garden of Earthly Delights: The Work of Fiona Hall, National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p. 18
  5. ^ Hall, once primarily a photographic artist, had previously used sculptures in the composition of photographs. In Paradisus Terrestris they became the artwork itself.
  6. ^ Mossell also meant vulva.
  7. ^ Quoted by Linda Marie Walker in Paradisus Terrestris: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 1990, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1990, p. 44. 

Dorothy Erickson is an art historian, critic and jeweller, based in Perth. She is a principal of Erickson and Taylor, Art, Design and Heritage consultants and historians.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.