Imagine talking to friendly aliens and trying to explain why we humans grow billions of tulips. These flowers are of little use as food or a medicine. Most tulips don’t have a fragrance either, so we tell our alien visitors that we grow tulips simply because we love to look at them. But that only lasts for a week or so because before you know it the petals fall off and they die! Then we throw the cut flowers away, or wait months while the sad-looking plants retreat back into their bulbs. Well, that was nice! Same time next spring?
Our relation with tulips is... complicated. Tulips can represent love and passion as well as the sacrifice of martyrs and the brevity of human life. It has been both an extravagant luxury and the cheapest bunch of blooms in the supermarket; tulips have been held responsible for economic disasters and revolutions while being revered as a divine flower; they’ve been painted more than any other flower for their uniqueness, yet are now grown on every continent. Tulipmania is an historical fact and a modern reality – there are dozens of tulip festivals from Japan and Korea to the USA, India and Australia. Even so, no tulip displays are quite as massive as those in Holland.
Holland inevitably looms large in this tale. It was there that Gavin Turk came up with the idea for the Turkish Tulips exhibition while visiting his artist friend Philippa van Loon in Amsterdam. The Museum van Loon glories in the arts and achievements of the Dutch Golden Age, so taking tulip artworks from Britain to be displayed there in spring was perhaps a little crazy: rather like selling coals to Newcastle. But it worked. The tulip is a humble flower that somehow deserves all the attention it gets.
The tulip has been celebrated in decorative arts too, especially on gorgeous ceramics and textiles, on elegant furniture and Old Master paintings that feature in the wonderful collection of The Bowes Museum. This Turkish Tulips exhibition will present the contemporary artworks alongside a trail of beautiful tulip-inspired treasures that wends its way all through the galleries there.
The tulip’s tale is also a story about migration from east to west and about how much we owe the middle east and central Asia – lands where tulips originated and refugees are fleeing from now – lands steeped in the culture, mathematics, science and philosophy of the Islamic Golden Age and the heyday of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
This is also an allegory about aesthetics and science; about the beauty of the world, both natural and manmade. The tulip as a symbol connects both – sometimes we can learn the most from the humblest of teachers.