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Shah Jahan's flowers go Dutch

Floral portrait artist Bas Meeuws’ latest series, in collaboration with Tasveer, pays homage to the blooms created in Mughal courts


Bas Meeuws. Pic/Arts & Auto: Vincent van den Hooge

If Bas Meeuws gets gifted half-dry tulips and dead dragonflies, it is not without reason. Meeuws, who lives in the southern Dutch city of Eindhoven, appreciates the beauty of wilting parrot tulips. “They have a marvellous texture and, with some petals falling off, they create a lot of drama,” says the 42-year-old artist who makes floral portraits — a genre that was de rigueur for 17th century Dutch and Flemish master painters. Meeuws’ digital compositions are lifelike at first glance but defy the laws of nature — an illusion exploited by his Dutch Golden Age forerunners.

For the India Art Fair 2017, which draws to a close today in New Delhi, Meeuws has collaborated with photography collective Tasveer to create a series inspired by Mughal floral motifs that adorned illuminated manuscripts and monuments from the times of Babur, and made popular by Shah Jahan. Unlike his Dutch portraits, which have elaborate vases and a psychedelic profusion of lissom blooms, the Mughal series is sparse, almost like a botanical studies. “In the Mughal tradition, we see a lot of floral designs because of the religious objection to represent animals and people [secular works were relatively unaffected],” says Meeuws, describing himself as “a white giant shooting little flowers”.

As part of his research, he spent time over two years in India, first landing in what he describes as “a post-apocalyptic Delhi”; it was the morning after the night of Holi and the roads were deserted. His India itinerary included the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and, Bengaluru’s botanical gardens, Lal Bagh. “I build each composition step-by-step. The shape of every flower evokes a reaction from another flower; how do you bring them all together?” says Meeuws, his art drawing from Mondrian’s grids as much as florists.


© Bas Meeuws, Mughal Botanical (#03), 2015, C-print on dibond behind acrylic Courtesy Tasveer

The series, which travels around India this year and next, will be accompanied by 21 more works, also inspired by Mughal florals. But, instead of minimalism, Meeuws says that these will be more elaborate, with vases and even the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri in the backdrop. Both series, he says, are not imitations of Mughal floral designs, but more experiential.

Over the last seven years since he started his floral portraits, Meeuws has formed a library of over 9,000 flower images. And, if you thought he has catalogued them with the precision of a horticulturalist, you’ll be alarmed to hear: “I wish I did! For now, they are just chronologically arranged. No. 1 is the first flower I shot. However, I have a very good memory and can remember every little poppy and leaf.”

Alongside his art practice, Meeuws works as a manual trainer twice a week and, is naturally drawn to the healing factor of flowers. “When I work on my patients, it has to be methodical. There is technique involved but also empathy. Making floral portraits is similar — they are a combination of the technical and the emotional,” he says. He adds that as dainty or flamboyant as they may seem, floral portraits are sugar-coated comments on the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly delights.

While art lovers could admire these portraits, Meeuws says that botanists are often upset with his flowers. “Biologists tell me that such creations are not possible. But, that's the point!” he says, adding that if you look closely at the Mughal series, you will find similarities between the flowers on each stalk. “That’s because each arrangement I create is from the same flower. The same hibiscus, the same rose, the same dahlia.”

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