As I know Assignment 1 is on the general theme of still life, I was intrigued by a BBC documentary on iPlayer entitled ‘Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting. The 90-minute show is both a history of still life in art and full of characteristics of the different still life techniques. I can honestly say I learned A LOT from this very informative show and recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Still Life in art through different movements.
What I did find thought-provoking throughout the documentary was the ideas behind what still-life represents. It is something I will consider more as I prepare for assignment 1. The show made the point that we’re bombarded with images but the story of still life isn’t about looking, its about seeing. Still life asks us to stop and consider the world anew and to take pleasure in the simple things, to understand the beauty of nature whist at the same time valuing the material world. Almost everything has aesthetic qualities and to appreciate the moment and ordinary things, still life can help. It isn’t about painting the most valuable or significant objects with obvious signs of importance. It asks us to consider things we normally neglect.
The TV show defines a still life has having four main elements: the objects, their place in space, lighting, framing and how composition works. These are things I will definitely experiment with when I compose my own still life in the coming weeks.
The next part of the show was an interesting history of famous still life pieces of art. It considers the importance of Still Life through the movements, how it has been relegated many times but then rose again to play the key role in revolutionary movements. Like a lot of art it has always been intertwined with religion, politics and wealth.
By Caravaggio – Own work, user:Lafit86, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10478675
‘Basket of fruit by Caravaggio (1596)’ which was painted with realism and detail is historically the first known painting of basket of fruit, people had never seen a painting like it and it is considered the first major still life. It opened a new chapter in art history but is Caravaggio’s only still life. In the painting you can see he was full of doubt, all the fruit are imperfect and damaged like the worm eaten apples which are said to represent Eve’s apple that condemned man. It also contains religious vine leaves to represent Christ as vines make wine that is his blood, so it thought to be a painting about death and hope for eternal life with huge doubt. Even the vines are withering to show salvation isn’t certain and in fact the whole basket on ledge as if about to fall.
However, Caravaggio was not the first to paint still life. He actually resurrected a popular ancient discipline. In ancient Egypt there were paintings with elements of still life, in Ancient Greece too. However, the finest example of ancient world still life was discovered in Pompeii (Xenia art) where 2000 year old Roman still life frescoes were found. They were to represent gifts between hosts, trade in goods and ideas, diplomat visits and in general to advertise to the wider word how cosmopolitan Roman life was and what hospitality to expect. The paintings were of domestic humble things, range of textures, natural and man-made, overhang the edge of the table, they helped to define the rules of composition and direction of light in paintings. Still in the majority of gallery paintings, light comes from the left hand side, it is thought it is maybe to do with literacy in the West which also from left to right.
From popularity in Roman Xenia art, Still life fell to be destined to be considered the lowest form of art. Pliny the Elder who wrote a Natural History, considered the first encyclopedia wrote a whole paragraph on still life. He described it as ‘simple and base things’ and the painter of low and mealy things, it was considered a base form of art. Pliny’s work set the tone for future centuries that still life was to be seen as vulgar and low status and it disappeared with the Roman empire until Caravaggio resurrected it.
In the medieval age there was no place for ordinary objects due to the rise of Christianity in art. The church had no place for secular ordinary objects and as still life did not contribute to Christian society it had no place. All objects were symbols, e.g. apples to represent Adam and Eve, you wouldn’t see just an apple, you’d see apple, tree, Adam, Eve and serpents.
The introduction of oil as a binder during the renaissance allowed more realistic objects to be painted as previously artists were limited to the flat dull tempera. In the 15th Century the Church still commissioned most artworks but gradually painters started pushing Jesus to the background of scenes and more prominence on every day objects was seen with many more elements of still life. Caravaggio was the first to replace all religious symbols and just painted the basket of fruit.
Basket of Fruit has been in the same Milan gallery since 1607. Its founder Cardinal Federico Borromeo began commissioning other still life works of art as he enjoyed the style of painting so much. He collected work from people like Flemish painter Jan Breugel’s ‘Bouquet’.
