By Eddie Saint-Jean
Two superstar artists, one aspiring contemporary artist divided on visual language but united by a shared appreciation of Japan’s national flower. The art world has suddenly gone all cherry blossom. And why not? Damien Hirst has gone from pickling sharks, and Swarovski crystal-studded skulls to painting blossoming flowers.
And not to be outdone, David Hockney’s cherry blossom efforts have also been in the news as he swaps paint for an iPad to capture the blossoming magic of spring at his Normandy retreat. London artist Denise Ballard-Wyllie claims she was there first, painting them since she was a child and this passion was rechannelled during a residency at Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield painting cherry blossoms and capturing the super-charged content of nature.
It was there she realised that if she were to do justice to her artistic expression, best make regular seasonal sojourns to Japan where it’s the national flower of Japan, celebrated for centuries and a symbol of life, death and renewal. Her painting and printmaking processes allow the kinds of visual statements in landscapes that draw comparisons with Japanese work but with her own original themes and expression.
In Japan the flower is so revered and protected that it is illegal to pick it and its fleeting but meaningful lifespan has inspired many works of art. The blossom dies two weeks after full bloom and has inspired the Japanese tradition of hanami – the observance of this transience and seasonal renewal.
Ballard-Wyllie pays homage to Japanese art in her own work. This can clearly be seen in pieces such as her Cherry Blossom Front series: Fresh Spring Morning, Languid Spring Afternoon, the Effervescences of Summer recently exhibited at the Bankside Gallery. This influence is inevitable given her time spent there drawing from source, studying from nature and working from the studios of Japanese masters. This laid the foundation for the later screenprints of flowering cherry blossom. Her tree portraits capture the same landscapes at different times each season and with every new screenprint there’s another thematic nuance and mood.
And she’s not jumping on the Hirst-Hockney bandwagon. Indeed, the great Japanese artists were there first and she’s the first to admit their pre-eminence; the masterful brushwork and woodblock prints of the likes of Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s greatest artist, have left their mark on European art since the rediscovery of his Edo period masterpieces in the late 1800s. The Japanese influence since then is such that even Vincent Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom (1890) was influenced by Japanese art.
Hokusai’s classic works featuring Mount Fuji and flowering cherry blossom exemplify the Japanese tradition around the celebration of the transient yet reenergising elements of spring. There’s an autumn exhibition of his work at the British Museum, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book Of Everything 30 Sept 2021 – 30 Jan 2022. Ballard-Wyllie also acknowledges the importance of landscape works of European masters such as Monet.
So she does not feel she is playing catch up with Hirst the middle-aged YBA (Young British Artists who came to prominence in the late 1980s). Some who have seen his cherry blossom work at the Fondation, Cartier, Paris claim his switch to flower painting is fuelled by creative restlessness and tinged with kitsch and irony and even he says (tongue firmly in cheek) that he is only doing it because his mum asked him to paint something ‘nice’ for a change.
Apparently, she prefers ‘nice’ flowers to cold, clinical, sculptural pieces and has probably endured his celebration of the macabre since his earliest forays into art when as a teenager he photographed himself at a morgue with a corpse head, grinning triumphantly (he, not the corpse!)
If you’re curious about these different expressive depictions and technical approaches to cherry blossom and want to see Ballard-Wyllie’s in juxtaposition with the Hirst and Hockney exhibitions, you can see her work at a number of exhibitions this year.
Her cherry blossom work returns to Japan in November 2021 where it will be exhibited at the Awagami Miniature Print Exhibition AIMPE 2021. The selected work, Judge Penny’s White Cherry Tree, created on white Japanese washi bamboo paper, will be exhibited in two spaces – the Awagami Hall of Awa Japanese Handmade Paper Museum and Awagame’s neighbouring post-industrial gallery Inbe Art Space.
If you are looking for her London shows, a selection of her cherry blossom work has already been shown at the Bankside Gallery, London and continues there from summer to early autumn. The RE Original Prints’ exhibition ran from May- June and featured her Cherry Blossom Front: Winter Introspection and ‘Into the Renaissance Garden landscapes.
The Bankside Summer exhibition runs from July – August and features two of her works: ‘Cherry Blossom Front Effervescences Of Summer’ and ‘Long Summer Garden’ and her work will also be shown at their September Showcase.