Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Still Life: A Cornucopia of Connotation

I've always adored the baroque still life paintings of the 1600s where the subject, though still beautiful, is past its first bloom and decaying slightly – torn from its natural place in the world, rumpled, bruised, and oozing sticky juices which draw insects. These ostensibly decorative paintings are such a ripe metaphor for the cycle of human existence, with all its humid indignities, and I never tire of studying their incredible lighting and minute details.

Jan van Huysum, "Basket of Flowers," circa 1720

The first "work of art" I remember seeing as a child was a hackneyed dime-store print of a chrysanthemum arrangement that hung on our living-room wall, and for some reason, the contrast of that trite, pretty image with these intricate studies of nature, light and decay is fascinating to me. It's easy enough to consider still life merely the study of everyday natural objects, but while on the surface these are merely lovely things painted with the utmost skill, they actually encompass all of human experience – budding, blossoming, ripening, withering, death and decay – a festoon of fecundity and mortality that dazzles the eye.

Ironically, the Dutch still life masters were looked down upon by their contemporaries as mere imitators of nature. Until that point, the church had been the main source of income for most painters, but in the Netherlands the rise of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, which forbade religious iconography, drove artists to seek other patrons. What they found were the burgeoning Dutch middle classes, who responded enthusiastically to what became known as vanitas paintings, arrangements of objects such as skulls and decaying fruit which symbolized the impermanence of worldly things. The Dutch dubbed this genre stilleven, which translated literally into the English "still life" – but the French gave it the disparaging title nature morte, "dead nature." This sort of painting – though wildly popular – was considered so lowly in the art world that few objected to the fact that even women worked professionally as still life painters.

As far as I'm concerned, the virtuoso of this genre is the Dutch Baroque master Jan Davidsz de Heem. Despite being over 300 years old, his fruits still offer up their dewy, slightly flawed flesh, their split ripeness, dripping with sweet juices. His leaves are imperfect, but so precisely rendered as to invite speculation as to what blight caused the particular defect. His paintings crawl with insects, both ornamental and pestilential, which feed on the life seeping from the dying beauty before us.

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers," 1660

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers" (detail)

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers" (detail)

Another of my favorite works of this type is "Still Life with Fruit and Carafe," an work from the same era which was painted in Rome by an unknown painter working in a style similar to that of Saraceni and Caravaggio, who for lack of a better name was dubbed Pensionante del Saraceni, or "Saraceni's lodger." Despite being anonymous, this artist is known for his unique sense of geometry and his use of light to soften objects. I respond to this painting's air of twilight melancholy and the ripe, sensual quality of the disheveled fruits.

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe," circa 1610

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe" (detail)

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe" (detail)

What brought all this to mind just now was the accidental discovery of a modern painter named Julie Heffernan. While her work isn't quite still life – in fact, she paints exclusively allegorical self-portraits – it immediately made me want to revisit the Baroque masters' ostensibly simple paintings of fruit and flowers, which achieved many of the same goals with quiet humility and grace.

"Self-Portrait as Post-Script," 2007

"Self-Portrait as Spill," 2007

After pondering Heffernan's work a bit, it occurred to me that it actually owes more to the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo than to the great still life painters of yore. Arcimboldo painted portraits like none the world had ever seen before, exploiting the Renaissance taste for riddles and curiosities with tongue-in-cheek composite heads and puzzle paintings. Like Heffernan, he was more concerned with achieving an effect than creating a moving and meaningful depiction of the natural world, and much of his most famous work was also self-portraiture.

"Self-Portrait as Spring," 1573

"Self-Portrait as Winter," 1573

"Earth," 1570

Arcimboldo is also considered one of the fathers of surrealism, despite the fact that he painted 400 years before surrealism came into being. These days, there aren't many pop surrealist painters who paint anything that could be seen as pure still life, but a few associations come to mind. Many of Tiffany Bozic's fleshy bouquets of sea creatures are just as deliberate and allegorical as any Baroque still life. Some of Chris Peters' work is in the tradition of vanitas paintings, which point to the emptiness of life, the futility of pleasure and the inevitability of death. And after all, we could all use a little reminder of that from time to time.

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

– William Shakespeare,


Curious Art said...

Really enjoyed this post! I'm a huge still life lover, the more bugs & lizards the better. And a skull is always a nice touch too.

Rachel Ruysch is one of my favorites. Her father Frederik Ruysch was an anatomist who created extremely odd assemblages of curiosa. I wish someone would write a really good illustrated biography of that family!


Thank you! I also appreciate the tip about Rachel Ruysch – really interesting work.

Miss Indecisive said...

OMG I am so glad I found this!!! I am doing an art GSCE on changes and decay and I couldnt find an artist to research and now not only have you given me that but a whole movement!

I even created a google account just to tell you ... THANK YOU !!!!