The Minneapolis Institute of Art held its annual “Art in Bloom” last month. Next month, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will present “Flower Power” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The exhibit will feature pan-Asian artworks that reveal the “powerful language of flowers across times and cultures.” The exhibit begins June 23 and runs through Oct. 1.
Any mention of the phenomenal Summer of Love of 1967 and what immediately pops into mind? Images from the counter-culture San Francisco scene: hippies with long hair blowing in the wind, dancing in Golden Gate Park and/or tripping out on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district. Some might even have flowers in their hair! So it is fitting that 50 years later, “Flower Power” is celebrated in the form of an art exhibition that “invites audiences to explore the lasting appeal and surprising stories of six flowers as distinctive as their blooms,” as stated in the Asian Art Museum’s press release.
The power of flowers to inspire peace and love goes back far more than 50 years and far beyond our shores. “The anti-materialist and pacifist spirit of the Summer of Love was really a starting point for developing the exhibition,” says “Flower Power” curator Dany Chan. “Ultimately, we were guided in organizing “Flower Power” as much by the richness of the artworks as by the philosophy behind an ancient Chinese proverb: ‘If you have two pennies, spend one on a loaf and one on a flower. The bread will give you life and the flower a reason for living.’”
The exhibition brings to light unexpected connections among gloriously gilded folding screens, modern-looking lacquers, rare porcelains, sumptuous textiles, and contemporary installations of live flowers and sensory-igniting multimedia. Drawn primarily from the museum’s renowned collection, dozens of masterpieces are displayed in a way that highlights their shared botanical bounty.
In Asian art, flowers speak a language all their own. The exhibition uses a thematic approach organized into different galleries and range from the mystical, to the worldly, to the quietly activist, tracing subjects that continue to inspire us in our everyday lives:
The transcendence of the luminous, though swamp-dwelling, lotus. Visitors to the gallery will be greeted by a Thai painting nearly 200 years old and over 13 feet long that depicts the spectacle of Buddha overcoming demonic forces, transforming weapons into tranquil lotus blossoms. The image echoes legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s coining of the expression “flower power” as a call to join peaceful anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s.
The sophistication of the carefully cultivated, globetrotting tulip and rose. Gallery highlights include an intriguing Ottoman-era dish that stylizes the esteemed tulips and roses of Western Asia. Such artworks help tell the story of cross-cultural pollination and the circulation of treasured bulbs and seeds across continents and empires — leading to moments like the fabled tulip mania bubble in 17th-century Amsterdam.
The transience of ephemeral plum and cherry blossoms. Gallery highlights include lyrical scenes of courtly cherry blossom viewing from the Tale of Genji. The essence of this Japanese classic, perhaps the world’s first romance novel, is poignantly captured on shimmering gold-leaf screens that deploy these short-lived flowers to suggest the fragility of love.
The pause for reflection demanded by the auspicious chrysanthemum. Gallery highlights include a “hundred flowers” vase, with each blossom rendered in perfect lifelike tones. The all-over pattern on this delicate Qing-Dynasty porcelain from China creates a dizzying array, reminiscent of ‘60s’ psychedelic fashions, which conveys tidings of health, longevity and the introspection and insightfulness from which such lasting prosperity arises.
Installations by contemporary artists touch on themes of social engagement, provocation, and the enduring power of flowers to express our most cherished values. For example, Taiwanese American artist Lee Mingwei’s “The Moving Garden” invites visitors to pluck a single stem from beds of flowers placed in a channel in his sculpture — on the condition that they give the blossom to a stranger, expressing social solidarity at a moment of heightened political insecurity. Lee will speak at the museum on July 27.
These artworks underscore how the community-oriented heart of the Summer of Love still beats strong in the Bay Area today.
Visitors to “Flower Power” will discover that for centuries humans have used flowers to communicate ideals from the refined to the revolutionary.
“Flower Power offers a unique take on the spirit of the Summer of Love and its connections to Asian artistic practices, past and present,” says Museum Director Jay Xu. “In addition to serving as an oasis of beauty during this lively anniversary year, our exhibition shows why artists return again and again to floral imagery to express themselves during times of social uncertainty and cultural change — a message that is more relevant now than ever before.”