Artists from Northern Europe would then start visiting Milan as part of their training and returned influenced by the Still Life paintings they saw as a result, Holland provided the golden age of still life. The market for still life exploded in Amsterdam around 1600 and then spread around Europe especially during protestant reformation where extravagant Catholic art was torn down. Holland became free from Monarchy and the Catholic Church and so embraced secular still life. Holland also became richest country on Earth in 17th Century and you see worldwide objects in the still life, exotic fruit, Chinese ceramics, luxury goods, symbols of wealth that decorated homes.
‘Still Life with Cheese, Floris Claesz. van Dijck, c. 1615’
The demand for still life became so high, artists would invent new compositions using old drawings to satisfy the amount of customers, so the paintings were not necessarily from observation. This can be seen in paintings where flowers that couldn’t be in the same season are together in one painting. Banquet pieces of art also appeared which were uninhibited displays of possession and wealth, objects like lobsters, cut tulips (which were very very expensive at that time). However symbols also appeared things were painted having been pushed over to show wreckage as consumption, the principle of corruption of wealth. Although Holland was embracing the secular there were residual religious sentiments, Calvinists shouldn’t be celebrating wealth and so reminders of mortality show up to satisfy the protestants. Symbols of death appear like skulls vanitas paintings were common to show the futility of accumulating material possessions. Militia symbols were also commonplace to show the effects of war, musical items again were symbolic, as soon as you stopped playing music at that time it was dead as recording was unavailable. The general theme being to celebrate riches but also with an undertone of meaning that it will all fade one day.
‘Still life with a gilt cup’ – the cloth could be pulled out from wealth at any moment.
Spanish painters also took up still life e.g Cotan’s bodegone art which were austere larder pieces of art. Food was displayed within a concrete block and suspended on string but painted in a very realist style, it got back to this idea of looking at simple things (Cotan lived a monastic life) but in an unworldly way.
As the centre of the art movement moved to the French academy in the Louvre, the hierarchy changed again as they viewed human figure art as the most important, the placed still life bottom of the heap again. It wasn’t until Chardin that it beganto be taken seriously again.
‘The buffet’ Jean-Baptistse Chardin 1728
Chardin was the first to have some objects in focus and others not and so introduced a slightly new style of still life. In the French Academy, still life was one of the few disciplines women were allowed to do. Women could not acquire figurine painting skills as they weren’t allowed to view naked men but they could look at baskets of fruit. Anne Vallayer Coster in fact was one of few women to be accepted into the academy based on her still life works.
In modern art it was Paul Cezanne with his rushed, imprecise distorted style (the antithesis of realism that had dominated for centuries) that showed still life in a new way. Cezanne emphasised painting is about how we see things and what we see is not fixed, you can see this in things like the double outline of apples in how work.
He painted very simple objects were the form and reflection was his main interest and he concentrated on how scene was perceived, abandoning the fiction that painting is reality. The rules of painting could be bent allowing reworking of the visible world and impressionistic painters like. Renoir, Monet and Gaugin followed.
As photography skills developed, artists started to move away from the photographic look and concentrated on what painting could do that photography couldn’t. Art can add emotion and no longer had to look real, photographs couldn’t capture texture or create 3D texture like paint could. This became the foundations for cubism through the likes of Picasso.
Green Still life – Picasso 1914
Cubism allowed exploration from different viewpoints at once a sort of spatial chaos and still life became illegible and experimental. Instead of reality and photographic quality paintings, perception has become the central idea that everyone sees things differently.
What I find particularly interesting is the role of still life today. Like I mentioned at the start, the TV show highlighted that we’re currently inundated on a day to day basis by images and material possessions. Still life is one of the most common features in modern day advertising, we see it in bus stops, on the side of buses, as photos in magazines. However, do we appreciate the objects that it depicts? We bring so much new stuff into our homes we don’t often stop to explore the relationship we have with those objects.
Life certainly isn’t still anymore but what still life does is make you stop and look closely, observe closely, not something we do anymore commonly, we seem to like change and newness has prestige. We buy new stuff but don’t study it. Perhaps when I do compose my own still life for assignment one this is something I will focus on.
Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting 2014, television program, British Broadcasting Corporation, London , Watched online 21 November.