Deprived by decree of his weekly commute between Nairobi and his upcountry home near Kisumu, Coster Ojwang’ has been unable to update his rolling record of the landscapes he loves.
He has therefore, like many another artist in these troubled times, turned to something closer to home for inspiration: Flowers.
It is hard to think of many artists in this region, apart from Mary Collis and David Roberts for whom flowers have become a major part of their practice but it is a subject supported by a long tradition.
From before the Renaissance they have been respected as both symbols (a bouquet can stand for prosperity, a single flower for death; the white lily for virginity or purity; a rose for love; and so on) and as artistic challenges in their own right.
The Dutch masters included them in their still lifes, the French master Henri Fantin-Latour was known for them (he made more than 800 flower pieces; they paid the bills but he hated doing them) and it was the Symbolist Odilon Redon, who around 1910 remarked, “A flower is at its most beautiful the moment before it dies.”
The Impressionists loved flowers. Monet and Manet were famous for them, Renoir was a prolific painter of bouquets (not my favourite artist, incidentally; his surfaces look a little too sticky for me) while among the Post-Impressionists Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises dance with vitality and Cezanne honed his skills with repeated flower studies. Matisse found delight in them too and to bring the Western canon up to date David Hockney revelled in the erotic charge of tulips.
Lucien Freud, that uncompromising champion of figurative realism, also made several telling studies of cyclamen and of buttercups.
In Asian art flowers were a constant decoration in Mughal miniatures while Chinese and Japanese painters captured the latent energy of blossom with minimal strokes of an ink laden brush.
They say if you can paint the human figure realistically you can paint anything and I think the same could hold true of flowers; like humans, offering almost infinite variety and in painting requiring an ability to capture tone, weight, form, colour and composition.
And so Ojwang’, at home and separated from his rural landscapes followed a great tradition and took inspiration from the flowers, particularly roses, he saw in the kiosks near his home and studio, on Nairobi’s Ngong Road.
“Flowers are my new found love,” he told me. “They offer a technical challenge and are endlessly beautiful in themselves.”
Happily, Ojwang’ has moved on from his previous irritating habit of placing dabs of irrelevant colour around his subjects in the mistaken belief that they add interest and is now using his colours tonally to create form, structuring his compositions to enhance the natural beauty of his subject.
This can be seen clearly in White Roses, each head modelled in shades of grey with the highlights that declare their type in white and the palest yellow, while he was also developing his skills to record the transparency of glass jars doing double duty as vases in Study of Roses.
Ojwang’ had painted only roses at the time of writing — and after all, they are among Kenya’s best known exports, virtually symbolising the country — but was looking to extend his range to include carnations, chrysanthemums, the explosions of colour found in hibiscus and the orange fireworks that are the Birds of Paradise.
As is clear from his work, Ojwang’ admires the Impressionists with their focus on capturing form through the play of light. He also has a growing admiration for the more academic work of Fantin-Latour and in particular his White Chrysanthemums which he sees as setting a standard he would like to reach.
As a contemporary Impressionist (a style that informs most of his landscapes, too) Ojwang’, still only 28, has set his sights high.
He commented, “To paint flowers properly is hard. You have to solve lots of problems of light, form, colour and composition. Painting is not easy, there is so much to learn, but it is worth it because the result is so satisfying.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their quality, Ojwang has sold each flower piece he has painted so far.
Hopefully, unlike Fantin-Latour, success will not make him tire of his subject and he will continue to offer bouquets to the genre well into the future.