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