Thursday, February 24, 2011

Still. Life.

I've woken up to this pretty vase of roses every morning since Valentine's day (it was the parents' wonderful little gift from afar off), and I have really, REALLY enjoyed the act of sitting (er, laying) and contemplating the roses. My thoughts turn to the art of the still-life inevitably, every time. Still-lifes, as we art historians are allowed to misspell them, are a little like landscapes to me. I know I don't give them the time and attention and reverence they deserve, and I am ashamed. But they're notably on the shelf of things to get obsessed with later in my studies. Still-lifes can be just about the most ridiculously beautiful and thought-provoking paintings out there. My prejudice stems from the fact that I am always befuddled when I look at them. The same question always comes up: "Did the artist paint this for him/herself, or for me?"

Paul Cezanne. Still Life with Apples and Peaches. 1905. NGA.
This artist's simple, slightly jarred and blocky still-lifes inspired
modernism as we know it. Can you see the glimmer in there?
The force that changed art forever?
The glory of a still-life is that it captures an object, its contours and colors, in all their mundanity or magnificence, and holds them there for eternity. I always am disturbed by the thought that it must have been ten times more stimulating to create a still life than to look at one. I've seen an artist's studio when it's still-life time. The whole room, every single thing in it, seems to revolve around that simple table with fruit on it, or set of dishes. Lights shine in that direction. Chairs are arranged just so around that central place. And the artist's canvas is invariably located somewhere nearby, propped on an easel, prepped and ready to contain the artist's best efforts to replicate what lies at center stage. A plant, or a banana, or a dead goose. Or a hammer, or a sculputre, or a goldfish. The possibilities for still-life subjects are endless.

Some of the world's most lovely things are to be found all around us, commonplace yet stately. Giorgio Morandi (1890-1960) knew this secret well. Living in Italy during the turn of the last century, a quiet man amidst the raging fascist movement that consumed his country, Morandi spent his time and energy on something so ordinary yet riveting that his works have earned a permanent place in art history. Morandi spent forty+ years painting the same set of familiar bottles and pitchers, rearranged in various positions. Forty years. But oh, how his works shimmer, in their stately greys and pale tans, day after day, painting after painting:

Giorgio Morandi. Still Life. 1955. Oil on canvas.
Giorgio Morandi. Still Life. 1956. Oil on canvas.

It's not only the bottles, their curves and coloring, their shadows (or lack thereof) that is to be contemplated in these works. It's the composition of the paintings, the balance of tall and thin, short and squat, near and far, that we find the artist has deftly manipulated. It's in the sheer magnitude of creativity that the artist could sustain with such a limited set of models. Morandi: in a word, thoughtful. (a second word would be: bottle.)

In case you're wondering, all still-lifes do NOT originate in the artist's peaceful contemplation of their surroundings. Most definitely not. I talked on M.C.'s blog about the potentially unnerving qualities of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings of pies, and here is another example of a still life that is far from peaceful:

Henri Matisse, The Goldfish, oil on canvas, 1912
This is one of my personal favorites paintings, not because of its mysterious aura of calm, but because of it's ENERGY! The thing I probably love most about still-lifes is how they get you to compare paint with real objects. No, that's not real glass up there, but it looks pretty darn close. How did Matisse do that?? Through black lines, placed really close to white lines, can you see them? Carefully observe your drinking glasses today. See if you can see the lines there, too.

If you ever want to sound REALLY artsy, start mentioning Dutch still-lifes. The Dutch artists from the 1600s are art history's premiere still-life geniuses. You just can NOT get better than this, agreed?

Willem Claesz Heda. Banquest Piece with Mince Pie, 1635. NGA.
The pewter pot! The satin sheen! The spiraling orange peel! And it's all an illusory trick of paint on paint! Those Dutch. They were magical. Let's get a little bit bigger image, shall we?

Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glass Ware, 1635. The Met.

That's more like it. Again, magic. Often, Dutch still-lifes have quite a heavy hidden content to convey. The Dutch still-lifes capture things ephemeral and temporary, such as cut flowers, ripe fruit, bubbles, and candles, which are meant to remind viewers that not everything lasts (so you'd better be obedient!). It's a poignant and often sobering thought, that those things which may on canvas appear eternal and valuable, will, in reality, wither away, just as human life will. There's a word for these types of still-lifes: Vanitas. As in, do not be vain like the silly flowers, their value lasts only a day.

400 years later, Ori Gersht, a photographer from Israel, chose to resurrect this concept in his still-lifes. I've talked about Gersht before: he sets up elaborate still-life arrangements (dead goose, cut flowers, ripe fruit, etc., all the classics), but then he rigs them with explosives and detonates them, capturing their untimely destruction with a high speed camera. Voila Ori Gersht:

Ori Gersht. Blow Up: Untitled 4. 2007. 
He also does the same thing in videos (putting the video in a framed flatscreen so it LOOKS like a painting, seen here). His works a beautiful and eerie reminder of what kinds of destruction modern man can wreak upon even his most favorite sources of beauty and comfort.

 Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch.1654. The Mauritshuis. 
So, I've seen hundreds of still-lifes in my studies. Possibly thousands. I've seen this little guy to the right in its hometown in the Hague. It's an image beloved by an entire nation. This type of painting also has it's own name: Trompe l'oeil, or trick of the eye. It's not that much bigger than the size you see in on your screen, and was intended to trick people into thinking there were seeing a real bird perched on the wall on which the painting was hung. This painting is absolutely beloved by the people of the Netherlands, such is the peculiar lure of the still-life. Why do you think that is? 

There's one final still-life I want to show you, not remarkable so much for its thoughtful portrayal nor its hidden meanings, but rather, the story behind it:

Edouard Manet created Bunch of Asparagus in 1880 for his friend Charles Ephrussi; he sold it to him for 800 francs yet Charles, knowing Manet was rather impoverished, paid him 1,000. Manet, humbled and touched by the gift, sent this little painting:

A single asparagus leaf. As a thank-you to his generous friend :)


Jayci said...

I loved this post- and I love still lifes! I loved as a little girl when I would get to tag along to my mother's art classes at UNLV and paint along side her; the teacher once said I was better than her - made me so proud! Haha Reading your posts on art history, I learn so much! Dutch painters really are spectacular.. I'm always so impressed.

MOM said...

Oh man, how I do love these "art" posts. So very good. I read this, looked at this post a couple of days ago but didn't respond then. Thanks Lindsey. Beautiful. Love the Manet story.

PS- I'm delighted you're enjoying the roses. :)