Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Poppy

On Remembrance Sunday, AnOther considers the symbolism and beauty of the poppy...

Three Poppies, Irving Penn, 1969
Three Poppies, Irving Penn, 1969

Who? Today, Remembrance Sunday for those in the Commonwealth, is a time when many will pin a poppy to their lapel, in respect for the soldiers who have died fighting for their country.

What? The poppy, a vibrant flower bearing 4 to 6 petals, has long been used as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death: sleep because of the opium extracted from them, and death because of their blood-red colour. In Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead and used as emblems on tombstones to symbolise eternal sleep. In the children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a magical poppy field threatens to make the protagonists sleep forever. In classical mythology, the bright scarlet colour signifies a promise of resurrection after death.

"[I was] free to react with simple pleasure just to form and colour" — Irving Penn

The poppy of wartime remembrance is Papaver rhoeas, the red-flowered corn poppy. This poppy is a common weed in Europe and is found in many locations, including Flanders, the setting of the famous poem 'In Flanders Fields', by the Canadian surgeon and soldier John McCrae.

Why? The poppy was also one of the subjects in Irving Penn's extensive study of flowers. The acclaimed photographer documented various species between 1967 and 2006, including roses, daisies and tulips. "I can claim no special knowledge of horticulture… I even confess to enjoying that ignorance since it has left me free to react with simple pleasure just to form and colour, without being diverted by considerations of rarity or tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection", he said.

Text by Laura Bradley